A perfectly ordinary word with an equally obvious meaning can undergo a dramatic (even embarrassing) change of personality when it crosses international boundaries. Perhaps the most obvious example is the famous tale of the English businessman in America who asked a secretary is she could lend him a rubber – unaware that in Stateside parlance he was asking for a condom when he really wanted an eraser.
In a similar vein, an Australian newcomer to South Africa tells of an equally perplexing encounter with our language quirks.
He is an optometrist by profession and was taken aback when a patient asked for new glasses because “the muti in the old ones is finished.”
To South Africans, such a turn to phrase might be deemed picturesque English, but there is no doubting the meaning: the glasses in question were no longer adequate and a stronger prescription was called for.
But it seems “muti” means something entirely different Down Under. There, believe it or not, muti is synonymous with what we would call (in best nudge-nudge wink-wink fashion) a spot of how’s your father.”
No wonder that our visiting Aussie was startled to discover that South Africans apparently do kinky things with their reading glasses.
“In Aussie muti means to schlenter,” he explained, only to be baffled once again – this time by the mystified reaction of the company, who still remained unenlightened.
“You mean as in crooked?” asked one of our number, trying to figure out a connection between the accepted South African usage of counterfeit and untrustworthy, and Australian indoor fun and games.
To add to the confusion, a comparatively recent immigrant from Britain admitted familiarity with schlenter as a term synonymous with hanky-panky, the difference being that used as a verb rather a noun.
She gave an example: “Take this Tory cabinet minister who’s been caught in the act with the actress, so to speak. That would be described as schlentering.”
If there is a common factor, it must lie in moral values- or the lack of them. The South African schlenter is immoral in business or personal dealings; the Aussi/Pommie counterpart lacks morals in more intimate activities.
The linguistics may be uncertain but there is one thing we can be sure of – it takes very powerful muti to cure either problem.