When Bathroom is Roombath: Language Perversion and Word Inversion

By Tim Ferriss

Remember Pig Latin? Perhaps you toyed with it in grade school or uttered the occasional “amscray,” but it won’t get you very far in pickup lines or job interviews. Outside of the Anglosphere, on the other hand, syllable inversion is much more than a childhood memory or annoying habit. In the U.S., syllable inversion is less common than Klingon. South of the border or east in the Orient, it’s everywhere.

Here are a few examples of words al vesre (al revés = backwards) that you can hear on a daily basis in Argentina, which boasts an extremely confusing Italian-Spanish hybrid slang called Lunfardo:

  • ÑOBA: baño (bathroom)
  • FECA: café (coffee)
  • MIONCA: camión (truck)
  • TELO: hotel (Remember that the “h” is silent in Spanish. “Telo” is mostly
    used for albergues transitorios, or hourly “love” hotels)
  • CHABOMBA: bombacha (panties, women’s underwear)

If that weren’t confusing enough, sometimes the words just seem scrambled or chopped beyond all recognition when there are more than two syllables.

  • LOMPA: pantalón (pants)
  • DOLOBU: boludo (idiot or much stronger, but generally used like “hombre” or
    “cabrón” in other Latin countries)
  • ZOLCILLONCA: calzoncillo (underwear, but usually men’s underwear or boxers)

To make matters worse, the Porteños, natives of Buenos Aires, pronounce both “y” and “ll” like the “sh” of “ship”. Good luck.

To be sure, the Argentines pride themselves on being unique, and go out of their way to be the Europeans of South America, but they have no monopoly on mutilating words by inverting them. Although English speakers usually don’t toss syllables around, the Japanese are happy to take English words, convert them into Japanese, then hack them to pieces. To wit:

  • Sunglasses = Sangurasu à Gurasan
  • Manager = Manajaa à Jaamana

In any language that tends to end words with vowels (Japanese, Spanish), and particularly languages rich in bisyllabic words, this inversion will crop up in slang and colloquial speech. Greek has its podana (ana-poda = reverse), and French has its verlan (lan ver = l’envers = the inverse).

At the end of the day, ever after the migraines and brain scrambling, I can’t help but think that English speakers are missing out on the fun.

Are we too good for inversion? Have we banished it to the realm of childish, along with comics and cartoons, where we need hide our enthusiasm for fear of being labeled weirdos? So what if I love Wolverine, still dig the Transformers (especially Optimus Prime), and like to say “let’s go to the veemoes” instead of “let’s go to the movies”? Is that so wrong? Certainly not. Inversion could just be the next stage of English evolution, but it needs a push, a small snowball effect, so be sure to do your part. If you need a little push yourself, just force it and give it a shot: three shots to be exact. 300 or 400 milligrams of caffeine should be enough to get you started. You’ll be talking jibberish in no time.

Tim Ferriss is fluent in five languages, has studied more than 15, and has spent the last 12 years analyzing the world’s best language learners. He has lived in more than 25 countries, designed curricula worldwide for Berlitz®, and studied East Asian Studies and Neuroscience at Princeton University.

Posted by | Comments Off on When Bathroom is Roombath: Language Perversion and Word Inversion  | August 23, 2006
Category: Languages and Culture

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