Cultural Observations

Often with our busy lifestyles we don’t stop to observe different cultures as they are. Adam Jacot de Boinod identifies the peculiarities in different languages


In Japan one sneeze signifies praise (ichi home); two sneezes, criticism (ni-kusashi); three sneezes, disparagement (san-kenashi) while four or more sneezes is taken to mean, quite reasonably, that a cold is on its way (yottsu-ijo wa kaze no moto).

Meanwhile, in Mexico, one sneeze is answered with the word salud (health); two sneezes with dinero (money); three sneezes with amor (love); four or more sneezes with alergías (allergies); laughter often accompanies four sneezes, because health, money and love are obviously more desirable than allergies.

In response to someone sneezing, the Germans say gesundheit, ‘health to you’, and the French à tes souhaits, literally ‘to your wishes’. In Sierra Leone, Mende speakers say biseh, or ‘thank you’; in Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, they say velona, ‘alive’, while the Bembe speakers of the Congo say kuma, ‘be well’. In Tonga, a sneeze is often taken to be a sign that your loved one is missing you.


In their eagerness to move into and conquer new markets, many large Western companies forgot to do their homework. When the name Microsoft was first translated into Chinese, they went for a literal translation of the two parts of the name, unfortunately, that meant it was called ‘small and flaccid’.

Pepsi’s famous slogan, ‘Come Alive with Pepsi’ was dropped in China after it was translated as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave’.

When Parker Pen marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say, ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’. However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word embarazar meant to embarrass. Instead, the ads said that, ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant’.

Clairol messed up with their translation efforts in Germany and made the mistake of trying to sell customers, for their hair, ‘manure’ sticks, instead of ‘mist’ sticks!


What a fine array of products the world has in its shop windows:

» Atum Bom – Portuguese – tinned tuna
» Kevin – French – aftershave
» Noisy – French – butter
» Yes – Swiss chocolate
» Yes – Swedish washing up liquid
» Happy – Swedish – chocolate
» Polio – Czech – detergent
» Vaccine – Dutch – aftershave
» Flirt – Austrian – cigarettes
» Mental – Italian breath fresheners
» Mercy – Japanese lavatory paper.

Adam Jacot de Boinod