I only today, at 28 years of age, realized what the word “chain-smoking” means. I’ve been aware of the word for at least twenty years, and I’ve always thought it simply meant “smoking a lot”. A couple of hours ago, I read a passage in Alex Garland’s The Beach saying how his main character “chain-smoked two and a half cigarettes” while waiting, and it dawned on me that of course it means smoking several cigarettes in direct sequence. It’s so obvious now that I can’t believe I’ve missed it.
Another example is from a Mad Magazine cartoon I read as a kid. I’m not a native English speaker, and this cartoon was published in English with translation for those who didn’t get it; I guess as an educational dealio. It was about two kids fighting over a swimming pool and their mother chiding them for fighting and telling them to simply divide the pool between them. One of the kids answered “fine by me, I’ll take the top half”. This was translated as “the best half”, which, I guess, “the top half” could mean… under a completely different set of circumstances.
Anyway, I didn’t speak much English at the time so I of course believed the translator, even though I didn’t think the joke was very funny. Years went by, I learned English, I got good enough at it that I could have easily correctly translated that cartoon, I got better at it than that, I got fluentish, but I still didn’t question the translator’s word. Until a couple of years ago, when it suddenly hit me from nowhere. Of course he meant the actual top half! It makes sense, the joke is funny, conflict resolved. But it took me years and years to figure it out.
Any examples of your own?