In 1855 Pedro Carolino decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook despite the fact that he didn’t actually speak English. The result is one of the all-time masterpieces of unintentional comedy, a language guide full of phrases like “The ears are too length” and “He has spit in my coat.” In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Carolino’s phrasebook, which Mark Twain called “supreme and unapproachable.”
We’ll also hear Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” rendered in jargon and puzzle over why a man places an ad before robbing a bank.
Sources for our feature on Pedro Carolino’s disastrous phrasebook:
(This edition, like many, incorrectly names José da Fonseca as a coauthor. Fonseca was the author of the Portuguese-French phrasebook that Carolino used for the first half of his task. By all accounts that book is perfectly competent, and Fonseca knew nothing of Carolino’s project; Carolino added Fonseca’s name to the byline to lend some credibility to his own book.)
Carolino’s misadventure inspired some “sequels” by other authors:
English as She Is Wrote (1883)
English as She Is Taught (1887)
As long as we’re at it, here’s Monty Python’s “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch:
Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy rendered in jargon, from Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing (1916):
To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.