If you had asked me prior to last month about “a donkey’s breakfast” I no doubt would have conjured a visual similar to the photo below. Yes, since Thing #2 climbs on everything, particularly animals, he likely would have been included in my imagery. In terms of the actual “breakfast” I likely would have guessed that donkeys eat whatever they find laying around.
I recently learned, however, on a tour of the working replica of Captain Cook’s famous ship, the HMB Endeavour, that “a donkey’s breakfast” refers to a canvas sack stuffed with straw that sailors used as a thin, lousy mattress.
I don’t believe that I would have made this connection on my own, which reminded me of just how estranged words and terminology can be when separated by time, or geography. While English is my native tongue, I found that many of the accents and terms I encountered in Australia and New Zealand created serious doubts that all of us were indeed speaking the same language.
Standing below deck on the Endeavor, still staring at this alternative version of a donkey’s breakfast, I thought about how I could soon explain this new term to my friends back in Pura Vida. I then experienced a pang of guilt regarding my complete failure to practice my Spanish during our trip and, to make matters worse, realized that I’d once again forgotten the Spanish word for straw.
A quick check of Google’s Translate App gave me the translation of straw: paja. It also provided several other possible meanings, including: thatch, chaff, padding, waffle, and one more potential definition that I had not expected to see.
The most polite way to convey this final definition would be to refer to a friend-of-a-friend’s son who, many years ago, suffered from an affliction, or predilection, for keeping his hands solely to himself—preferably below the Mason/Dixon line. Such was his fervor that his those around him, including his family, began calling him “The Master-Blaker.”
This potential definition was not a happy development for me as I now had built-in fear that explaining the donkey’s breakfast anecdote to any of my friends back in Costa Rica could potentially result in conveying that it was a canvas sack stuffed with Master-Blaking. The only way to get in front of this problem involved asking one of my bilingual Costa Rican friends for their take on whether “paja” was a safe word to use in mixed company (with the Master-Blaking element strictly an issue of context) or if instead it was a categorical no-go as “paja” meant “Master-Blaking” in all instances when uttered in Costa Rica.
There is historical precedent for my fear, which was reinforced later that same day when we had lunch with a wonderful Australian couple. Once the ice was thoroughly broken and it was obvious that all involved had a good sense of humor I asked the husband about something that had troubled me since our arrival in Australia.
“So there’s a Mitsubishi model here that seems to have a very odd name.”
“Which one is that?”
I leaned in, conspiratorially, and whispered, “The Pajero.”
My sensitivity to this particular word came from a conversation I had early on in Costa Rica when I asked a local for the name of a bird perched in a nearby tree. I unfortunately used the word pajero in place of the actual word for bird–pájaro–to hilarious, unintended effect.
My new Australian friend looked at me curiously, and for a moment I thought I’d offended him. It turned out that he wasn’t offended, just truly confused. After he puzzled over it for another few seconds he slapped his leg and laughed, “Ah, you mean the Pajero mate? Yeah, that’s a good one.”
Now it was my turn to be momentarily confused as his version of the name had a hard “j” conveyed with a thick Australian accent. I had used the Spanish pronunciation, where the “j” sounds like an “h.” From his laughter, however, I felt confident that we were discussing the same word.
I smiled and, with a bit more confidence, offered, “In Costa Rica that name means something that you wouldn’t want to have in big letters on the back of your car. What does it mean here?”
My new Aussie friend laughed. “Well, here it means you’re talking about a wanker.”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, wanker is the U.K. equivalent of Master-Blaker, or, as we now know, pajero. I suppose Mitsubishi felt relatively safe using Pajero for what is otherwise known as a Montero in a part of the world where the Spanish language is largely non-existent. English speaking Australians have, however, figured it out (at least the ones not driving around with the equivalent of Master-Blaker emblazoned all around them).
It could be said that an attempt to learn another language is a gift that keeps on giving on many levels. Some of these levels include trepidation, confusion, and downright embarrassment. Thing #1 once famously stated that, “All of this would be a lot easier if everyone just spoke English.” While I can’t embrace the attitude, I definitely see his point. At times trying to learn another language feels like a lot of Master-Blaking, creating a desire to go lie down on my donkey’s breakfast.