English: Lazlo Learns the Language
By William Bedford
William Bedford has been published in the Toronto Star, the Anglican Journal, the Catholic Register, the Hamilton Spectator, Metro News, Maclean’s, the Toronto Sun (poetry) and in smaller publications in Ontario and the U.S.
When Lazlo arrived in Canada as a refugee, he could speak only a few words of English. He was determined, however, to master the language in order to pursue his dream of becoming a newspaper reporter.
Lazlo had been a reporter in his native land until his views on democracy and free speech landed him in jail. The escape from his Communist homeland, and his dangerous journey to freedom in Canada would make a good story, and he intended to write it one day, in English.
I first met Lazlo when he joined the cleaning staff in the warehouse where I worked. He was learning English at night school and was having a hard time with words ending in “o, u, g or h”, and silent letters.
He was having an even harder time understanding the language of the workplace which, as he soon found out, was very different from what he was being taught at night school.
When he asked if he could change his summer vacation to Christmas, for instance, one boss told him his chances were “slim”, while another one growled, “Fat chance.” I had a hard time explaining to him that a fat chance was even slimmer than a slim one.
Then there was what Lazlo referred to as gibberish (nonsense), which he pronounced with a hard “g”, as in get. Here are some of the slang phrases that puzzled him:
- “This doohickey (thing) is on the fritz (broken).”
- “If you look sideways (annoy) at that guy, you’ll end up in the soup (trouble.)”
- Telling a truck driver, “Go ahead and back up. (It’s okay to back up.)”
- When someone pointed to an empty chair and said, “Is anyone sitting there? (Is this chair being held for someone who will be coming back?)”
Lazlo learned that while you could hit a ball, there was no hitting involved when you hit the roof (get angry), hit the bricks (go on strike) or hit (ask) the boss up for a raise.
He learned the difference between running a race, running a tab (getting something on credit), running off at the mouth (talking too much), running around (having a romantic affair) and running around in circles (becoming confused).
One morning during coffee break, Lazlo showed me an article in the paper about guerrillas (armed rebels) in the Turkish mountains. He said he knew for a fact there were no gorillas (big monkeys) in Turkey.
As for the sports pages, they might as well have been written in Chinese as far as Lazlo was concerned: “Bombers sink Boatmen (Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team wins game against Toronto Argonauts football team).”
Then there was what he called the funny Canadian way of talking “upside down” (saying the opposite of what you mean) like calling a bald guy “curly”, or a tall guy “shorty”.
And what was one to make of the difference between “awful” (bad), and “awful nice” (good)? Or, when you do something right you’re “smart” (clever), but when you do it wrong, you’re “real smart” (stupid). Lazlo would get frustrated at times with what he called “a crazy language with no rules.”
I lost touch with old Lazlo (never saw him again) after I left that company but I often thought about him and wondered if he succeeded in becoming a reporter.
These days, when I hear the kids gabbing (talking) in a mixture of teenage slang (using words of their own in place of the right words) and computer language, I wish I could tell Lazlo that now I have an idea of what he went through when he was a new Canadian trying to understand the “lingo” (the workplace language) of old Canadians.