In Issue 2/2022

In my previous Tiro column, I talked about connotation as one of the resources which diamesic translators – professional reporters and transcribers – can rely on to understand what a speaker says.[1] In this column, I would like to address the related issue of polysemy, or words with more than one meaning, like bank (“credit institute” or “side of a river”) or light (“opposite of heavy” or “luminous source”). One very interesting case of polysemy is a word that refers to two different things depending on the language variety. For example, chips in British English refer to deep-fried potato sticks eaten when hot – akin to French fries –  while, in American English, they refer to thin fried potato slices eaten cold as a snack.

This type of polysemy may cause misunderstandings if the participants to a conversation attach different meanings to the same word. During the last Intersteno IPRS meeting,[2] John Vice, recently retired editor at the House of Lords Hansard office, and deputy editor-in-chief at Tiro, gave a presentation about how to report strange situations involving MPs joining committee or plenary meetings online from their homes or other non-institutional settings. One case that caught my attention was that of a European MP who joined an online meeting from his bed. At some point, the MP started grabbing his naked leg and the whole scene did not pass unnoticed. While describing it, the speaker said that he was “stroking his thigh”. The live subtitles, however, read “stroking his fanny”. This made the conference attendees laugh, but the English ones would have laughed harder than the others.

Why did the audience laugh? The reason is in the polysemy of the word fanny. In the linguistic variety of the subtitler (American English), the word means “bottom” and has a neutral connotation. It was used as a contextual synonym to thigh. The problem is that, in British English, the word refers to the female genitalia and is stylistically quite vulgar. This made the British audience laugh, perhaps more so as the MP was undoubtedly a man. Moreover, the vulgar register attributed to the word fanny in British English contrasted with the scientific setting of the conference and the Britishness of the speaker.

My curiosity turned, then, towards how the subtitles were received by both native and non-native speakers of English. So, I decided to make a quick survey among a sample of participants to check what they understood fanny to mean in a neutral sentence “European MPs stroked their fannies while meeting online”.[3] The answers were varied: of the 42 people asked, seven knew the meaning of the word fanny in American English and said bottom; five people remembered the scene shown by the conference speaker and also said bottom, but confessed that they did not know the meaning of the word fanny; four participants said female genitalia; and most of the attendees (26) said nose, head, hand, breast, or I don’t know, as they could only guess from the contextual information provided by the survey’s question.

The live subtitlers – two well-established professionals and world champions of fast writing – were American, so they did not have any problem with the word fanny, as they considered it absolutely plausible. Clearly, they had not realised that they misheard the word thigh and were not aware of the polysemy of the word fanny. This funny anecdote provides further evidence that diamesic translation is a very tricky discipline that always challenges professionals, even in apparently ideal situations: the speaker was a native speaker of English, clearly and slowly enunciating, used to speaking in front of an audience, and using multimodal tools (slides, pictures, videos) to support his speech. The lesson learnt is that polysemy in polycentric languages (like English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Turkish) is so relevant in international contexts that we should consider introducing it in training courses for live subtitlers alongside technical terminology and proper names.

Carlo Eugeni is Tiro’s Scientific Advisor. He wishes to thank the following people without whom this column could not have been written: Neil Holley, Sheryll Holley, Juli La Badia and Sheri Smargon.

[1] The full article is available here:

[2] For more information see programme online: 

[3] The survey’s question was slightly modified to avoid to involuntarily suggest a male-oriented answer.

Showing 4 comments
  • Georgette Sante

    Interesting article! Better late than never for reading it!

  • Sheryll Holley

    Sorry, I’m late to the party only just having ready this article! Well said Carlo! I remember the episode well and it still makes me chuckle now!

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