14 October 2011

You Like Potato and I Like Potahto

For the longest time, I could not figure out why, in Russian, the word for "foul speech" was the same as the word "mother." I posed this question to several Russian friends and I got what seemed to be head nods of agreement. 

In fact, the words are orthographically different while being phonetically identical (at least to me). Mother is "мать" while cursing is "мат." In retrospect, those head nods may have been of sympathy, as in "poor guy just doesn't get it."

This reminded me of a strange dialog that I once had while teaching mathematics in inner-city Dallas area. The school principal (P) introduced me (A) to Ms. Lohan (L) in a dialog similar to this:
P:  Mr. Sharif, this is Ms. Lohan, the liberian.
A:  Nice to meet you; I have always been curious about Liberia and have never met anyone from there.
L:  I am the liberian at this school.
A:  I should expect so; Liberia is not a large country and has a small diaspora.
L:  No, I run the libary at this school.
A:  Oh, I see.  It is nice to meet you in any case.
Lohan the Liberian

Gauging by the looks that I got from them, the principal and Ms. Lohan considered me a moron for my apparent inability to distinguish a liberian from a Liberian.  In standard English, there is no "liberian," but in some American dialects, liberians (librarians) run libaries (libraries).

Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let's call the whole thing off


  1. I have always assumed that materitsya comes from mat' as in "yob tvoyu mat'" which is a popular foul speech term so I guess I made the same mistake as you -eli