Tuesday 26 May 2009

Sickening for something

By Richard Morley.
I wrote recently about some embarrassing errors that the learner of Spanish can make. I forgot to mention not a mistake, but words that sound similar to English, but have a very different meaning. This is the slippery slope of “false friends”. Words that you might think have a similar meaning but DON’T.

What prompts my memory is that, due to someone being very generous with their germs; I have been “constipated” since Saturday morning. Spanish has the word “constipada” and it means much the same as in English, BUT IT DOES NOT REFER TO THE SAME PART OF THE BODY. In this case, it has been my nose that has been blocked up, as I have had a cold.

Actually, this is a bit of a misnomer, as, and trying to be as polite about this as possible, it has been far from blocked up but continuously running and I have managed to get through a box and half of tissues. However, I had to ask the pharmacist for something to ease my constipation.

I remember the first time I had a cold shortly after arriving here and actually having to screw up my courage and enter a pharmacy and announce “Estoy constipada”, while pointing dramatically at my nose to make sure she got the message. Of course, she just reached for some pills off her shelves. Later I reflected on the result of some English-speaking tourist who was suffering from our definition of the word who received cold relieving tablets and wondering why they were not helping. (In this case, the word to use is “estreñido”. Sometimes this blog can be so educational!!)

Everyone who has to use a foreign language for the first time out of the comfort of the classroom will have a little apprehension as to whether he or she will be understood or not. For me still, it is like a little miracle every time I put a string of these strange sounding words together and the Spaniard on the receiving end ACTUALLY UNDERSTANDS.

The Spanish people are very forgiving of people who mess up their language. Last week I went to top up my prepaid telephone card. What I wanted to do was “Recargar”, or recharge my credit. I stumbled over the syllables and a woman in the adjacent queue broke off from her transaction to help me. Of course, the word begins with a trilled, or rolled, R, which I still can’t do. Then the two shop assistants joined in the lesson. It was all very good-natured and there was lots of sympathy for the guiri. And I got my credit topped up.

And this didn’t surprise me as it has happened before. I am susceptible to back pain and there was a time I needed to buy some Ibuprofen. Ok, that’s we call it in England and is basically the generic name, but I had no idea of the Spanish word. Actually it’s just the same word with an O stuck on the end. In the pharmacy though, I just said Ibuprofen and hoped the pharmacist would understand. Of course she did and in seconds the little packet was on the counter. I reached to take it, but she kept her hand firmly on the box. Taking great care with her pronunciation she enunciated, “Ib-bu-pro-fen-o”, and indicated I should repeat the word. I did, but she did not release her grip on the packet. “Otra vez”, again, she said and I repeated the word. She insisted on a third time before finally relinquishing the tablets to me. I have never forgotten, which is just as well as my scoliotic spine does have the occasional relapse.

The shopkeepers of my barrio are remarkably tolerant of my Spanish screw-ups. From the “tenderos” who sell me fresh veg at my local Mercado I have learnt the names of many items. I think they got fed up with me just pointing at piles of carrots etc and saying “Un kilo” or “Medio kilo”. Pepe, the owner of Verduras Pepe of Puesto 19, became quite agitated when I forgot the name for Brussels sprouts a third time, but he beamed when I was word perfect on my next visit. (Coles de Bruselas!)

Back in the pharmacy, I have no problem with buying “ibuprofeno” as mentioned above, and as it’s the generic name I get the cheap packet. But I pay the earth for aspirin. Why? Well, according to the dictionaries, aspirin is “aspirina”, but then you get the propriety brand, which is expensive, whereas, if I had asked for “acido acetylsalicylico” I would get the cheap stuff. But when the head is pounding I can’t seem to produce those eleven syllables in any way that makes me understood. “Aspirina” is much simpler.

Luckily, usually I am in rude health and have no need for the pharmacist. In my early days in Spanish I just leant the phrase for “I need something for…”, which translates as “Necesito algo para …” and would find the offending ailment in the dictionary. But I remember the day I needed cough medicine and having practised my phrase entered the pharmacy and said, “Necesito algo para – a cough”. The assistant looked somewhat nonplussed until I realised and repeated the phrase but ended with “un tos”. You see, Spanglish doesn’t work.

But you have to keep trying and as red in the face you might be, never admit to being embarrassed with your Spanish, or your ailment, by claiming “Estoy embarazada”. Then you have just announced that you are pregnant, which requires more than something off the pharmacist’s shelves!

Which reminds me: An American received some very strange looks when she announced she would not eat food containing preservatives. In Spanish, preservativos are devices that would stop you from becoming embarazada, not chemicals in food.

It can be funny, this language business.
Note: The collection of pharmacuticals in the illustration do not all belong to me!

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  1. You can make me laugh at some of the strangest things!

  2. In my first week here, I was telling some Spaniards about my job at Gatwick Airport and that I had left because I was fed up with the passengers. Unfortunately, instead of "pasajeros" (passengers), I told them how frustrated I was with the pajeros (wankers!).

    Oops, although come to think of it, very appropriate!

  3. As passenger who has used Gatwick on several occasions it's wonderful to know how the staff regard us!!!!! :(