Tag Archives: language


Main Piece:

The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my co-worker/informant (SC).

SC: *Brings in waffles for everyone at work*

HS: No way! Thank you! These look absolutely amazing.

SC: No problem man. It was waffle day yesterday, but I wasn’t here. We have to celebrate today.

HS: There’s a waffle day?

SC: Yeah. It’s something that my family does that we got from Sweden. It’s called Våffeldagen. It’s actually a funny backstory. So we used to celebrate Vårfrudagen, which is another Swedish holiday, but because the names for the holiday and waffles are so similar, we just eat waffles instead.


My informant is a co-worker from my job. He is a Relationship Banker, and so we work a lot less closely than my other co-workers on the teller line. Regardless, he is a great guy and we enjoy a little office rivalry- he went to UCLA. Yuck. His parents immigrated to the United States from Sweden, but because he still has a lot of family living there, he visits a lot and in the process has brought back a lot of Swedish traditions to his family here in the United States.


It was about 10:00 am at work, and all of us were getting our pre-opening work done when my informant came in with some waffles that his family had made.


I never thought that some waffles would be the catalyst for a piqued interest in linguistics, but here we are. The fact that Swedes celebrate Vårfrudagen, or “Our Lady’s Day,” by eating waffles because waffles in Swedish sounds like Vårfrudagen, is, for some reason, just so interesting to me. It made me realize the real effect that language has on our everyday lives. Prior to hearing about this cultural development, I would have argued that the spelling of a word is rather arbitrary and probably has very little impact on culture. Våffeldagen, or Waffle Day, is proof that language has a profound impact on cultural and societal development.

Origins of Tea

Context: My informant is a 26 year-old woman who is of Chinese descent. She grew up in Hong Kong and lived there until she moved to Pasadena at the age of 7. Listed below is an account of where the word tea comes from and its pronunciation in different regions of the world. She learned these facts from her mother who is interested in history.


“There’s only categories of how you pronounce the word tea, there’s tea and ta. The different countries that say tea, you can tell how they originally source the tea from China. In China they call tea, ta. Ams there’s this one province that called in te. The dutch would travel around Africa to get tea from that specific spot and that’s the only place that says ta. So you can tell where these places got their tea by how they say it. Like Persia says it che and more of the western countries say things more like tea.”


I found this information really interesting. Being that the informant was 26, her mom, who taught her this, is about 52. It is cool to see how the older generation can bring about knowledge like this from their origins. I had never thought about the pronunciation of different words and how they came to be, but I am intrigued by language and am excited to learn more.

“Coño” – A word for love, hate, and everything in-between

Context: MIMI #4

My informant is an 84 year-old woman of Spanish / Cuban ethnicity. She grew up in Havana, Cuba and lived there until she had to leave due to the take over of communism at the age of 22. This story was told as an explanation of the word “coño” in the Cuban perspective. The joy in her eyes from describing one of the most important words in her language was beautiful to see. 

Dictionary Definitions: Beaver, fanny, hell, holy crap, bloody hell… etc.


“The word is used tremendously in Cuba. coño is used very much in Spain as well. It cant really be translated, it’s an expression. This is the word for the daily life of daily Cubans in Cuba. It is used in so many ways in various significant ways. Without that word, you really couldn’t express a lot of things. This is a word that carries through everything that’s happening in your life: happiness, unhappiness, fights, thoughts, sadness, anger. I.. I mean it is truly a word that carries on throughout your life. So, if you’re gonna choose one word forever and only one, I would pick that one.”

Upon hearing this story, I was trying to think of a word in the english language that encompassed as much meaning as “coño”, but I really could not think of anything as specific as this. It is a word that fluidly floats through every facet of the human experience and is used to highlight these moments of great despair, happiness, anger, or love. I am curious to know how the word grew into its universal nature, as it seems as though it would have started out with a more singular meaning.

As someone who loves words and language entirely, I find it fascinating that a single expression can be used in so many different ways, depending on sentence structure and the way that it is performed. I think the closest expression we would have in english would be “wow”, because it can be used in so many different situations.

For another reference of ways to use the word, check here:


“Two in the air, four on the ground…” – Farsi Riddle

Description of Informant

MV (79) is a retired engineer, chess master, and violinist from Tehran, Iran. At 19, he came to America to study at Ohio Northern and remained in the states for his adult life (Missouri and California). While in Iran, he lived a very traditional life under religious parents; this continues to influence his values and attitudes.



Original Text: ! دو در هوا، چهار در زمين، اِه خربزه

Phonetic: Dōh dar havah, chahar dar zameen, eh kharbōzeh!

Transliteration: Two in the air, four on the ground, hey melon!

Free Translation: [See Collector’s Reflection for Explanation]

Collector’s Reflection

At first, the riddle seems to make no sense, until you understand the pun hidden within. The Farsi word for melon (خربزه, kharbōzeh) also contains the words for donkey/ass (خر, khar-) and goat (بز, -bōz). Thus, the riddle really says: “Two in the air, four on the ground, hey ass/idiot— it’s a goat!” The “two in the air” refers to the goat’s horns and the “four on the ground” to its feet.

The phrase functions as an insult riddle, wherein the individual playing the joke intends to trick or demean the intelligence of their victim. The individual receiving the riddle is confused by melon at first. Then, the riddler will repeat the last line “eh kharbōzeh!”, but with added emphasis and spacing to make the double entendre clear (e.g. “eh khar! …bōzeh!”) The victim(s) quickly realize that they have been insulted. If you’re in good company, you’ll get a few laughs. But be wary— calling someone “khar” in Iran is a major insult.

Context of Use

The riddle is used among peers, often in a group setting, where one individual is unaware of the double entendre and made out as a fool; comedy at one’s expense. You would generally use the phrase among close friends with positive rapport, where no offense will be taken.


Context of Interview

The informant, MV, sits on a love seat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. He is opposite the collector, BK, his grandson. Text spoken in Farsi is translated and italicized. Instances of the riddle have been replaced by [the riddle].


MV: For instance, wasn’t a joke, but for instance riddles, like [the riddle]. Something like this, for instance, they were goat, trying to identify the goat that had to horns. So they say “two up” and “four down.” And then, do you know what kharbōzeh is? Something melon. It’s some type of melon. And it also means “hey khar”— or donkey, it is a goat! *laughing* Something like this: [the riddle]. If someone hears you, they think you are just saying melon! Until you separate it.

BK: Can you describe a context where you would’ve told this joke?

MV: Children among [themselves]. One child, who wanted to mess with another child, would say [the riddle]. The guy would think you are just saying melon so they get confused, but say “eh khar— bōzeh! This is a goat that I’m talking about, with two horns.

“What should I say, if saying nothing would be better?” – Farsi Proverb

Description of Informant

MV (79) is a retired engineer, chess master, and violinist from Tehran, Iran. At 19, he came to America to study at Ohio Northern and remained in the states for his adult life (Missouri and California). While in Iran, he lived a very traditional life under religious parents. He has embedded many of the traditional views of his youth into his personal values



Original Text: چه گويم كه ناگفتنم بهتره؟

Phonetic: Cheh gooyam keh nah gōftanam behtareh?

Transliteration: What can I say that it is better not to say?
Free Translation: What should I say, if saying nothing would be better?

Context of Use

The phrase is a playfully solemn response to “How are you?” It works to inform the asker that the speaker is sad/down, but also that they aren’t interested in discussing their emotions with the present party. It is most often used between friends or peers. 

It is also a proverb, serving a similar function to the English “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Unlike the English phrase, it is not directed outward, and instead focuses on the speaker. I.E. If I don’t have anything positive to say, why should I speak?


Context of Interview

The informant, MV, sits on a loveseat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. He is opposite the collector, BK, his grandson. Text spoken in Farsi is translated and italicized. Instances of the phrase have been replaced by [the phrase].


MV: *muttering* [the phrase]… One of the things, for instance, we used to say… somebody says “How are you, what are you doing?”, you say [the phrase]. Um… meaning that, for instance, you see a friend who asks “How are you doing?” and if you don’t feel like good you say [the phrase]. What should I say if—  if I keep quiet—  would be much better?

BK: Who would you say this to? If your boss asked “How are you?”— 

MV: No, it was when we were teenagers. Just among friends. Not with parents.

BK: Was this something funny or something serious?

MV: Nah we just— we’d just say he doesn’t feel good but he doesn’t wanna talk about it. Then they know not to pressure you.

Collector’s Reflection

In Iran during the 1940s and 1950s, when MV was a teenager, discussion of emotions between men, even peers, was extremely taboo. Men were not encouraged to express themselves, and were expected to remain stoic. The phrase was invented as a tool to allow young men to inform their peers of their emotional state, while remaining distant. 

MV is an interesting man. He embodied traditional Iranian masculinity well into his 60s: stoic, serious, commanding respect. All this despite living in America since his 20s. Admittedly, American masculinity standards don’t exactly scream “vulnerability” either. However, when MV retired at the beginning of his 70s, everything changed. He was able to loosen up, smile, joke, we even saw him cry. This once formal and scary man became a teddy bear. One couldn’t imagine him using the phrase now, as he would much rather discuss his emotions. One could read this as a sign of aging, but I consider it to be a sign of the times as well. MV noted that his Iranian friends have all become more comfortable with vulnerability in recent years as it has become more socially acceptable. As the definition of masculinity changes worldwide, perhaps this use of phrase will fade to memory; perhaps not, time will tell.

The phrase will continue to find relevance as a proverb, though it is less regularly used as such.