Rebellious words

A short examination of those words with which one “has a thing", that produce an allergic reaction in the interpreter as soon as she/he hears it, that block the flow of interpreting time after time.

Tongue twisters, I suspect, are found in all languages. As a linguist I can’t imagine that the phenomenon wouldn’t occur in languages I don’t know. (Dear reader, please correct me if you have proof to the contrary!) The way certain pairings of words get jammed on the tongue in one’s effort to push them out of the mouth is independent of whether the accursed combination of syllables is on the long or short side, fortuitous but completely within the bounds of accepted grammar, or strung together intentionally for the desired effect, such as those sentences we are asked to say quickly three times in succession: “Ripe white wheat reapers reap ripe white wheat right.”

A tongue twister is defined by its propensity to provoke pronunciation problems for just about anybody who attempts to articulate it. In a sense it is like a virus: it strikes at a collective, provoking the same symptoms in each individual. And as with a virus, a minority seems to be immune!

What I call “rebellious words” are in my view related to tongue twisters, but have characteristics all their own. I’ll start by offering a simple definition: A rebellious word is one that blocks the flow of interpreting time and again, establishing a pattern; a word with which one “has a thing,” as people are apt to say; a word that produces a kind of allergic reaction in the interpreter as soon as she/he hears it.

All other interpreters might find the term perfectly harmless, but when you encounter one of your personal “rebellious words,” you must intensify your concentration to get through it, dedicating comparatively much more energy to this specific obstacle than to other parts of the discourse that are visibly more technical and difficult.

A purely professional phenomenon

A “rebellious word” is rebellious only when one is working. It infects us when we are speaking into the open microphone with the pressure on, either from a fast speaker or one of the countless other factors that inject pressure into the booth. I suspect that radio and television announcers also have specific words that they repeatedly wrestle with.

During simultaneous interpretation some rebellious words are difficult to pronounce for purely phonetic reasons. After all, our work also depends on tongue speed, just as playing a piano depends on finger speed.

Between twisters and rebels

In daily life words are usually “harmless,” pronounceable without much difficulty except perhaps for the presence of a small voice somewhere telling us that this one is hackneyed or that one will only be comprehensible to people who have been initiated into the jargon of the field under discussion. But when we are mounted at the mic and no longer moving at a brisk walk or even a trot, but speeding along at a gallop and accelerating toward a full gallop, these same words show their treacherous tendency to twist tongues. An example certainly familiar to many a Spanish booth colleague: the steadiness needed with alemanes and animales (Germans and animals). It’s not a question of a Freudian slip; just the way an “l” can slide into an “n” when one is speaking full throttle into the microphone.

Since the phrase “Freudian slip” has slipped in, allow me to take this opportunity to confess my most rebellious word, the one that got me started thinking about what I am now trying to describe: solidaridad. I am not aware of any of my colleagues having trouble with this word, but when I hear its equivalent in any language I have to double my concentration in order to pronounce it correctly in Spanish. And if the speaker is fast, by the time I am on the third syllable (“da”), I am already praying that I can get the rest of the word out without my tongue going all funny.

Curiously, other terms such as comunitarizar and comunitarización (both coined within the Community to signify that a national or intergovernmental competence will henceforth come under the decision making process of the European Community), which get stuck on the tongue of many a colleague, do not bother me in the least even at top speed.

My conclusion: there is a twilight zone between the tongue-twisting word and the truly rebellious word.

Custom-made rebels

Truly rebellious words follow their own dynamics and are specific to each interpreter.

There are those that, although not resistant to interpretation, do demand more attention because they can distract the interpreter through an association of ideas. I am sure that the readers of this article can each come up with a personal list of words and expressions that lead their minds astray or awaken giggles. At times rebellious words stay that way for but a single meeting or conference; at others they rebel for years!

Among adults I can admit that there was a time that whenever “powdered milk” was mentioned (and it is a rather frequently used term in the Dairy Products Management Committee), I had to grab on tight to the wheel to stay on line to the correct term - “leche en polvo” - and not be distracted by thoughts of “el polvo de la leche” (slang for an awesome f***). I take solace in the knowledge that moluscos bivalvos has a similar effect on some colleagues. (“Freud lässt grüssen,” as they say in German.)

At times a pre-existing association of ideas gets in the way of interpreting. I don’t wish to be overly abstract, so let me offer as an example an experience I had in the booth a few years back - and thank God this one didn’t hang around to haunt me for more than a week! I had just returned from Colombia where I had been vividly impressed by the police escort that had been arranged for the European Parliament delegation that I was accompanying, and also by the terrifying number of kidnappings that are perpetrated in the country every year. Shortly thereafter a large earthquake struck Colombia and the matter was included on the list of “Topical and Urgent Motions” to be discussed by the Parliament (at the time the press were running daily articles on the victims of the seísmo). Around the same time a delegation composed of relatives of a person kidnapped by ETA visited Strasbourg and I was assigned to their meeting with the President of the European Parliament. The rest you can imagine. All week long I had to struggle to assure that earthquakes remained seísmos and didn’t get mixed up with secuestros (Spanish for kidnappings) and vice-versa.

The same thing still happens to me with equivalents of países and partidos (countries and parties). When a speaker simply talks about “parties”, partidos slides out unobstructed. But if a qualifying adjective is attached, as in “political parties” or “member parties”, I have to make an extra effort to assure that the word países doesn’t slip through my lips instead. It never ceases to amaze me – and that is precisely why I want to share experiences of this nature with colleagues reading this article – that, for example, Oberschenkelknochenbruch (German for fracture of the femur) does not perturb me in the least, while an easy word like parties leads to its easy equivalent – partidos - being pushed around by the more-than-ordinary paises.

Capricious Rebels

I would like to thank various colleagues for bringing to my attention the existence of a subset of rebellious words that, for lack of a better name, I have come to call “capricious” because they create difficulties only from a single passive language for any given interpreter. A quick survey of Spanish booth colleagues has resulted in a winner - chantaje - with soborno coming in a close second (blackmail and bribery respectively). But I’ll be the first to admit that I have a lot more to learn – and hear – about this subset.

Reformable Rebels

Since the words I am talking about are all rebels with a cause, if one hopes to rehabilitate them one must first uncover the reason why they rebel against the microphone.

At times, however, it does help simply to flee the booth at the first opportunity after a “rebel” attack and head straight for the nearest wall to pound your head against it. But it’s probably a better idea to make an on-the-spot confession to your booth partners. This action tends to provide immunization against the term becoming chronically rebellious – and it hurts a lot less too!

Other tricks include pinching yourself as soon as you hear a word that has been previously identified as an “enemy” - or thrusting out you arms in a way that means “en garde!”.

Even though some interpreters may share certain problematic terms, rebellious words are by definition personal and each of us must eventually find personalized antidotes. As for me, I now realize that since I started working on this article I haven’t had a single problem with solidaridad.

Elsa Michael Sacristán is a staff interpreter at the European Parliament.

(English version by Luigi Luccarelli who confesses to confusing antidotes with anecdotes and vice-versa.)

Recommended citation format:
Elsa-Maria MICHAEL. "Rebellious words". September 17, 2003. Accessed June 6, 2020. <>.