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When Engrish isn't Engrish but Rocklish

I almost made a fool of myself.

Not that that's anything new. I almost make a fool of myself at least 21 times per day, and at least 11 of my attempts succeed in eliminating the "almost". I can be remarkably efficient when I put my mind to it, despite hailing from the chaos that is the dark continent.

This time I almost became a victim of Engrish myself. That is, I ascribed a phrase to Engrish when, in fact, it exists in the real world, whatever your definition of that may be, but let's not get sidetracked into ontology and epistemology. Ornithology, however, might be appropriate.

Photo from Wikipedia. There's a reason for this photo. Keep reading.

Most of my Engrish adventures take place at my eikaiwa, since my university students are generally speaking more proficient.

Breathe/teach/observe life from the sidelines long enough, and you learn to assess a student within a few seconds. This particular young man walked in with artfully tousled hair, neatly trimmed eyebrows and a T-shirt that read "we sell you tits and glory".

Do not, incidentally, make any assumptions based on gender + trimmed eyebrows in Japan. I've accepted that it's a man thing, just like man bags. (What can I say? I'm from South Africa. Men stand at least 6 feet in their flip-flops, play rugby and have 4 pm stubble. They don't need bags because a real man doesn't carry anything except a gun in his pocket, and anyway, that's what servants are for.) [To carry things, not to shoot at.]

I beheld the T-shirt and opened my mouth to ask my student whether he knew what it meant. Then my thoughts proceeded roughly thus:

1) Tits. Male student. I'mfromAfrica i.e. I have no manners i.e. I'm happy to talk about tits and pricks and whatnot, but this might not be regarded as appropriate.
2) He's upper intermediate level. He might be cognizant of the various meanings of the word.
3) Hair. Necklace of Christian crosses. Unusual designer silver ring.
4) Something's making you hesitate, Ru. Don't be facetious. Shut up. Think.

Breathe/teach/observe life from the sidelines long enough; read enough; study language enough; eventually learn to listen to your intuition; and that's when you …

Google frantically in the break between lessons, and triumphantly exclaim "yappari" (I thought so!) when "we sell you tits and glory" comes up as a hit for, what?, it's a song? Da Sign & The Opposite? That sounds like a rap band. No? No. German? Sie sind eine vierköpfige Schweizer Elektro-Rock-Band aus Bern. (They're a four-man Swiss electric rock band from Bern.)

I walk back to my classroom, ready to discuss rock and rebellion, boobs and knobs.

"You like rock?"
"Rock. Your T-shirt. Da Sign & The Opposite?"
"What's that?"
"It's a rock band. Your T-shirt? It's one of their songs."
"We sell you tits and glory."
"The line on your T-shirt. We sell you tits and glory. It's the title of a song."
"I don't know."
"Oh. Ah. I see. No, I don't. Why did you buy that T-shirt?"
"I like the design. Maybe."
"You know what it means?"
"What it means?"
"Tits. You know what tits means?"
"Oh. Ah. Well, understandable, you live in Japan. Shall we continue? Page 32, point 4."

Irrelevant autumn photo because ... autumn.

If you teach English in Japan, none of this would surprise you, but if you don't, here's a translation:

  • English phrases on T-shirts, or anywhere, for that matter, aren't supposed to mean anything. They're decoration. A design element. God herself doesn't know who comes up with them. However, judge not, that ye be not judged. 
  • Students cannot explain their own motivations beyond "it was convenient".
  • If a student has no clue what's going on, he (it's inevitably a he in a business environment or at the university where I teach) will either stare at you silently or parrot what you said. If you don't respond, he'll look down at his book, North America and Europe will drift 4 m closer to each other, and the sun will burn up a quarter of its remaining hydrogen supply.
  • DD-cup bras aren't bestsellers in Japan.

So. There you have it. I almost made a fool of myself, because what I thought was Engrish wasn't, but the student didn't know what it meant anyway. I misread my student, who wasn't as clued-up as I thought he might be, but I correctly interpreted my own linguistic sixth sense, which was operating spiffingly.

All is not lost.


1) If you're wondering about the photo of the bird, it's called Parus minor. Yes, I have the emotional maturity of a toddler. If you don't understand what's going on, I recommend There's another option, but let's not unravel completely. We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

2) Now I want Hysteric Glamour and We Sell You Tits and Glory to meet, marry and have babies.

3) I accept no responsibility for my recent teaching posts. Think of them as my lightning conductor.

4) Comments have been re-enabled, but Gondwana might be reunited by the time I respond.

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