Learning a language is a brilliant way of understanding the psyche of a culture. Spanish has been a hilarious adventure for myself, and making faux pases have been fundamental in my learning a language and created great stories.
When I first moved to Spain a good ten years ago, I learned about a cultural/learning complexity called miedo de ridiculo. The meaning of ridiculo I guess you know, but the full meaning of the phrase is “fear of the ridiculous”, or more so, “fear of making an arse of yourself”, which I always found ironic for culture that prides itself on being charmingly extroverted, warm and friendly. This psyche is especially detrimental for language learners when starting conversations and practising new vocabulary. English has many irrationalities and oddities about the pronunciation, especially in phonetics, which leaves learners from the romantic languages a little tongue tied and hesitant to learn. The Latin languages have many semantic clues to guide speakers in how to pronounce words, such as accents and upside down question marks and exclamation marks at the start of sentences. We English have little of that and we often learn via a telling off at school or a clip round the ear. Whether there’s a subconscious introvert treading water within the Spanish/Latino culture, I don’t know. Without wanting to sound like a clown or too proud, this doesn’t really affect me, nor other Brits for that matter. We open our mouths unsophisticatedly, grunt noises, point and repeat the noises until we feel our output has been deciphered (either that or we just say it loudly in English). Maybe it’s due to our dark self-mocking sense of humour, which doesn’t always travel well (just because we mock ourselves doesn’t mean we should mock other cultures (someone tell Jeremy Clarkson)). Then again, maybe it affects us more than I realise; we’re not known for being the most linguistically diverse people, but I think it’s more laziness than lack of confidence in trying.
I’ve compiled this list of Spanish vocabulary over years. Lovers of the hispanic language should enjoy it, and I daresay, new and old learners will be scratching their heads. More so, I hope the peculiar and/or humorous translations make you giggle.
Some I have seen written in books, others I have heard on the street or been taught in class, by friends or by my wife. Due to proximity and where I’ve been residing in life, the majority derive from Spain and Honduras, with maybe a few from Peru (being a big fan of Mario Vargas Llosa I am). In no particular order, here they are.
An oldie but a goodie. You know you’ve seen that little squiggly line above the n in Spanish. You’ve read it in books, on football player’s shirts, on billboards while holidaying in the Iberian Peninsula or on the news. You’ve thought, “why do they do that? How is it different from the common little n?” Well, let me tell you, it makes a big spanking lot of difference, and Spanish speakers will be laughing, especially from looking at the precarious example above.
First off, ñ is pronounced like the English n but with a y sound after it, as if to say enyeh. But n and ñ are two separate letters in the Spanish alphabet.
Now to the above meaning: año means year, whereas ano means anus. In context, you think you would know the difference if someone makes the mistake. In most cases you’re right. However, there scenarios where it is important you know the difference, and one is talking about your age. Like in French, the Spanish use the to have verb to say how old they are or how long they have been doing something. For example, tengo 36 años (I have 36 years). Now I think you know where I am going with this. A simple slip of that little squiggly line could make me seem like a vulgar freak of nature or I quite literally am talking out of one of my many 36 anuses.
I have been told of this verb before, and it slipped my mind until the other week while reading El Héroe Discreto (The Discreet Hero) by Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a strange verb because we don’t really have a direct translation with just one word in English; more of a phrasal verb. It means to be on familiar terms with someone, to enable to refer to someone using the more informal pronoun tu (meaning you) rather than the formal usted commonly used in Latin America. I like it because it almost sounds a bit flirty (“Wanna tutearse with me?”). Also, if you say it quickly enough, it almost sounds like tutu and I like to think it could mean the verb for wearing a tutu. Or even better, getting flirty while wearing a tutu.
I was warned about this one before I came to Latin America. The difference in meaning is widely known. In Spain, it means to catch. In Latin America, it means to fuck. So, for wonderful word play, to coger un autobus could get you a few funny looks on this continent. If you wish not to fuck the bus in Latin America, it might be wiser to use tomar, meaning take.
“To coger or not coger …?”
Like above, this is another example of a perfectly innocent word for the Spanish, and something vulgarly unacceptable for people in Central America.
In Honduras, pisar is yet another verb to fuck, whereas in Spain and other parts of Latin America it means to step or trample on.
So, you can imagine the giggles throughout Honduras when the Spanish popstar Alejandro Sanz released the song “Pisando Fuerte”. I will leave you to work out the meaning of fuerte.
Alejandro Sanz: He wants to “Pisar Fuerte”. Very bold of him.
Now it’s Spain’s turn to be mortally offended and Central Americans to look around in wonder about the fuss. Cipote in Spain means dick while in Central America it’s a sweet word for child.
Oh the shock and horror, when Casa Alianza won an award for children’s rights by the Spanish UN, and top diplomats came over from Madrid to hand over the award, only to hear the educators referring to poor street kids as little dicks.
Yes. In all different languages over the world, dirty minds use food stuffs to refer to parts of the human anatomy. Quite how pupusas, these lovely fried tortillas hiding inside a spread of gooey quesillo (a type of cheese), chicharrones (pig fat) or frijoles (beans), take the name of a lady’s private parts is beyond me. There’s something symbolic I’m missing out on here.
Because I loved pupusas so much when I first arrived in Honduras, I used to call my wife by this name. That was before I knew about its perverted connotation. Calling your partner pupusa caliente in front of her parents is not the wisest thing to do in Central America. Take note.
Another word found courtesy of Mario Vargas Llosa literature. It caught my attention because I thought it might have been related to the word muñecowhich means doll. By adding ido or ado to the end of a verb in Spanish, it often turns it into a past participle – similar to adding ed to a verb in English. I didn’t think muñeco could be turned into a verb, unless it meant something in the line of getting dolled up.
Nope. Not in the slightest. The word originates from the Andes and it means to be jumpy or nervous. A word you are not likely to use anyway. Never mind. ¡Gracias Llosa!
How cute! A doll to make you nervous!
In the world of ESL, this is what we call a false friend, meaning a word in your target language that looks very similar to something in your native language, but doesn’t mean that at all. Embarazada is probably the best example.
In English we would quite understandly believe that embarazada means embarrassed. WRONG! The word means to be pregnant. It can bring about various humorous linguistic faux pases. I can think of a couple below:
An English speaker getting it wrong in Spanish:
Anna: ¿Que pasó, Michael?
(What happened, Michael?)
Michael: ¡Díos mío, Anna! ¡Estoy tan embarazada! Yo pegue a mi cabeza en una farola en frente a una chica guapa!
(My God, Anna! I’m so pregnant! I just banged my head on a lamp post in front of a beautiful girl!)
Anna: ¿Sí? No sabía que los hombres pudieran quedar embarazada!
(Oh right! I didn’t know men could get pregnant!)
A Spanish speaker getting it wrong in English:
Miguel: Congratulations! How do you feel, Ana?
(¡Felicidades! ¿Como te sientes, Ana?)
Ana: With a lot of pain. I’m eight months embarrassed.
(Con mucho dolor. ¡Tengo ocho meses con pena!).
Miguel: Your boyfriend should have used a condom then.
(Tu novio debió que usar un condón pues).
Let’s face it, the second example could have been played out into a giant telenovela. Creative idea alert!
My wife told me about this one while she was chuckling along to Arturo Sosa’s Historias Cortas del Alero Tom y Otras Hierbas. I mentioned it on my blog a couple of weeks ago. The book contains a lot Caliche words; kind of the local dialect. Dieciséis actually means 16, but in Honduras, somehow or other, it can also mean something is more or less.
Apparently this word appears in Sosa’s book. Yes, I don’t get it either.
Now, I really don’t know if this word is spelt correctly, but it was very perplexing for Spanish and English/American friends while I was living in Spain. Hortera doesn’t really exist on this side of the Atlantic. Spanish friends told me that it kind of means a trend or behaviour that is naff, of bad taste or nasty, but it is stronger than that, but not quite as strong as disgusting.
Some of my Spanish friends were obsessively vexed by this lack of translation into English, and one in particular from the Basque Country admitted that he had been trawling through English dictionaries determined to find the exact meaning.
Well, it’s been 10 years and my friend still hasn’t come back to me. So, to clean this up, if I had to define someone as hortera, I would say Katie Hopkins or Donald Trump.
Katie Hopkins: Reina Hortera del ano … I mean año (silly me!)
In Honduras, this word means a good buddy or friend, or even wing-man. I like it, often using it myself. I then saw it in another Mario Vargas Llosa book, but it meant part of a roof. In other parts of the Spanish speaking world, it is the forward position in basketball.
I prefer the Honduras meaning though. It’s much nicer.
Nick y su alero Jordan
If you have any other similar words, please add them in the comments below.