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Language — The Hidden Danger Of Travel

Posted by on 18 December 2008

Travelling is not without its dangers — getting lost or robbed in a foreign country, losing your passport, committing a cultural faux pas, getting involved in an automobile accident when you don’t have any car insurance — just to name a few.

There is also a different kind of danger that few people give a thought about — the language. For instance, there’s the danger of ordering something from the menu which turns out to be very different from what you thought it was. Then there’s the danger of mentioning something in your native language which could mean something offensive in that foreign country’s language. Of course, it can also work the other way around. That is, there could be a word in that particular foreign language for something very ordinary that means something else (funny or offensive) in your native tongue, which would then require a major effort on your part to keep a straight face.

Here’s one example. When in Indonesia, you’re bound to see a lot of shops selling this item at the roadside:

semen Padang

Those are sacks of cement, ‘Padang’ being the brand. Cement, you know, for construction purposes. What were you thinking??

Here’s another example: when you’re in Indonesia and feeling hungry, I strongly recommend sop buntut.

sop buntut

It’s oxtail soup. An absolute must-try in Indonesia. For Filipinos, this would make sense, since ‘buntot‘ is Tagalog for tail. But ask any Malaysian if they’d like sop buntut and you’re bound to get some guffaws. That’s because ‘buntut‘ is Malay slang for…’s posterior. (This dish is called sup ekor in Malaysia, ekor being the Malay word for ‘tail’. It’s quite close to the Cebuano ikug.)

Finally, here’s a very harmless-looking photo of OnlyGirl, RoundBoy and MyEldest posing merrily in front of a firetruck in Brunei (pic taken in November 2004).


If I showed this to my relatives in the Philippines, they’ll find the ‘BOMBA’ thing to be quite confusing because in Tagalog and Cebuano, bomba means bomb… but it is also a colloquial term for ‘nude’ or ‘naked’.

Malaysians who go to the Philippines are better off referring to the nightingale in English because the Malay equivalent, ‘bulbul‘, means pubic hair in Tagalog or Cebuano.

As for Filipinos who go to Malaysia, if you see a catfish, please do NOT use the Cebuano word for catfish. You see, that word (which begins with the letter ‘P’) is a very crude Malay word for the female genitalia! Refer to it using its Malay name instead — ikan keli.

Strangely enough, the Cebuano term for catfish (see  crude Malay word above) is the Indonesian term for one’s posterior, which is not the same as the soup that I was talking about at the beginning of this post.  If you need a minute or two to straighten that out, I totally understand…

Have you ever gotten into trouble for using the wrong word(s) during one of your travels? Please share with me your funny/scary anecdotes :)

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