Monday, October 18, 2010

Looking for the right word

I don't recall exactly why or how, but my girlfriend has engineered a situation wherein she's expected to teach the children at her kindergarten all about vegetables.

(She's a teacher, dammit, before anyone starts questioning why I'm in a relationship with somebody at a kindergarten.)

This all went swimmingly to begin with, until she got overambitious and combined geometry with agriculture, by telling the children about the fabled okra, that hexagonal-cross-sectioned vegetable that turns up in gumbo and the occasional Indian dish. But never, it appears, have the ladyfingers reached far enough to entwine themselves in Chinese cuisine.

Now, I'm not saying a Chinese person wouldn't eat a piece of okra. Say you made some steamed buns and concealed the okra inside, it's highly unlikely that they'd run from the dining table in fear and disarray. It has a hexagonal cross-section, as pointed out above. Four-sided vegetables, they might be inauspicious, but there's nowt wrong with ladyfingers on a numerological basis.

But more of a problem is that nobody knows what they are called, so even if you did have a hankering for okra, you'd be hardpressed to identify them by their name in Cantonese, and even more troubled if you tried to find somebody who knew what you were asking for.

For a week, we bumbled around from restaurant to restaurant, asking all the staff whether they knew the name for okra. Most of them knew what okra was, of course, but we never found out what it was called. Which is a poor show. I mean, I pride myself on my ability to speak my mother tongue correctly, without resort to loan word or neologism. Not having the right word in the right language fills me with ennui, just as much as it engenders schadenfreude in my acquaintances as they laugh at my failures.

Finally, I asked one of my colleagues at the office. I was wary of doing so, lest I got a reputation as some sort of vegetable aficionado, but I figured I could probably trust this one, after carefully sounding her out on adjacent topics like soup and hummus and seeing if she was startled.

She had to spend some time looking it up, and apparently the Cantonese for okra is either unpronounceable-unpronounceable (which is apparently meaningless anyway), or "goat's horns" because that's what they resemble. Except goats tend to have curved horns, and okra is quite straight. And in any case, she called it okra to, which, I suggest, shows that English is still winning out, even given the odd billion-or-so Chinese speakers.

Some of whom are very odd indeed, but that's for another day.


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