You may recall that not that long ago, I went to Suriname. I was thinking about this today because I really want to go to French Guiana. If you know your geography, that’s not a free-association, so much as it is a geographic connection.
But despite the capital city of French Guiana being called Cayenne (sounds tasty), the airport is called Rochambeau. Which, as it happens, is also what rock-paper-scissors is called in San Francisco, where my sister and her family now live. Which makes me think, is that how they get to decide who lands first at the airport at Rochambeau? Seems unlikely, what with French precision, and the few air connections French Guiana actually has with anyone, which mainly seem to be through Martinique and France, which, by the way, is going to make my visiting there more complex, though not impossible, I hope.
So I have no idea why rock-paper-scissors is called Rochambeaux (notice spelling difference) in San Francisco. But this leads me to a story about my ex-boss (also a foreigner), and our Chilean coworkers, back from when I worked in the administrative-educational part of a language institute.
One day, there was yet another bizarre request to our small team, this one from a television producer, who wanted us to do language coaching for a live news program. The project came to the institute, bounced to the academic department, and the offer went to my boss. He then sent out an email to the rest of the team entitled: Catchypoon.
Which I immediately knew was something of a “not-it” expression, meaning, essentially, “let’s draw straws.” I read the content, thought, this is a game I do not wish to play, and promptly thought about something else. Probably why when I brought food from home, the ladies in the cafeteria (which is called a casino in Chile) would only ever microwave it to tepid, as though I just wanted them to see what I’d brought to eat, and not actually heat it up. But I digress.
My Chilean coworkers asked in reference to the email? “Did you get that thing from (boss?)” And I said “yes.”
And they said, “Why does it say catchypoon,” which they pronounced with an American accent, sounding strangely very southern.
And I said, “I think he’s saying cachipún.”
And they all said, “ohhhhh,” and agreed that they didn’t want to do the task either.
You see, cachipún is what we call rock-paper-scissors in Chile. It’s called piedra, papel y tijera in some other Spanish-speaking countries, but here we say, ca-chi-pún, and pull our hands out from behind our back in the appropriate shape. Or we would if anyone ever had any intention of actually doing that project, which really no tenía nada que ver/was completely unrelated to what we actually did at the institute.
What I thought was most interesting about the interaction between the word “catchypoon” and my Chilean ex-coworkers was that they didn’t get what it meant. In this case, they couldn’t pronounce it out loud and adjust the accent until it made sense. I think they were very accustomed to doing that with words in English, but when it came to something that was supposed to be Spanish, but written in English phonetics, they couldn’t get their brains around it.
This is probably similar to how when I moved to Chile I couldn’t figure out how to make a long-distance phone call because I wasn’t putting a “carrier” code before the phone number. I could not for the life of me figure out what people were saying when they said the word “carrier” pronounced in Spanish. And they would say it more slowly, and loudly, cahh-di-er (that d represents the single-trill r in Spanish, better known as a flap). And I would repeat it back and they’d be all happy, and I still had no idea what they meant, nor how to make the call, though of course I eventually figured it out.
Which still hasn’t gotten me any closer to French Guiana, but it does have me researching what they call rock-paper-scissors in French (pierre-feuille-ciseaux), and wondering what they’d think I was saying if I tried to pronounce it with my (decidedly unsouthern) accent. Hint: the last word sounds a lot like see-saw from where I sit.