“But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” Psalm 19:12
Before I traveled back to the States for a visit many years ago, the members of our Japanese church kindly made a number of decorative bookmarks (called “shiori”) for us to give out as gifts to our friends. Shiori was a new vocabulary term to me so it was not yet deeply entrenched in my language repertoire. This became rather obvious after I returned to Japan and stood up in church to announce how everyone was very appreciative of the derrieres (“oshiri”) from the church. Immediately realizing my mistake, I made a hasty retreat for the exit, but my loving colleagues would in the future sometimes refer to the infamous “bookmark incident” to keep me humble.
For anyone learning a new language, such bloopers are part of the inevitable and sometimes painful process of acquiring a totally different form of communication. Over the years, we have collected many such examples. Maybe one of the most commonly made mistakes in Japan is the confusion of the word “human” (ningen) with “carrot” (ninjin), which has led to many hilarious encounters. Running a close second to this frequent language blooper is probably the mistake of calling a baby “kowai” (scary) instead of using the intended adjective “kawaii” (cute). One time, upon hearing the news of the tragic death of friend’s relative, I sympathetically offered to pray for that person. Unfortunately, instead of asking God to comfort the family (nagusameru), I beseeched the Lord to knock off (nakunaru) the remaining members of the family. Since this blunder occurred in the course of a prayer, no one seemed to smirk, but I suspect a few were stifled with great difficulty. One of the better gaffes I recall hearing was that of a young single missionary handing out flyers at a train station. He passionately implored each recipient to “please become my bride” (oyome kudasai) instead of the well-rehearsed line “please read this” (oyomi kudasai). He did eventually get married, but probably not from using this technique!
However, sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. I’ll never forget wandering into a small town supermarket in which areas of the store were impressively labeled in English, but each sign was hilariously bungled. The meat section was identified as “MEET.” The fruit section was marked “FLUTE.” If rice was on your shopping list, you could find it under “LICE,” and so it continued as if someone had played a cruel joke on the unsuspecting storeowner. Following this gamut of bad English, one might be tempted to purchase an adult beverage in the “LICKER” section! The website engrish.com is dedicated to the collection of the butchering of English around the world, which only partially compensates for the extensive damage I did to the Japanese language in my early years. However, one of the challenges of learning Japanese is that the Japanese people are so polite that they will rarely point out even the most egregious mistakes we unwittingly force upon them.
Although language mistakes are annoying and at times embarrassing, they can usually be conveniently or politely overlooked. Such is not true of transgressions of the human heart and personal sin. We hurt others, bring shame upon our community, invite disastrous consequences, degrade ourselves and worst of all, rebel against a holy God. We may strive to live in denial of such misdeeds, but like a bad language blooper, everything will eventually come to light and much more than personal embarrassment is at stake. Perfect life fluency is not possible as we all sin, but amazingly, there is forgiveness available for every blooper imaginable. That is grace in any language.