Humor of Phrase Books

Humor about Phrase Books is from a book by humorist Bill Bryson titled ‘Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe’, pages 164-166.

This excerpt is about the humor of phrases in an Italian phrase book.

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I had with me a Fodor’s guide to Italy, which contained an appendix of Italian-English phrases, and I looked through it now to see if it offered anything applicable to encounters with sticky–fingered Gypsy children.

But it was only full of the usual guidebook type of sentences, like

“Where can I buy silk stockings, a map of the city, films?” (my shopping list exactly!)

and

“I want: razorblades, a haircut, a shave, a shampoo, to send a telegram to England (America).”

The utter uselessness of the language appendices in guidebooks never fails to fascinate me. Take this sentence from Fodor’s, which I quote here verbatim:

“Will you prepare a bath for seven o’clock, ten o’clock, half-past ten, midnight, today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow?”

Think about it. Why would anyone want to order a bath for midnight the day after tomorrow?

The book doesn’t tell you how to say “good night” or “good afternoon,” but it does tell you how to ask for silk stockings and get baths drawn around the clock. What sort of world do they think we’re living in?

Not only are you unlikely ever to need the things described, but they overlook the somewhat elementary consideration that even if you do by some wild chance require tincture of paregoric, three opera tickets, and water for your radiator, and even if you sit up all night committing to memory the Italian for these expressions, you are not going to have the faintest idea what the person says to you in reply.

Yet I find myself studying them with an endless sense of wonder. Take this sentence:

“We would like a bathing cabin for two, a beach umbrella, three deck chairs.” Why three deck chairs, but a bathing cabin for two? Who is being made to change outside?

I always end up trying to imagine the person who compiled the list.

In this case, it was obviously one of those imperious, middle-aged, mannish Englishwomen with stout shoes and Buster Brown haircuts often seen in foreign hotels, banging on the desk bell and demanding immediate attention. They despise all foreigners, assume they are being cheated at every step, and are forever barking out orders:

“Take this to the check room.” “Come in!” “I want this dress washed (ironed).” “Bring me soap, towels, iced water.” “How much, including all the taxes?”

The evidence also clearly pointed to a secret drinking problem:

“Is there a bar in the station?,” “a glass (a bottle) of beer to take away?” “Bring a bottle of good local wine.” “Twenty liters.”

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The only phrase book I’ve ever come across that was even the remotest use was a nineteenth-century volume for doctors, which I found years ago in the library of the county hospital in Des Moines. In five languages the book offered such thoughtful expressions as

“Your boils are septic. You should go to a hospital without delay.”

and

“Do you have difficulty passing water?”

Knowing I was about to summer in Europe, I committed several of these phrases to memory, thinking they might come in handy with truculent waiters.

At the very least, I thought it might be useful, upon finding myself on a crowded train or in a long line, to be able to say in a variety of languages,

“Can you kindly direct me to a leprosy clinic? My skin is beginning to slough.”

But I never found a use for any of them and sadly they are forgotten to me now.

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