Saturday 30 July 2011

I’m learning Spanish, not trying to offend you. Honest!

By Richard Morley.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Experience is the name we give to our mistakes”. Experience can be a good teacher, unless you are a politician, but that’s another story! I also think there’s some truth in saying the greater the mistake, the greater the learning possibility.

Actually, I would like to rephrase that: The greater the embarrassment potential within the mistake, the chances are much higher that the learner won’t ever repeat that mistake. Again with the caveat that this does not necessarily apply to politicians!

And what greater source of potential embarrassment could there be than that of attempting to communicate in another language.

In another post  I wrote a long time ago I high-lighted the danger of accent blindness when reading Spanish by confusing “Inglés” with “Ingles”. That the difference was explained to me before I committed the blunder publicly was a close shave indeed!

But that was a couple of years back. I have plenty of opportunities to disgrace myself linguistically since then.

How well I remember the time, when enjoying a coffee with a sweet lady in a crowded café, I declared quite loudly that a certain Spanish politician needed a penis. I meant to say he needed support. The word I needed was “Apoyo”, but I mispronounced and said something else entirely. Aforementioned sweet lady quickly amended my pronunciation.

And what confused mental dyslexia had me pointing out to the same sweet lady, while we were walking across a sunlit meadow, all the “testicles” running about in the field. Rabbits in Spanish are “conejos”. Bilingual anagrams are a minefield when you learn new vocabulary from reading and not from listening.

I am convinced the Spanish have so designed their language to get maximum humorous entertainment from us guiris as we stumble through their lexicon. I mean, what could be more innocent than wanting to lend a hand in the kitchen by declaring that you will sweep up the mess. The verb in question is “cepillar” (the double “ll” is pronounced like the y in yacht or young) – to brush, to sweep and in woodwork, to plane. If you check it on those definitions are there plus the act of finishing something, cleaning the teeth, and, surprisingly, killing someone. It’s only at the bottom of the list you find, “vulg. Tener relaciones sexuales con alguien.” Yes, to have sex. Now tell me they haven’t done this on purpose!

Actually, I report that last with gleeful schadenfreude. Last week I was with a group of Spanish schoolteachers and one, as part of a presentation, gave us a talk on first aid and in particular, Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation; the method of using mouth to mouth breathing and chest compression to resuscitate a drowned or unconscious person or “CPR”. The way she pronounced those three letters had the Spanish members of her audience convulsed with lascivious laughter. These paragons of educational virtue took great delight in explaining the fun found in their colleague’s slight mispronunciation, particularly while demonstrating on a muscular, and quite handsome young man.

On a similar note, it is perhaps not a good idea to tell a lady you have only just met that you want to run away with her. The list of meanings in Wordreference for  “Correr” is quite extensive!

Now I know that Spanish ladies tend to speak their mind. “Eufemismo” exists as  almost the same word as “euphemism” in English, but it doesn’t seem to exist in practice. Spanish ladies do not call a spade a wooden handled digging device. I consider myself a man of the world. It takes a lot to shock me. But I was surprised when my female friends spoke about “making their bikini” or “working on their bikini”. All sorts of inappropriate visions came into my head. I am not the only one. When mentioning this to a newly arrived lady teacher from the UK, she too assumed waxing, shaving and unwanted hair was involved, when in fact it means no more than losing a bit of winter weight to look good in their swim wear.

It has got to the stage now that I am suspicious of new words – or new uses of old ones. If I come across a new idiom or hear a familiar word used in an unusual context my vulgarity antenna goes up. Not that it should worry me. See above, man of the world etc etc, but I do have some, shall we say, “old-fashioned” acquaintances who might be either shocked at the word / idiom, or embarrassed to explain it to me.

These words come from surprising sources. I have been working my way through the fictional autobiographical stories of eight year old Manolito Gafotas, who lives in Carabanchel (alto), a district of southwest Madrid.

The books were written by a Journalist, Elvira Lindo, in the nineties and quickly became a huge literary success, followed by a TV series, a couple of feature films and awards for Children’s literature. But in the books, when Manolito wishes to express his frustration he frequently uses the word “Joé”. My dictionary does not have this word. Neither does Wordreference. So I asked, because she was there, a lady of “a certain age” to tell me what it meant. She flustered and was a little embarrassed to explain that it was the kids’ version of “Joder”, the Spanish “F” word, used in much the same way that “Miércoles” replaces “Mierda” in children’s speech – at least when adults are listening. 

These stories have very quickly become classics of Spanish Children’s literature. I am sure that good parents the Spanish speaking world over buy these books for their children, or read the stories at bedtime. I hope they are ready to explain to their little darlings the meaning of some of the words. But I have struck this particular lady off my list of “Spanish explainers”. I would not wish to embarrass her again.

I could, of course, consult my copy of “Pardon my Spanish”, which is a complete guide to the less polite words of the Spanish lexicon and in which the words are graded from “Able to use in front of Granny” to “ONLY EVER use with close friends!”

Of course there less innocuous words to confuse. I remember a Dutch friends who asked an optician to check her “eights” (ochos) instead of her “eyes” (ojos). I recently told a dentist I had lost an “embalse” (dam) instead of an “empaste” (filling). The look of perplexity on his face was a sight to behold. Trying to be more clever than I actually am I thought baby pigeons ( little “palomas”) were a “palomitas”, which is really “popcorn”.

But it’s the big bloopers that stay in the mind. The ones with such embarrassing consequences you will never forget them.

Experience might be a hard teacher, but it’s a good one.

I have a PS, but it’s x-rated, so if you are of a nervous disposition do not read any further.

At one of the English Villages I attend, a rather straight-laced American lady had bitten the inside of her cheek while eating and this had raised a painful blister. Finding out, illegally, from one of the students that the word for blister is “empolla” (but not quite hearing it correctly) she visited a pharmacy and explained she had “a polla” in her mouth, while jabbing a finger in and out of her open mouth to demonstrate. The student nearly collapsed in laughter, particularly when retelling the tale later. “Polla” (pronounced poy-ya) is slang for penis. The student reported the pharmacists was quite surprised!

You continued reading, didn’t you. I told you not to!

What embarrassing mistakes have you made?? 


  1. At a well known burger joint I asked for a quarter of a book with cheese - libro instead of libra. - Jo

  2. I once had a cleaner who I kept more because of her looks than her cleaning ability, I admit. She was from Chile which I described as being in the coño sur instead of the cono sur. She was clearly much less amused than I was and just laughed in that ambiguous way women have when I have no idea what they mean.

  3. At VT and PI (and some Friday evenings at Ave Fenix, Salmantino and other locations), I have explained to Spaniards that while SNAFU is an acceptable word in English, many people would find the words that make up the acronym unacceptable in public. The same applies to FUBAR.

  4. I honestly belive my most embarassing mistake is NOT trying to speak more Spanish than I actually do ! - Difficult when all my daughter's friends are ravimng Spanish.

  5. Over the years, my list of bloopers is too many to mention and would probably require another blog and just starting with; “cajon” or was it?, with I, but not “conmigo” and so it went on – it was part of the process of learning a language. However, the boot was on the other foot when I found myself in South Africa with a lady from South America, Chile to be precise. This one Saturday afternoon, I was to accompany her on the shopping trip to buy some bed linen, which was fine until she asked the shop assistant for “sheet with flowers” – except the double “e’ had been contracted to an “i”

  6. Just today I have been running lists of Short "i" with long "ee" sound with a student. My way of hammering it in is to ask which do you want on a bed; a sheet or a ****?

  7. In Colombia, where I learned my Spanish, they use the word cachucha to describe a hat or cap. I understand that it is also the name of an Andalusian dance.
    While on a trip to Buenos Aires, I saw a very nice cap in a store window display and asked the (young and beautiful) sales attendant how much the cachucha cost. After blushing and much laughter she told me that in Argentina the word is used to describe the female sex member. Sheet! my embarrassment was beyond words, specially since my wife was laughing as hard as the sales attendant. Spanish is such a beach!

  8. Just yesterday I arrived back in Madrid and texted my boyfriend telling him "We've buried" instead of "We've landed".
    In my experience a lot of confusion results from the differences between Latin American Spanish and Castellano. I have a friend who learnt Spanish in Latin America and then moved to Madrid and started dating a madrileño. One night they were walking home and she told him that she was tired and her feet hurt. Being a gentleman, he asked "¿Te cojo?" (Shall I carry you?). However, she understood "Shall I f*** you?". "Well, no, I'm a bit tired for that too actually darling..."

  9. I believe that, if given enough time, one can make a fool of oneself in any language.

    My personal favorite has to be this one: while living with a Costa Rican family during a stint at a language school, my host mother made a homemade hot sauce. I was impressed and wanted to convey that in my country most condiments come from the store and are thus full of preservatives. The word "preservativo" seemed vaguely familiar, so I used that word to describe the situation. After her horrified look I consulted the dictionary and realized that I'd told her American condiments are made with condoms.

    It was a mortifying moment, but you can bet I never confuse "conservante" and "preservativo" again.