Sunday, 1 May 2016

First of May spoonerisms

Happy First of May! In Finland, First of May is a huge carnival-like celebration. In Germany you barely notice it. We went for a First of May walk and all we saw was a red balloon and a pile of puke. Can't get much lamer than that.

And since First of May is also the day of bad student humor, this episode is about a category of bad jokes I often miss in my current language environment. Kitchen linguistics presents: sananmuunnos (word transform). Sananmuunnos jokes are all about dirty anatomical expressions straight from elementary school backyards, preferably combined with religious vocabulary, so if you don't like that kind of humor... why are you still reading this blog?

Seriously speaking, it's somewhat non-trivial to explain why such childish and inappropriate jokes are entertaining also for people who consider themselves intellectual. At the end of the blog, I'll tell my guess.

So, sananmuunnos works like this:

pehmeä nis (a soft bunny) - hmeä penis (a stiff penis)

There are a couple of extra rules for how diphthongs and long/short vowels work, then just a dash of vowel harmony... all of those come naturally to us Finns, a certain way to transform just "feels correct" (or produces a result that means something naughty).

An example of a Finnish sananmuunnos joke: "Vaikka piha on liukas niin pulu ei kaadu." (Even though the courtyard is slippery, the pigeon doesn't fall over.) It's left to the listener to find the applicable transforms, so the sentence becomes "Vaikka liha on piukas niin kalu ei puudu." (Even though the flesh is tight, the cock won't harden.)

Sananmuunnos jokes are similar to - but not the same as - spoonerism in English and Spoonerismus in German. Often they follow a slightly different logic than the Finnish ones:

"Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (rather than "dear old queen")

Or, the transformed version is something somebody accidentally says: "Ich werde zu deinem Geburtstag nachher noch Buchen kacken, äh, Kuchen backen." (I'd shit books… beech trees (Hello, I'm an idiot!) eh, bake a cake, for your birthday.)

In the pure Finnish sananmuunnos jokes, the transformed version is never said aloud.

Now that's the theory. To illustrate the importance of sananmuunnos to the Finnish society, I have two anecdotes.

The first one (link in Finnish): A colleague of my mother in law died, and he was famous enough to have an obituary published in the main newspaper. In addition to his day job as a teacher he was a sananmuunnos hobbyist. And so it was written in the obituary that he wrote a book Paljas uneksija ("Bare dreamer" - although "uljas paneksija" is "a brave fucker") under names "Rudolf Ankku" ("Adolf Runkku" means "Adolf Wank") and "Pertti Joffán" ("jortti peffaan" means "dick into butt"). "I'm not sure if such jokes are appropriate in an obituary", I commented. "That person's obituary wouldn’t have been appropriate without such jokes", said my mother in law.

The second one (link in Finnish): To increase the voting rate in the Finnish church elections, the Finnish (Lutheran) church published a video, written by an independent screenwriter, where animated characters were debating the role of the church in the modern society. One of the characters criticized the "musty masses" of the church. Only that "musty masses" (tunkkaiset messut) is a sananmuunnos of "menstruating pussies" (menkkaiset tussut). "Oops, we didn't realize", commented the representative of the church. "Maybe it's a sananmuunnos, maybe it’s not", said the screenwriter.

And finally, my guess on why all this is socially appropriate: since the naughty version is never said aloud, sananmuunnos allows Finns to use weird, cryptic and improbable expressions, and all the naughtiness is in the head of the listener. Maybe the listener won't notice and just thinks "well, that was a weird choice of words", or maybe he notices, and that creates a shared, secret joke between them.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

A successful shirt

I recently had a confusing clothing discussion with a German friend. We were sorting, counting and noting down some baby clothes I was borrowing from her.

There were some like these:

I just put all of them into the same pile, counted them together and referred to all of them as Hemd. I had learned in school that paita = das Hemd, and in Finnish all these are different types of paitas, especially in the colloquial language. From the top: neulepaita (knitted shirt), paita (shirt), T-paita (T-shirt) and... I guess another paita. We do have a separate colloquial word for a hoodie (huppari), but nobody would be surprised if you said "I'll put my paita on" and then put your hoodie on. Basically the same thing as when you "go out for a coffee" but drink tea instead. Similarly, paita is often used in the broad sense of an upper body garment (except a bikini top, which is definitely not paita). The most typical paita would be a thin, long-sleeve cotton shirt without buttons:

But it turns out, Hemd only means a specific kind of paita, namely this (in Finnish kauluspaita):

And the other paitas are Pullover, Jäckchen, T-Shirt, and so on. We eventually de-confused the discussion and ended up making more than one pile of baby paitas - still probably less than a German would, because I said I'm not able to tell the difference between some types of garments because they're both paita to me.

If a Finnish novel is translated into German, and the main character puts a paita on, it should be translated differently based on what kind of person he is. Maybe he puts a Hemd on if it fits his character, but it can also be something else. A good human translator would be able to pick an appropriate word, but I can imagine this problem is very difficult for machine translation! Using the wrong word would make the atmosphere all wrong, for example if a rascal puts a button-down shirt on and goes out, the German reader would be left wondering why he's suddenly dressing up so formally.

In a similar vein, I recently read a column about the differences of being successful and being successful. Namely, there are two words for "to succeed" in Finnish, onnistua and menestyä. Onnistua (in this context) means more like "to produce something of good quality" and menestyä more like "to produce something popular" or "to rank highly compared to others". Similarly, there are two words which roughly translate to successful, onnistunut (something which has high quality) and menestynyt (something which has gained popularity). The column was about how we should strive to "onnistua" and not "menestyä", that is, we should focus on quality and not popularity / winning. It went on to list examples, like, an athlete should strive to onnistua (perform as well as he can) instead of menestyä (it might be possible to win even if you under-perform if the others are even worse, and it's also tempting to cheat in order to win, whereas cheating won't help you to onnistua). And at work, we should also try to onnistua (do our job well) instead of menestyä (achieve a high position).

I hope nobody needs to translate that column into English! In many contexts onnistua and menestyä would be translated into "to succeed" / "to achieve" / "to accomplish", but I don't think these English words are able to express the difference the column focuses on.

The dictionary definition of "to succeed" matches "onnistua" better, but if we say "she has been successful in her career", we'd use it in the sense of menestyä. We can also say "she has achieved a high position" to mean the same thing. To say that somebody wrote a book of good quality (which was not necessarily popular), I wouldn't use any of these words, I'd just say "she wrote a great book". "She wrote a successful book" would mean the book was popular. It would be weird to say "the movie was a success" to mean that it was a great movie although it didn't sell well.

(But anyway, as in all kitchen linguistics episodes, this is just my view on these words as a non-native English speaker, and I'm welcoming further insights into what these words mean and enlightening example usages.)

(A note to Germans, successful is spelled with one L. It can be also thought of something full of success but that's how it's spelled anyway. It's one of the most common misspellings I see in when I read English texts written by Germans.)

Sunday, 1 November 2015


Being a bit of a name geek, choosing a name for our kid was a Thing. Not a thing that requires long discussions - I believe that big decisions are best made on a whim. We chose an international name, and a colleague of mine, Mr C., was disappointed that we didn't use the opportunity to give a weird Finnish name with a lot of vowels and umlauts. And indeed, we could've chosen a name like Aino, Päivi, Päivä, Aija, Eija, Aila, Eila, Tuula or even Unnaluuna if we went really overboard, or for a boy, Kyösti, Päiviö, Yrjö (see below), Yrjänä, Pyry, Syksy, Kuisma or Eino. Eino would've been a confusing name for Germans, since it's a boys' name but pronounced the same way as Aino which is a girls' name. Naming twins Eino and Aino would be really evil. For the English-speaking world, Finnish male names Kari and Toni have some confusion potential too.

In Germany, there's a shop called Yorma's. I find it hilarious and probably other Finns do too...

Jorma (which is probably pronounced the same way as Yorma, since the Finnish J is pronounced like Y in "yo", not like J in "jail") is a Finnish name, most popular in the generation born in 1940s - 1950s. Since then, it has acquired the side meaning of a penis (so it actually could be accurately translated as Dick) and understandably decreased in popularity.

A typical Jorma would look like this:

The picture is of a Finnish celebrity who is not called Jorma, but Juha.

You might have heard that in the US, a company leader of a big company is more probably called John than a woman. Finns made their own statistic: a Finnish company leader is more probably called Juha than a woman.

I promised more information about Yrjö, which is also an old Finnish name, with an even older sound than Jorma. Since its' peak times, it has acquired a side meaning of "puke". Curiously, it's also the Finnish translation of the name George from the times when people used to translate names. While I was pregnant, I threw up more than 130 times (I actually kept count, though there was one day when I lost count around 8), and we joked that if it's a boy, we'll name him Yrjö. Yrjö is also the middle name of my father, so we could've gotten away with it. Luckily (for her), we didn't get a boy.

The most common first name - last name combination in Finland is Timo Virtanen (see a list of other common combinations here). There are 233 of them. Timo Virtanen is a pretty boring name. A typical Timo Virtanen would look like this:

This again is a Finnish celebrity, who's not called Timo but Matti.

Matti is the Finnish version of John in the sense of "John / Jane Doe". in Finnish they are called "Matti / Maija Meikäläinen" (meikäläinen is an informal word for "one of us"). In German, "Max / Anne Mustermann" is used in many contexts. "Mustermann" is apparently translated "paragon", but since "paragon" was not part of my active vocabulary, I would've translated it as "Pattern-man" instead. For other languages, see here.

The page also contains similar placeholder names for things. I could write a separate blog post trying to explain a Finnish name for a generic, unspecified or unnecessary machine, "hilavitkutin", which makes no sense at all but sounds like a convincing name for a machine that actually does something (it will most probably "vitkuttaa" (verb) "hila"s (noun) but neither of them means anything sensemaking in this context).

I also want to note that this post is about given names, and there is a whole lot to say about surnames - I'll write a separate post about that. I won't write a post about naming volcanoes, since the Icelandic are giving them so ridiculous names, like Eyjafjallajökull, that there's nothing reasonable to say about the topic.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The more the stupider?

There is a saying in English, "the more the merrier". In Finnish, there isn't an equivalent saying that I know of. Instead, we say "stupidity intensifies (lit. condenses) in a crowd" ("joukossa tyhmyys tiivistyy"). It means that people sometimes do stupid things in a group - things they wouldn't do alone.

It's probably not a surprise that Finns have a negative attitude towards groups, especially if you have seen this picture of a bus stop in Finland:

I think it's just wise to stand outside of the stabbing distance...

One American thing Finns ha-- umm... are not very fond of, is that a stranger might start a conversation with you in a grocery store. Stranger in this context is somebody you are not best friends with. We want to buy our groceries alone! (And wait for the bus alone.)

Finns consider "not disturbing people" one of the greatest virtues, and that's why we have such a restrictive social code regarding when it's okay to start a conversation (or even say hello). In many situations we assume that others want to be left alone and yet we secretly hope that somebody would socialize with us. So tragic.

I'm slowly getting used to the question "How are you doing" / "Wie geht's?" in the non-literal sense. For example, at work I try to answer with a cheerful "Oh, pretty good", as instructed by an American colleague. But I think I always have a stupid facial expression when I say it, so my colleagues probably think I'm crazy.

One very confusing situation is when a doctor greets me with this question, so... what am I supposed to answer? It feels so stupid to say I'm doing well - obviously I'm not doing well since I need to see a doctor!

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Most pregnant

Since I've successfully finished being pregnant some time ago, here it comes: the pregnancy kitchen linguistics post!

In addition to having a bun in the oven, the word "pregnant" means "Having numerous possibilities or implications; full of promise; abounding in ability, resources", and the most common non-pregnancy-related usage is of course "a pregnant pause".

(Curiously, there are also comparative and superlative forms for "pregnant" - and at some point "most pregnant" was indeed very descriptive.)

However, the English word doesn't give justice to the 24/7/40 feeling of "kill me, kill me now" the same way the corresponding Finnish word does. "Raskaus" (pregnancy) means literally "heaviness", but in addition to "heavy", "raskas" can mean "tedious", "difficult", "painful", or "sad". The origin is maybe (this is kitchen linguistics so we don't really care) the Latin-based "gravidity" (note: gravity).

Side track: Germans, so politically correct. Before moving to Germany, when my husband was browsing jobs online, he saw job titles like "Software Engineer (m / w)" and asked me what "m / w" meant. I said "well, it could mean männlich / weiblich (male / female), but that would be a bit silly, I don't know...". Turns out it really means that. Names of occupations such as "Engineer" have a much stronger association to the male gender than in English, and if you use "Engineer" as is, it'll mean "male engineer". There are several linguistic and typographical hacks and forms of varying awkwardness to make words include both genders.

Another instance of German online political correctness can be found on university websites: Wintersemester is abbreviated "WS", but Sommersemester is abbreviated "SoSe". After a second, it's obvious why.

However, Germans have no problems with abbreviating Schwangerschaft (pregnancy) "SS" in the colloquial Internet. Once I felt slightly weird clicking a discussion thread link "Lachsschinken in der SS" (after googling whether it's allowed to eat this type of ham). For a moment I feared that the discussion might after all be about the culinary preferences of the said organization...

By the way, Germans also colloquially abbreviate Muttermund (cervix, literally "mother mouth") "MuMu", which is cutely creepy or creepily cute depending on which way you look at it.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Ludwig Theodor Theodor

In the last two weeks, I've had the following discussion almost every day (ton of paperwork, the post strike, missing letters, spelling difficulties).

"Heinrich, Ökonom, Ludwig, Theodor, Theodor, Ärger"
"Hä? Also Heinrich, Ökonom, Ludwig, Ludwig, Theodor..."
"Nein, Ludwig Theodor Theodor!"

So like this:

And not:

(How hard can it be?)

Here's a useful bit of information for non-Germans trying to get by in German: Buchstabiertafel. Curiously, Ä is Äquator, which is spelled with e in most countries (equator), the same for Ökonom (economist). And both Äquator and Ärger are pronounced with E, at least in my opinion (but I already observed that Finns and Germans perceive the boundary between Ä and E differently).

Thursday, 2 July 2015


The German media has found the Finnish word "kalsarikännit" and they apparently find it funny.

I wanted to offer a deeper look into this word, so that Germans and other non-Finns could appreciate the nuances better.

As explained, the word consists of two parts: "kalsari", the singular of "underpants" (kalsarit), and "kännit" (drunkenness). Especially, "kalsarit" refers to old-fashioned male underwear, in the 70s style.

It's also often associated with an essential garment in Finland, long underwear ("pitkät kalsarit"), worn by both genders.

Coincidentally, I'm posting this in July, which is the only month in Finland which you might be able to survive without long underwear.

"Kännit" (plural) or the singular "känni" is usually translated as "drunkenness", but the English word is not nearly as versatile as the Finnish one. For example, you can "take a känni / kännit" and that means getting drunk. You can also attach adjectives to it, e.g., "that was a horrible känni" to describe how it was being drunk. And when you're "in känni" ("kännissä"), you're drunk.

There's a well-known song "jouluaattona kännissä", "drunk in Christmas Eve". And because the French pronunciation is so weird, it sounds exactly the same as "jouluaattona Cannesissa", "Christmas Eve in Cannes". I think it's worth travelling to Cannes during Christmas time just to be able to use this joke in a Facebook status.

(This joke was ruthlessly stolen from my better half without asking him. Haha! Note: he should read the small print of our marriage agreement.)