There are so many potential language traps one can fall into when living abroad. English isn’t just English – there’s the Queen’s English, American English, and many other varieties, including Kenyan English! I’ve made many English foibles over the years; calling underwear “pants” in the UK, pronouncing the “H” in “herbal” in the US, using the word “trousers” with my American family (that just gets me laughed out of the house)… But nothing really prepared me for the Kenyan reaction to my use of what I thought was an innocent word: SILLY.
In the United States, the word “silly” is an innocent, playful word. It means goofy, fun-loving, and joyful. When playing with a child, you might call them a “silly goose,” or a “silly billy.” When someone thanks you for doing them a favor, you might say, “Oh, don’t be silly,” meaning, “Of course I’m happy to help you, don’t mention it!” If you crack up over a joke, you might say that you “laughed yourself silly.”
For my Kenyan readers, I assure you, none of these uses would be found offensive in the US. But I have certainly discovered that this is not so here in Kenya, or anywhere in the region. The first time I learned that the word “silly” was offensive was in Uganda. My husband and I were working there, and one of our Ugandan staff came into my office to thank me for letting him have a day off. I said, “Don’t be silly! You have annual leave, of course you can take it!” My husband happened to be standing in the office with me. His jaw dropped, and his eyes opened wide. Once our Ugandan colleague left, he whispered to me, “You can’t call someone silly! What are you thinking?!”
I was shocked – what could possibly be wrong with a word like “silly?” A lot, it turns out. To a Kenyan, the word silly means stupid, absurd, or foolish. And, interestingly enough, that’s exactly what silly means. When I looked it up in my dictionary just now, this is what I found:
So, technically speaking, “silly” is a fairly derogatory word. But in actual usage, in the US at least, it really isn’t meant (or taken) that way.
Silly is fairly ingrained in my every-day lexicon – I use it ALL THE TIME with my kids. I’ve learned not to say it to our Kenyan family and friends, but I use it at home with my kids on a daily basis. This division worked quite well until Claire started school. Oh man. She said “silly” in front of her teacher, and the teacher was NOT happy. So then I had to teach Claire to watch her usage as well. I taught her that “silly” is okay in our house, but many people don’t like the word, including her teacher. So now she knows…
The English language is a minefield, and there are so many potential language traps to fall into. What are some of yours?