Getting it Wrong (so very wrong!) in Spanish
Spanish is quite an easy language to learn for a native English speaker. It’s not without its pitfalls though, so let’s enjoy a few blunders committed in the name of International Relations.
Think first of the Englishman who pulled into a roadside cafeteria for a snack, en-route from Bilbao to Madrid. He thinks a cheese and onion sandwich would be good; after all the onions we eat raw in England are called Spanish Onions.
“Un bocadillo de queso y caballo, por favor.”
“Queso y caballo?”
“Sí. Queso y caballo. Es mi favorito.”
At this point I should explain two words that look very similar:
cebolla = onion
caballo = horse
The poor barman was left wondering what sort of barbarian he was serving.
Now beyond this point, the blunders become a little more, well, earthy, so readers of a sensitive disposition should look away. You see, there are three words in Spanish that look very similar but have seriously different meanings.
cajones = drawers (in a piece of furniture)
cojines = cushions
cojones = “the crown jewels” (if you get my drift)
Imagine a young English lady visiting a friend’s flat for the first time. While he’s in the kitchen making coffee she is admiring his sofa and chairs. As he comes in with the coffees, she announces “Me gustan mucho tus cojones!” (“I do like your balls!”) Oh dear.
This was the same young lady who nearly caused a riot in the local market, as a result of what seems a very minor linguistic error. You probably know that Spanish is one of those languages where every noun is either masculine or feminine, even when there is no logical reason to apportion it with a gender. And typically, masculine words end in -o and feminine words in -a.
One day she decided to get one of those ready-cooked chickens they sell in Spanish markets, so she trotted down to the market and found the right place. There she announced to the stall-holder that she would like “una polla“. Slightly taken aback, he queried her requirements and she confirmed that, yes, she would like “una polla“, and (holding up her hands) she told him she would like a nice one, “this big”. Only when the kerfuffle had died down did she realise that a chicken is “un pollo“, and “una polla” is an exclusively male appendage.
The English language doesn’t have accents or any of the other little squiggly bits that some languages attach to their letters, so we are inclined not to see them when they’re there. But they are important. In Spanish the tilde over a letter “n” like this “ñ” gives it a “ny” sound. In a few cases there are two words that are exactly the same apart from the tilde.
So it was that I turned up for a new Spanish class and the teacher asked each of us to introduce ourselves. It was all going reasonably well until one lady told us her name and where she lived, and then said “Tengo 45 anos“. Who would have thought that a tiny little squiggle could change so much?
Tengo 45 años = I am 45 years old
Tengo 45 anos = I have 45 arseholes
The teacher kept a commendably straight face, until she saw me grinning!