A Language Embarrassment

Just imagine how much better everything in Parkland would have turned out if all the teachers and students had been packing.

I have suffered many language embarrassments, but the one that keeps coming up most often occurred when i was in the Army conducting cryptosecurity inspections of US military installations.  I arrived at a missile base in remote northern Germany on a lovely spring morning.

I’d been taken to the lieutenant in charge of their crypto facility, and he’d offered me coffee, which i’d accepted.  He led me to a little break room, and a German national, an older woman (since i was only 23, most people were older) brought me a cup.  Black.

I’d started drinking coffee black because that was the way my parents drank it, but i’d learned to take milk in it when i was in ASA school at Ft. Devens because those Yankees called coffee with milk in it, “regular”.  And they served their coffee just short of boiling in order to leave it still warm after the addition of a generous slug of milk.  So you had to take it regular to be able to finish the damn cup during your ten-minute break between classes.  Those of us who didn’t call it “regulah” called it “coffee with cream” even though it was just milk we added.

I’d become accustomed to taking milk in my coffee, and so i politely asked the woman, “Sie haben vielleicht Sahne?” Do you perhaps have cream?  Alas, she seemed rather offended and barked, “Nein!”  How strange, i thought, that they don’t have milk for their coffee like all the other military installations, and how strange that she’d be bothered by my asking.

Oh well, no problem, and i went on to conduct the inspection, which they passed even with black coffee.

It was only after i’d left the kaserne that it hit me.  I’d fallen victim to one of the banes of learning foreign languages, the direct translation that gives entirely the wrong meaning.  In this case, asking for cream rather than milk.  Not a biggie, you say.

Oh yes it was.  See, every fine Kaffee-Konditorei in which i ordered coffee brought it with a little pitcher of cream.  However, i do not recall ever seeing real cream for the coffee in any military installation, or for that matter, in any home.

So by asking for cream instead of milk, i’d sounded like an entitled big city snob who expected to be plied with luxuries.  I hadn’t realized what was going on in time to explain that i was really just asking for milk, so i’ve squirmed over this for a bit more than half a century.  My only relief is that, since she was probably in her forties then, she’s most likely dead now and thus can’t remember me.  And if she isn’t dead, she’s in her nineties and regaling her grandchildren with the tale of that awful American.

Meanwhile, i find selfies somehow creepy, but i finally broke down and took one of myself descending Cortland Street on the way home from an early morning trip to the Alemany Farmers’ Market.  I’m not saluting but rather holding the camera up.

Cortland Street



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  1. Posted 7 March 2018 at 21:35 | Permalink

    Yes, when we use the term we are relativizing to the appropriate standard, but now think carefully about what that standard may be in the present case. Here is an example to help you. Suppose we are walking through a warehouse full of slanted coffee tables and you point to the flattest coffee table in the warehouse and say “look, here”s a flat one. I might reply “this isn”t a flat coffee table, look, when I put my full mug of coffee down on it some coffee spills over the side. This is the correct reply. Being a flat” coffee table is not about being flatter most of the other coffee tables around. Rather, the relevant standard comes from the purpose or function of a coffee table, which is to hold containers of food and drink without any spilling over the side. I will leave you to ponder what standard of flatness” might apply to institutions that are supposed to be meritocratic. 4 4 Report

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