Words can be mangled, misused, or misunderstood. What is your funniest example of mangling, misuse, or misunderstanding?
My mother’s side of the family is Armenian, and I’ve always been fascinated with the language and culture. I wish I could speak the language fluently, but all I know are a handful of phrases. I can say hi, how are you, a little bit, are you American?
So yeah, I’d do fine in Armenia. I should book my trip now.
Anyway, my middle name is Antaram, which was my great-grandmother’s name. I guess it roughly translates to what would be Anna in English, but I like it the Armenian way. I’m so attached to my middle name, actually, that I thought about getting a tattoo of it for a while before I did it. In the fall of 2007, I went with two of my friends to price out the tattoos we wanted to get, and while we were in the shop I decided to just do it. The adrenaline was great! And it only took ten minutes. Didn’t even hurt that much.
Like I said, I don’t speak Armenian and I certainly don’t know how to write anything in the language, either. To figure out my name, I used an Armenian translator online and then asked my grandmother to confirm it. She spoke the language as a child and she and my grandfather used it as a way to talk about things in front of their kids without them understanding, but she doesn’t ramble off fluently in Armenian nor does she have any kind of accent that would indicate English is her second language. English is her first; Armenian is one she’s relatively familiar with.
So she got out her old grammar books from years ago and double checked the word I had printed out.
“Looks right to me,” she said. That’s why I went ahead with the tattoo. My Armenian grandmother confirmed that I had used the right characters. But later when I showed her my tattoo once it was sketched on my body forever, what did she say?
“…I hope it’s right.”
Fast forward a couple of months. At the time, I was working as a writing tutor at Rhode Island College and had weekly appointments with the sweetest woman who had just come here from Armenia (fate, right?). We usually worked on grammar for her writing class, and then one day we got to talking about the Armenian language. I told her I had a tattoo of my middle name, but I didn’t tell her what it said.
“Let me see!” she said.
I tugged down the waist of my jeans just a little to show her the small scrawl of writing on the side of my hip.
She smiled and said, “Antaram.”
YES! Sweet, sweet affirmation from another Armenian woman, this one a native speaker.
“I’m so glad it’s spelled correctly,” I told her. I explained how my grandmother helped me get the letters right, but then second-guessed it after I had already gotten the tattoo. We laughed about it, and she confirmed again that it was spelled right.
That’s my funniest story of words being misunderstood. They weren’t truly misunderstood, but there was some doubt, which would have made for an interesting story had the name been spelled wrong. Although, how many people would have known that it was wrong? It’s not like I flash my hip to every person fluent in Armenian.
And what really matters about that tattoo is that I know it’s there, that it carries not only my name, but a family name, a thread of my history. When I showed my grandfather, he loved it. He said the Turks often tattooed Armenians during the genocide with numbers, like during the Holocaust. This was similar but not at all the same. If anything, this was a reclaiming of my heritage and it’s a daily reminder of ancestors whose struggles led to where I am today.
On my 25th birthday, no less 🙂