Early on while I was learning Russian, I remember learning the phrase не курить ("nye koo-reeht") meant no smoking. There may be better ways of saying it, (before you rush to the bottom to tell me I'm an idiot, read this), but this one will always stick in my mind because the moment I heard it, I noticed that it sounded strikingly similar to Nicorette, the brand name of a nicotine chewing gum meant to help people quit smoking.
Here in the US, and I assume it's probably true throughout the English-speaking world, people say the word "pew" to indicate that something stinks. Even after nearly a year of hearing, seeing, and saying this word, I can't seem to get that association out of my mind.
For me, più grande doesn't just mean bigger, it means "bigger, and a bit stinky". That's a tough association to break!
And another tough association to break is the word bimbo, which is a very Italian way to talk about a baby. Unfortunately, upon hearing this word, I can't help immediately thinking of a stupid blonde girl.
When my friend in Milan told me he was excited about having a bimbo, I asked "what if your wife finds out?", and that led to a Laurel & Hardy style dialog that still makes me laugh when I think about it.
This isn't a complete phrase in Italian, but rather the beginning of an idea. Giuro che... means I swear that..., and is generally followed by the fact or promise that you are swearing to be true.
To me, this one sounds like "you're okay", which is a complete phrase in English, and I occasionally hear it as such and process that as the completion of thought, only to find myself confused when the second half comes!
Con cui sta ...
This is another incomplete thought that trips me up. The conjunction con cui sta [something] means with whom [something] is happening.
When Italians get to talking quickly (which is... um... always!), this phrase sounds like conquista, which means conquest or is conquering, and once again, my brain falls apart a little bit in processing what I'm hearing.
Ma fa caldo!
This one is my revenge, because it's not something I hear terribly often, so it's not playing tricks on my brain. Instead, this is one that I like to say myself, to play tricks on everyone else's brain!
In essence, "ma fa caldo!" means "gosh, it's hot!" But when you say it, it sounds like swearing in Italian. And even a bit like swearing in English.
Actually, this get's me to imagining what kinds of neurolinguistic fun and mental manipulation games could be played amongst polyglots.
I remember during the 2008 US Presidential election, when Barack Obama was campaigning, he often talked about the country needed a "new direction", and in particular, I noticed he over-pronounced the "i" in direction, such that if you weren't paying close attention, you might almost believe he just said "nude erection". Hmmmm.... talk about sexy politics!
I wonder what perfectly normal, everyday phrases in various languages could be used to create interesting mental imagery only understandable to a polyglot. It you think of any, leave a comment!