Led astray by my naïve trust in a native speaker, but I should have known better

Cartoon woman covering her face in shame
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19 November 2022

Students of the German language will be delighted to hear that they are not alone in their Teutonic travails. The Germans wrestle with their language, too. Of course, all native speakers of any language make mistakes in their mother tongue. In English, we struggle with affect/effect, sneaked/snuck (I still can’t stand the sound of the word “snuck,” personally), and compliment/complement. Then there’s “colonel”, which for historic reasons is pronounced exactly like one of those little yellow things on an ear of corn: kernel.

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But as I used to say to my English students: don’t blame me, I didn’t invent the language, I just teach it.

When you’re the one trying to master that particular tongue, it is oh-so gratifying to hear when a native speaker makes a mistake. One such incident with German happened to me in a setting so mundane, you’d wonder how anyone could get it wrong. No highbrow discussion of politics, nothing involving the finer points of Faust, nor a play by Goethe’s good buddy Schiller, nor–God forbid–anything involving French words, which, as we all know, only the French can pronounce correctly.

A colossal embarrassment–which is not to say an embarrassement–happened to my husband and me while buying a coffee table.

It transpired in the pre-children stage of our lives, when everything had to be trendy, chic, something to elicit “oohs” and “aahs” from our friends. None of the tables we saw in stores suited our fancy. This one was too big, that one too small, but unlike Goldilocks, we couldn’t find one that was j-u-ust right.

Instead, our gazes kept being drawn to the gleaming marble dining room tables surrounding us that we, unfortunately, weren’t shopping for. They were so beautiful, so upscale, so–Italian! Buonissimo!

What more could you want?

Well, something smaller. After all, we were looking for a coffee table. But in that category, there were only roughly hewn wooden, rickety rustic ones or overly conservative ones with curlicues on the table legs that reminded me of overstuffed armchairs accommodating equally overstuffed, cigar-puffing men in smoking jackets. So after touring several furniture stores, we gave up.

My mother-in-law, Inge, was sure she had the solution. Her good friend, Christina, had a very German-sounding profession, a Steinmetz, a mason. They make all kinds of things out of stone, she said. Statues, countertops and yes, tabletops.

Why not have a tabletop custom-made by her stonecutting soulmate?

This aligned perfectly with our mindset. A custom-made tabletop? Totally cool.

The idea grew increasingly appealing the longer we considered it.

“But not marble,” Inge continued. “Marble shatters. Drop anything heavy on it and BAM! It cracks.”

Oh. So, no fun tabletop after all.

“But wait!” she continued, “You can get it made from an equally beautiful material that is much more durable.

So, yes, a fun tabletop.

“What material is that?” I asked excitedly.

“Graphit,” she answered. “Graphite” in English.

Graphite? My first thought was of my brother-in-law. Ever since second grade, he has had a tiny bit of graphite lodged beneath his left eyebrow from when he was poked there with a pencil by some bully at school.

And we should get a table made of that?

My second thought was how a pencil’s graphite tip always breaks off when you over sharpen it. At school, this always provided an opportunity to get up from your seat and walk past that cute boy to get to the pencil sharpener on the wall in the back of the classroom. And if there’s no cute boy, well, at least it was an excuse to get out of your chair and delay class a few seconds longer.

And this was supposed to be the ideal material for a tabletop?

“Absolutely!” my mother-in-law insisted. “Christina told me!”

Well, Christina the Steinmetz would know, we figured. Maybe they heat it to 1,000 C° to harden it or use some other mysterious scientific process. 

We decided to trust Christina and set off to visit her workshop and store.

Pulling into the parking lot, we spotted a giant graveyard in front of the building. Wait, no, it was just a whole lot of tombstones on display. On closer inspection, they were just waiting for the right customer to drop dead and drop by, so to speak, as none of them bore any inscriptions. Yet.

We walked quickly past this tombstone forest. I looked around for Christina, hoping to get good service (and maybe even a discount) by talking directly to my mother-in-law’s friend.

With the way things turned out, I’m just as glad we didn’t even see her.

“Can I help you?” said a salesman.

“A tabletop for a coffee table, that’s what we’d like to have made.”

“No problem. How big?”

“One meter square.”

“Do you want rounded edges like these, or half-rounded like on this one?” he said, running his fingers along table edges to demonstrate the difference.

Half-rounded, we quickly decided. We were enchanted by the stone. It was just as beautiful as we imagined.

“Oh, and we’d like it to be made of Grafit,” my husband said. Graphite.

The salesman looked at him blankly. For five seconds. Five excruciating, interminable seconds.

Granit, you mean. You mean Granit.” Granit with an “n” means granite; Graphit with a “ph” is graphite.

“Yes! Yes, that’s what we meant, heh-heh, Granit, of course!”

Hahaha, that is so not what we meant. We were just too stupid to trust our lifelong experience at school and let Inge convince us that we could get a whole table made of pencil guts.

“Yes, indeed, we so look forward to having a coffee table made of GRANIT!” we repeated, placing special emphasis on the “n” to ensure the salesman that we knew exactly what we were talking about.

We managed to keep straight faces throughout the entire ordering process, right up until we got into the car and closed the doors safely.

Turning to look at each other, we both shouted simultaneously: “GRAPHIT?!”

Brenda Arnold

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