Adventures in translation: A dirty word for a non-vermin mouse

Photo: George Shuklin / Wikimedia Commons No, not this kind of mouse.

Photo: George Shuklin / Wikimedia Commons
No, not this kind of mouse.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

In 1972, Norsk språkråd (The Language Council of Norway) faced a challenge of unprecedented urgency. The expanding field of electronic data processing had burst out of academic centers and was on its way into mainstream life. An acute need for uniform terminology arose. The ongoing inconsistent use of foreign terms, mostly from American English, threatened linguistic chaos.

In today’s computer-aware world, the data world of 1972 seems pre-historic. That said, it was a year of transition. The first desktop computer that could be programmed by its user was marketed that year. It was supplied with BASIC, a programming language devised just eight years earlier, aimed to enable people other than scientists and mathematicians to use computers.

The Language Council could not have envisioned the subsequent explosive growth of the computing technologies, but it did act with incisive foresight. It commissioned a committee of seven experts and charged it with compiling a Norsk Dataordbok (Norwegian Data Dictionary). The committee worked swiftly. Despite the size and complexity of the topic, the first edition of Norsk Dataordbok was published in 1976. It was a slim, 2.8 x 8.3 in. paperback of 184 pages, covering the 1,100 most essential terms of what now is called Information Technology (IT). Within its genre, it was a best-seller, going through six editions, the last in 1997 (with a second printing in 1999), a 455-page hardcover with cross-referencing to English, French, and Swedish terms.

Along the way there were lexicographic advances, including interworking with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to ensure the compatibility of terminology between languages. There also were mishaps, as there always are in dictionaries charting new fields. Most of them were technical and were corrected in later editions of the book. But at least one was potentially titillating: the English word mouse, translated directly to mus.

Neither mus nor its English sourceword mouse appeared in the first edition of 1976. That’s understandable, as the first computer mouse, a handheld display controller named for the common rodent that it resembles, was brought into everyday computer use by Apple Computers four years later, in 1980. In step with the continual updating of Norsk Dataordbok, mus from the English mouse appeared quickly, in the second edition of 1981. That’s when the trouble began.

In Norwegian, mus has three meanings. In addition to designating the rodent and the handheld display controller, it’s the Norwegian vulgarism for the human female vulva. Apparently in fear of a potential indecency in describing a handheld device, in the third edition of 1984, the Norwegian translation of mouse was changed to skjermpilot (screen pilot), a literal back translation of its technical description of being a “display controller.” That change was a flop. Skjermpilot gained no usage. In the fourth edition of 1987, as well as the fifth edition of 1993 and the sixth and last edition of 1997, the Norwegian translation of mouse was changed back to mus.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blog.clue.no.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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