Talk Inadvertently Dirty to Me

Machu Picchu, name of a place, a thing, and the current president

I am reading a humorous travel narrative about Machu Picchu. I needed something lighthearted, what with the present state of the globe. I can’t turn the news on without wanting to move to a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas, and even sites which used to represent fun, like Facebook and Twitter, are now rife with bitter political battles.

And indeed, the book is making me giggle. The writer has a sense of humor I relate to. And if that’s not enough, on every third page, I get to say the word “Picchu.”

You may have just said it aloud to see what all the humorous hoopla is about. But if you’re Czech, you know why this is funny.

Czechs pronounce that site in Peru like this: Mah-choo Peek-choo. If you are from my native land, you pronounce it: Mah-choo Pee-choo. And this is where the giggling starts, because if you say Pea-choo, you are saying an extremely vulgar word for a woman’s main reproductive organ or, as it happens, an extraordinarily appropriate term for the current President of the United States.

My giggles are no doubt adolescent, but they are also nostalgic.

I got this little vocabulary lesson in my third week in Prague, when teaching a group of 18 year-old girls for a Cambridge exam. It was part of a subject phrase and so I said it several times in succession. “Machu Picchu is a site…Why is Machu Picchu important here? Machu Picchu is part of what…?” Again. And again. And again. Obviously having no idea that the Czechs pronounced Picchu with a hard K or what it meant when I pronounced it as Pea-choo, as I always had, I sang it forth with unbridled ignorance.

I only took pause when I noticed that the girls were unanimously holding in laughs to such a degree that I was teaching a group of cherry tomatoes.

“What’s wrong?” I asked the closest girl.

“You’re saying something funny.”

“I am? Machu?”



Explosion. Rapturous laughter. My face became the cherry tomato.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a part of the body.”

“Oh God. Which part?”

After deliberation. “I have one and you don’t.”

“OK, that’s the end of class, go now and, remember, no need to give the school any official feedback, right? No…I’ll see you next week, if I still have a job.”

I related the story to my colleagues, who informed me that I had just said “cunt” a dozen times in front of a class of 18 year-old girls.

I wondered if I could still get my job in Pittsburgh back. But I felt less embarrassed after the next year or so, when it became clear that one of the fringe benefits of ESL teaching was the inadvertent dirty talk.

One morning, a beginner student was singing a popular pop tune: “I’m horny, so horny, horny, horny.” And when I asked if she knew what that meant, she said with a shrug, “Of course, ‘I’m happy. So happy happy happy.’”

Uh, sort of…but maybe not yet?

There were so many others. One student complained “I don’t get off with my grandfather very well.” Another student explained her indigestion by the somewhat physically dynamic: “I ate myself out last night.” When another woman told me about being flashed on the tram I asked how she responded, to which she said: “I got off.” When I asked one student, who was rarely able to attend class anymore, why she seemed upset, she explained with a suspiciously deep sigh: “Oh, I wish I could come more.”

Don’t we all.

Sometimes it’s a translation thing. I once asked a group to paraphrase one of their culture’s folktales, and one woman told us in slow detail about the mythical “black cock” that visited a village every year. The villagers waited in earnest for the black cock (rooster) all night. To which I could not resist remarking, “Well, we all know it’s not a holiday until the black cock arrives.”

English doesn’t have the corner on this market. Every expatriate I know or friend I have who speaks another language bemoans similar experiences. I once accidentally called a woman a bitch (dívka) instead of saying something was weird (divný). I informed an entire room of my bosses that I was impotent simply because of leaving the letter L out of a word. I have informed a friend that I was on the brink of orgasm…much to the delight of the packed barroom I was walking through.

Inadvertent dirty talk is all part of the fun of learning (and teaching) languages. No doubt if you have studied or taught a language you have experienced similar mix-ups. If so, I’d love to hear them. Write them in the comments below.

Until then, please join me in calling the President of the United States, one big giant Picchu.

  1. #1 by Jan on February 15, 2017 - 9:25 am

    There is one fruit with quite similar effect when pronounced and being aware of that possibility does not avoid the embarrassment. You may have guessed it is a peach. When teaching my courses in a kindergarten, I deliberately omitted this word from our list of fruit. However it came in a song and you can bet that the children noticed, repeated and immediately slipped to the Czech vulgar word. A sudden change of the topic followed and a peach became the first word in English I hope they will not remember.

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