Pozor! Some words commonly misused by Czechs when speaking English

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I’m taking a break from renovating our new flat to unleash my inner pedant on you all.  Again.  I intend to do so in less grumpy and more helpful fashion than last time.

The front page of Mlada Fronta Dnes (a Czech national newspaper) is the inspiration for this post.

Yesterday’s lead article focused on proposed changes to the Czech language, such as whether it is ever ok to say “abysme” instead of the more formal “abychom” (note to self – must look at that chapter on ‘aby’ clauses again) and which words borrowed from English should be officially included into Czech.  Unfortunately for those of you who are keen to master my native tongue, many of the words which have been borrowed actually mean something quite different when used in English.

Unfair, isn’t it?  Worry not: Girl in Czechland is here to sort out some of the confusion.

1. Reconstruct

Here’s a bit of Czechlish to start us off.

“Unlike almost every other Czech citizen, I’m not going to the cottage this August weekend because I have to reconstruct my flat.”

Gasp! What misfortune could have befallen this unfortunate Czech speaker of English? Has their flat been reduced to a pile of rubble by a bolt of lightning in the recent storms?

Nope. They’re simply mistranslating “rekonstruovat” which in English actually means “to renovate” or “to do up” if you want to show off and use a phrasal verb. So for example, “Czechman and I are having a simply delightful time dedicating every minute of our spare time to doing up our new home together.”

Which we are. But more of that another time.

2. They wanted her to go to rehab 

Another dull afternoon stuck in a poorly ventilated office somewhere in Prague.  It could be worse: I could be a Hooters Girl. Or a management consultant.*

As part of the general chit chat which passes for fluency practice, I politely enquire how Bozena’s teenage daughter is getting along. Last week she had to be brought home from summer camp early after spraining her ankle.

“Monika is fine but she needs to go to rehab.”

Surely a week at summer camp somewhere in Bohemia hasn’t transformed Bozena’s thirteen year old daughter into Czechland’s answer to Amy Winehouse?

Thankfully not. Bozena simply mistranslated ‘rehabilitace.’  Today young Monika needs physio but as for the future – who knows?

3. Tunnelling your way to a quick profit

This is a common error so please do pay attention.

If you want to discuss the financial dodgy dealings which are apparently rather common here in Czechland, and you find yourself using the word “tunnel”, be prepared to be met with bemused looks on the faces of your native speaker audience.

You probably mean asset stripping.So for example, rather than saying “The Russian mafia bought the bank and then tunnelled it” which makes it sound vaguely like they were locked in the vault during a failed robbery and then tried desperately to escape before the police arrived, you should say, “Those damn Russians bought the bank and then stripped its assets.”  Simple, eh?

If you’re the lead character in The Shawshank Redemption, you can tunnel your way out of a high security prison with a lot of patience and a tea spoon. Moles do a lot of tunnelling too but I’ve never heard of one being prosecuted for fraud.

Sorry, that last bit was supposed to be funny. I think I’ll stick to the bad puns.

Greetings from Czechland!

*Apologies to any Hooters girls or management consultants reading this.


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26 Responses to Pozor! Some words commonly misused by Czechs when speaking English

  1. Wow you’re really on a roll GIC – loving the revived enthusiasm 🙂

  2. Tessien

    Very useful, thanks! Another quite frequent one is “aktualni” translated as “actual” instead of “current”.

    Btw, it’s “rekonstruovat”, not “rekonstrukovat” 🙂

    • girlinczechland

      Oops! And I *did* try to make sure this one didn’t have any typos 🙁

      • EOJ

        “a bolt of lightening”?

      • girlinczechland

        Oops! Well spotted 🙂 It’s because that’s the way the word is pronounced (or the way I pronounce it anyway). Will make sure I go and correct it right now – and sign myself up for a proofreading course!

  3. Sean

    The article in the paper was in reaction to my former boss 🙂 He always starts a controversy.
    He was pointing out that if people use the abysme form in the Parliament that we should accept it in the ‘standard’ language and maybe mark abychom as old-fashioned, but many people just cringe to hear abysme and so it is still an issue. (Prescriptive linguists try to prescribe the ‘correct’ forms, whereas descriptivists describe the language as it exists and Dr. Oliva is clearly a descriptivist – as director of the Institute for the Czech Language, he makes no pretense of ‘defending the Czech language’ as the L’Académie française would defend French from Franglais.)
    Most loan words from German have their original meaning, but the English loan words are often used incorrectly – e.g. ‘komfort’ in the Czech sense is closer to convenience in meaning.
    Dr. Oliva’s point about loans from English was about verbs though and they are generally being assimilated and conjugated according to Czech rules. The spelling may differ though – gůglit or vygůglovat is not always accepted for vyhledat or vyhledávat informace na internetu, but it is becoming more common – like mailovat (for sending email, sometimes spelled as imejl or the spelling Mickey Mauz for Mickey Mouse). How assimilated a word becomes and how quickly it is assimilated of course is what they study at the Institute for the Czech Language. (The shift from vygoolovat to vygůglovat for instance.)
    They even publish a dictionary of neologisms including words like metrosexual:

    • girlinczechland

      Hello again Sean,
      Thanks for explaining the nitty-gritty of the article: I only really got the general gist if I’m honest. As I said, I really must hit those Czech grammar books again if my aim of total assimilation is ever to become a reality 🙁
      I know we’ve all more or less accepted that English is now the international language of communication and therefore it’s pretty much inevitable that English words will end up in other languages. However, I did wonder how English people would feel if the shoe were on the other foot – if Czech had by some strange chain of historical events become the number one language of communication and we ended up having to assimilate lots of strange words with constanant clusters beginning with Z! Just a bizarre flight of fancy I know, but still…

  4. Hi!
    About the “tunneling” word, I believe it can be used in English with meaning “expropriation by minority of shareholders.” It was coined as a term in this paper: http://www.nber.org/papers/w11883

    Oh, I’ve found a wikipage too 🙂 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunneling_%28fraud%29


    PS: The most common greeting word in Czech Republic was adopted from English – Ahoj.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Zdenek,
      There has been some discussion of this on Twitter too 🙂 I’m not an economics expert by any means but I think most educated non-experts wouldn’t have a clue what ‘tunnelling’ was in this sense but might have a vague inkling what ‘asset stripping’ was about. Still, I do think ‘tunnelling’ is a better metaphor to describe the financial dodgy dealing at work in this kind of fraud: sneaking the money out while keeping the facade of the company intact. Hope I’ve understood this correctly!
      P.S We do use ‘Ahoy’ (English spelling) as a greeting but only between fellow sailors 🙂 For that reason, I thought this word was hilarious when I first started learning Czech 🙂

  5. Eso

    It’s funny article as reconstruction and rehab originate from Latin and tunnel is from French.

    • That is true, and if Czech speakers try and speak those languages, they’ll find the friends less false. However the fact remains that it is English that they are trying to speak when they produce Czechlish. The fact that Czechlish has so many of the same features as Franglais, Denglish or Polglish probably shows that it’s us that are the odd ones out, but nevertheless if you want to speak English, you may as well simply be aware of it. English won’t change its meanings back to more etymologically correct ones just because more foreigners have decided to use it.

      On the other hand foreign languages are very good at taking purely English works and rendering them strangely. The French use the term “le camping, le living, le parking” for campsite, living-room and carpark respectively. “Non-stop” has become pan-continental for what Americans would actually describe as 24/7, while most English natives will use “non-stop” rather to describe continual hectic activity without a moment to catch up with less immediate tasks. The biscuit is probably taken by German, which uses such terms as “trendy” – definitely not a trendy words these days in the UK, “Hit-Parade” which is equally not the term of art, and has not ben for pover twenty years, and “Handy” (pronounced “hendy”) which refers to nothing other than the mobile phone we know and love. It is indeed a handy device, but then again so is a Swiss pocket knife, but I wouldn’t expect people to start ringing me up on one.

      • girlinczechland

        Hello Viktor – nice to have you back!
        I’m not so aware of these German misappropriations (if that’s what they should be called – or perhaps just quirky coinages?) but I know plenty of French ones, the funniest of which I think is ‘un relooking’ or in English, a makeover.

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Eso,
      I take your point : in that sense I guess the title of the article is a little misleading. However, I think the main point was supposed to be that words which may mean one thing in Czech and also exist in English don’t necessarily have the same meaning. This happens in other languages too as Viktor has pointed out in his comment.
      Anyway, I hope my reply satisfies your inner pedant, just as writing the article satisfied mine:)

  6. Love this! I feel like most Czech people have big problem even with easy words – such as pension- it is not a hotel! And my personal pet peeve – informations- it is not a word, people!!! 🙂

  7. Ajtacka

    I love this! Also:
    “aktuality” as Tessien mentioned
    “akce”: “Tesco has an action on these items” or “my school has an action on the weekend”
    my personal pet peeve, “author” for any kind of creator (of a photograph, painting, musical piece etc)

    And similar to “informations” is “advices”. I’ll give you only one ‘advice’: it’s not a plural word, dammit!

  8. Branduin

    My favorite English confusion involved the word ‘toiletries’ and whether it meant one of our athletes needed to bring her own toilet paper on the overnight. I totally understand the confusion. Explaining things in Czech, however… More complicated.

  9. Not used that often by Czech, but can be tricky — pathetic. The Czech word “patetický” means something different than pathetic, but can confuse some as it sounds like it was derived from it.

    I have once heard someone looking for a hockey “dres” (jersey), but as he didn’t know the translation, he used the Czech word with an English accent, funny confusion as the person was male 🙂

    While there are many words that people mix up (can’t think of any more now, but I myself do this quite often), the most common mistake is the omission of articles (or overuse, as you can see in this post :-). Probably caused by the teaching methods here, where vocab is usually very important, not (advanced) grammar.

    • Eh, “by Czechs”. Didn’t mean to make (not do, finally thought of a common error) a mistake in the 6th word.

      That reminds me of the usage of “(the) Czech Republic” and “Czech”. I heard an American saying “I am originally from Czech” — wouldn’t mind from a Czech speaker, but I think this adjective/noun confusion is common among English speaking people, especially when mentioning this glorious country 🙂

  10. Mara

    hey girlinczechland! my boyfriend who lives in Prague is actually going to reconstruct his flat and in he often goes to a pub with his ex-schoolmates =) i just stumbled across your blog because some guy on couchsurfing.org mentioned it and it’s awesome! i love the way you write things and a lot you write is really true! I always have to laugh when i find something i’ve also experienced with my “czechman”. i hope you keep on writing your blog!
    ~Mara, a girl from switzerland who spends all her holidays in czechland xD

    • girlinczechland

      Hey Mara,

      Glad you’ve managed to find yourself a decent Czechman. It’s my opinion that many of the good ones are living abroad – it means that they’ve managed to untie themselves from their Mamka’s apronstrings 😉


  11. Nice blog! I lived in the Czech Republic myself for one year, an I speak czech allright. But before I did that and spoke to my Czech friends in English and I had a lot of fun listening to how they put their words! Like when one person tries to explain that he were there with another person, it turns into we were there:) (ex. Byli jsme tam s Petrem.) 🙂

    • girlinczechland

      Hey Guro,

      I don’t think I’ve earned the right to laugh too hard at the errors Czechs make in English until I’ve mastered the fine art of communicating my phone number which unfortunately has two 4’s in it 🙁


  12. The one that always amuses and concerns me in equal measure is ‘reality’ (instead of realty). As in ‘Buying a Second Life home with my amassed fortune of Linden dollars makes little sense to my Czech friends, as they only deal in reality’.

  13. Pingback: Making your Czech home a castle – and stumbling on history | GIRL IN CZECHLAND

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