The Prompt: Dictionary, Shmictionary—Time to confess: tell us about a time when you used a word whose meaning you didn’t actually know (or were very wrong about, in retrospect).
Coffee With No Ceremony
I lived in Addis Ababa adjoining Mexico Square.
I ate injera every day. Had cornrows in my hair.
I thought I knew it all, and though my language skills were poor,
I knew enough Amharic to get by in any store.
Seated in a circle, on low stools around a flame,
We watched Demekech fan the fire—this ritual the same
in every house and every village all throughout the land.
The thick and sludgy coffee was always ground by hand.
Boiled in a clay carafe, then set aside to brew
as in another little pot, some corn kernels she threw.
The popcorn taken from the flame, the colo nuts were next.
Except—we found that we had none, and we were sorely vexed.
The coffee jug was sealed up with a fresh-wound plug of grass
ready for the pouring, but one aspect of our mass
was missing, so I said I’d go to buy some at the souk,
lest our hospitality give reason for rebuke.
These little shops were many, lining both sides of the street;
and at each one, I knew the custom—always did I greet
the owner with proper respect, and always, he said, “Yes!”
when I asked if he had colo, but I couldn’t guess
why no one ever seemed to want to sell any to me.
Always the same reaction—first the shock and then the glee.
So, finally, I walked back home. My failure I admitted.
Departing, I had felt so smart, but now I felt half-witted.
What had I done wrong? I knew that every shop had colo.
The problem must have been that I had gone to get them solo!
Returning empty-handed, I felt I was to blame.
Coffee without colo was a pity and a shame.
But my roommate and our guests and cook were really most surprised.
I must have asked for something else than colo, they surmised.
What did I ask for? When I told them, they dissolved in laughter.
They said that I was lucky not to get what I asked after.
For colo had two meanings, depending on the stress
put on the first syllable, and I had made a mess.
Instead of nuts, they told me (and this was just between us,)
I had asked each souk owner—if he had a penis!
(This is a true story of only one of the gaffes I became famous for in the year and a half I taught and traveled in Ethiopia in the period leading up to the revolution that deposed Haile Selassie.)