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By Alex Gross & Ilene Astrahan Gross

This is another book of words and pictures for adults, in this case humorously illustrating the divergence in meaning between two words spelled the same way but belonging to two different languages—for example, mist in English becomes "manure" in German, an ape becomes a "bee" in Italian, pain becomes "bread" in French, etc. Just a look at a few of the illustrations for now. If you come back in a month or so, we'll probably have some different ones. You'll also find the introduction to the book following these drawings and a report for prospective publishers on the book's current status.

The illustrations are by Ilene Astrahan Gross.

Please note that the typography suffers in this electronic version from the classic distortions imposed by scanning images into the HTML medium. In other words, the type looks a lot better in the original.

Introduction to the Book

You are in a Parisian antique shop and have finally located the chair you had been searching for. The stern matronly shop owner approaches, and you say in your halting French "Your chair is very beautiful. How much does it cost?" (Votre chair est très belle. Combien coute-t-elle?)

If you are lucky, she will only shout obscenities at you and throw you out of the shop. If you are less lucky, she may call the police and have you arrested. But if she should smile coyly and name a price, you may have a different kind of bargain on your hands.

You have wandered into the world of Word-Warps, where a simple everyday word like "chair" turns out to mean the secrets of the flesh in French. We read increasingly today of time-warps and space-warps, those tricks of science fiction that make it possible to move between eras and galaxies at the flick of a switch. But Word-Warps are almost as awesome and can involve a similar sense of dislocation. Suddenly the most familiar and ordinary words, the customary furniture of our mind, can twist us into another world and let us down with a resounding bump.

It is this bump, this sense of dislocation that distinguishes a "Word-Warp" from other better-known figures of speech, plus the fact that it involves not one but two—or more—languages. Word-Warps are essentially visual puns, standing arrogantly astride the borders between a pair of languages and cultures, with one leg planted firmly in each. Spelled precisely the same in both languages but with remarkably different meanings, they have the potential for stirring up international misunderstandings and are capable at the very least of throwing would-be language students for a loop.

Grammarians have no term for such an aberration: the best they might do is to call it an "interlinguistic homograph," for until now the term homograph has been used only to describe words in a single language, such as lead (the metal) and lead (to lead), that are written the same but have two different meanings. Nor of course is "homonym" the right term, as it applies only to two words in the same language, such as "sail" and "sale," that merely sound alike.

At their very best, Word-Warps can even provide the starting point for profound philosophical debate. Indeed, the fact that our word "pain" means "bread" in French has led an entire school of philosophers, together with their psychologist and sociologist cohorts, to doubt whether human perception of reality can ever be truly universal. Whether or not they are correct, Word-Warps can also function on a more basic level, as in the case of the English word "pet," which turns out to mean "fart" in French. Here and elsewhere they poke very direct and effective fun at our fondly nursed notions that words are the things they represent.


We would like to take advantage of our position as inventors and/or discoverers of Word-Warps to suggest some basic rules that must be followed, though we realize that not everyone may agree to them. We believe we have probably already ferreted out most of the common Word-Warps between English and four European languages. But that doesn't mean we have found all of them, and there is still room for further research. If you should happen on any further Word-Warps, by all means send us a note care of the publishers (or for that matter an email message). Whether or not you choose to do so, here are some ideas you may want to keep in mind about what Word-Warps are and are not.

As noted, they are not the same as homonyms, nor are they obliged to sound alike at all—in fact, because of different pronunciation rules in foreign languages, it would be quite surprising if they did sound exactly alike. All they need to do is look alike. They are also in no way related to what we learned in school as synonyms and antonyms, which of course refer to words of similar and opposite meanings respectively. A set of Word-Warps need not be opposites, though frequently they might as well be.

At their most persuasive they also have nothing to do with "cognate words." These are similar words that have come to exist in two languages through borrowing or parallel development, such as "table" in both French and English or "finger" in both German and English. Neither of. these examples, nor their countless cousins, can be called true Word-Warps, because they have the same meaning in both languages. There is no dislocation of meaning here, only continuity.

We suggest the following rules for those of you who want to start hitting the dictionaries in search of Word-Warps (though we've warned you once that we've probably already found most of them):

1. A Word-Warp must be spelled exactly the same in two (or more) languages. What linguists term "False Friends" or Faux Amis rarely qualify—e.g., French avertir, meaning in fact "to warn," is not a Word-Warp because there is no English word spelled exactly the same way. No exceptions are to be made for foreign accent marks, apostrophes, hyphens, abbreviations, proper names, or capital letters (except for German. where all, nouns are necessarily capitalized).

2. True Word-Warps can exist only between languages that share an alphabet. This lets Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic out, simply because systems of English transliteration for these languages are not universally agreed upon and can sometimes be quite arbitrary. And needless to say, Chinese characters with their many transliterations don't stand a chance.

3. A Word-Warp cannot be a set of cognate words--it must have totally different meanings in the two languages involved, so that a warping or discontinuity is created. Thus, a border-line usage—like French bond, a jump or leap, is acceptable, even though it is cognate with the English word "bound" on the grounds that it has no relationship with the English word "bond" at all.

4. Relatively everyday words should be chosen. There is really no point in using dictionary rarities or terms limited to technical usage, as few people will recognize them and get the point. (An example here might be German His for English "B-Sharp " in music).

5. The main dictionary entry should be chosen and not some abstruse conjugated or declined form of the foreign word. Thus, we do not feel that the Italian feminine plural care, for "dear female persons," is a truly satisfactory Word-Warp for the English word "care," even though in some cases simple plural forms may qualify.

We hold out these rules as an ideal to be pursued, and we realize that we ourselves have not fully observed them in every case. Thus, we have violated our own rule on proper nouns by including "Ritz," frequently the generic term for a luxury hotel, because its German meaning "scratch" seemed too good not to include. But if we have also neglected to list a well-known brand of American beer whose name means "a man's fly" in German, it's probably because we don't want to be sued by the beer's makers. The Word-Warps illustrated are of course simply those that most easily lend themselves to illustration. A more complete list of Word-Warps, together with some brief Word-Warp "poems," appears at the end of the book.

We wish you all happy hunting in your quest for Word-Warps and hope you will never receive teeth in your cars, be given willows instead of sauce, or get lost driving through the manure.

The status of this book:
so far uncirculated among publishers,
WORD-WARP at present consists
of fifteen drawings like those shown above
plus verbal layouts for fifty more
which lend themselves to illustration.
An appendix contains something close
to the full word-warp vocabulary
for English into French, German,
Italian, and Spanish, some 170 words
in all, plus four "poems" composed
entirely of word-warps from each
of the four languages. It can
easily be completed and like
QWERTYUIOP is looking
for the right publisher.

You can see some examples
of Ilene's art work as a computer artist
by clicking

These excerpts and images are
Copyright © 2000 by Alexander Gross and
Ilene Astrahan Gross. They
may be reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. They may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
All Rights Reserved.

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