One of the joys of learning a foreign language is that you come across strange expressions that completely confuse you.
I was once driving behind a bus which transported shoppers to and from a out-of-town shopping centre. On the back of the bus was an advert with a bird in a cage and the text ‘no canaries inside‘. I could have overtaken the bus, it was moving a lot slower than my car, but I wanted to work out what on earth the advert meant. If you wanted to encourage people to use your bus service, then why is it an advantage that there are no canaries inside?
My mind raced, going through all the possibilities I could think of:
- Obviously, it wasn’t literal. If there was a canary inside the bus, then it would be a selling point. No need to stress that there aren’t any.
- Canaries came from the Canary Islands originally, hence the name. Maybe the advert was selling holidays? Nope, still made no sense.
- Besides being pets, canaries were used in coal mines to detect poisonous gases – maybe the advert meant that there’s no danger of being intoxicated by fumes in this bus service? Hardly a selling point.
- The most famous canary I knew was Tweety Bird from the Warner Bros cartoons. Maybe I was Sylvester the cat and I should hunt the bus to the shopping centre? No, that still didn’t fit.
I was confused…completely confused.
Later that day I asked my wife and she explained that a ‘kanar‘ is a plain clothes ticker inspector who rides buses in search of fare-dodgers.
Ah-hah, I finally understood the advert – the bus service was free so there’s no danger of getting caught by any ticket inspectors!
Like a child, I asked lots of Poles why ticket inspectors are called ‘canaries’ but they didn’t know. Someone somewhere probably had a good reason for calling a ticket inspector a ‘canary’ and it caught on. Now it’s part of the language.
And that’s the fun of learning a foreign language. You come across words and expressions that will confuse you, surprise you and amuse you. Just enjoy the ride!