Illustrations by Catherine Dousdebes.
Shortly after I left university I googled for TEFL courses in Spain, found a charming town called Zamora in Castilla y Leon and booked myself a one-way ticket. My Spanish education, albeit informal, started almost as soon as we touched down. I was tasked with navigating my way across Madrid weighed down by my backpack and an oppressive, immovable mid-summer mugginess.
Your relationship with new words is shaped to some extent by the context in which you learned them. Even today, whenever I hear words like estación de trenes (train station), vía (track) and billete (ticket), memories of confusion, misinformation, and dread rise within me. However, my relationship with the Spanish language grew beyond the fear of those early days and I started encountering unique and interesting words and phrases that I grew to love. Below is a list of my 8 favorite Spanish words and their multiple meanings:
1. Leche (Noun) – Milk
You can’t do much with milk in English, other than maybe cry over it. One of the first things which struck me on my arrival on the Iberian peninsula was the apparent fascination with milk, leche. Excitement, disbelief, good fortune, bad fortune, admiration… could all be expressed with the help of the word milk. Don’t believe me? Consider the following, entirely fabricated exchange at a sports game:
- The football player was running a toda leche (at full speed) when one of his opponents dio una leche (hit) him on the leg.
- Ay la leche (Damn it!), cried the player as he fell to the floor.
- A spectator in the stadium turned to his friend, “¡Qué mala leche! (That was out of order!) He’s la leche (the best), and if he’s injured he’s not going to be able to play in the final, ¡Me cago en la leche! (Bloody hell!)”
- His friend responded, “don’t get into de mala leche (a bad mood), man. It doesn’t look that serious. He’ll get up and continue playing. You’ll see.”
- “Y una leche“ (No way), said the spectator, dejected.
So you see, if you memorise the above expressions, you can really milk that leche.
2. Polvo (Noun) – Dust
“Dust” is a surprisingly versatile word in English and in Spanish. Just like in English, you can bite the dust, or morder el polvo, in Spanish, although I wouldn’t recommend it. If you are hecho polvo (made into dust) then you’re ground down, exhausted, whacked, and if you’re hecho polvo de la cabeza, then you’re stir crazy, nuts or out to lunch. If you si haces polvo a alguien, then you make someone (into) dust, meaning you wipe the floor with someone in a competition.
So you get the picture: If you’re polvo, then you’ve been pulverised. But Spanish also uses some idioms that bear a more tenuous connection to the tiny particles that we call dust. For reasons that remain unbeknown to me, polvo also refers to the sexual act. There we have it — many shades of grey to this dust.
3. Resaca (Noun) – Hangover
Resaca is one of those words that many English speakers will already know, like tapas, burrito, cargo, guerrilla, chorizo and armada, without knowing the original or alternative meanings. Did you know that burrito means “little donkey”; guerilla means “little war”; and un chorizo can also mean un ladrón (a thief), making it theoretically possible for a chorizo to run away with your chorizo.
Going back to the resaca, though, tener resaca means “to have a hangover” in everyday parlance, but la resaca also refers to the undertow or undercurrent which leaves debris and driftwood scattered across a shore following a storm, and it is this playful imagery that endears me to the word.
4. Botellón (Noun) – Public Drinking
Botellón is the augmentative form of botella (bottle), so el botellón would literally translate as “the big bottle”. As any visiting Erasmus student will recall, un botellón is much more than a supersized coke container. Descend upon a public square and you’ll be met by hundreds of buoyant youths riding towards a sugar high on a wave of calimocho, a surprisingly potent mix of wine and coke which betrays all the stereotypes of Spain as a nation of fine-wine-worshippers.
Botellón-ing has become such a feature of Spanish youth culture that further terms have been spawned, including botellódromo – an official space for the execution of botellones – and macro-botellón which, as you may have guessed, is even bigger than a big bottle, although it remains unclear at what point a botellón becomes a macro-botellón.
5. Vergüenza (Noun) – Embarrassment/Shame
Vergüenza falls somewhere between shame and embarrassment depending upon the sentence into which it falls. ¡Qué vergüenza! would translate as “how embarrassing!”, while if I were to say to you ¡Qué poca vergüenza tienes! I would be castigating you for “having no shame”. But my choice of vergüenza comes not from its breadth of use but rather its involvement in two delightful terms: la de la vergüenza and vergüenza ajena.
La de la vergüenza translates as “the one of the shame”, and refers to the final piece of food left on a shared plate that no one dares to pluck for fear of being banned from all future tapas-oriented activities. Vergüenza ajena is the Spanish equivalent of that popular “untranslatable” German word Fremdscham; the feeling of embarrassment or shame that one feels on behalf of the perpetrator of the shameful or embarrassing act.
6. Friolero/Caluroso (Adj.) – Sensitive To Cold/Heat
The average Brit has an ingrained need to comment on the weather or enquire thereafter at any given opportunity. This is not at all unusual when you take into account how imminently changeable the weather is in the British Isles. What’s surprising is that it’s the Spanish, with their hazy days and sun-filled plights, who have two common words which the English could really do with: friolero and caluroso. The adjectives are used to describe someone who is particularly sensitive to cold (friolero) or heat (caluroso). So next time someone complains of the cold in clement times, tell them to stop being so friolero.
7. Desvelado (Adj.) – Unable To Sleep
Desvelado, is another one of those words that is conspicuous by its absence in English. I heard it for the first time sleepily mumbled by my flatmate one night. He had just appeared from his bedroom, grumpy and confused, and my mind raced through associations, roots, derivatives, generalisable meanings of prefixes; anything that affords a stable enough foundation on which to estimate a response.
“Des-” is a negative prefix, so likely referred to the absence of something, so now I just needed to work out “-velado.” I knew una vela was one of those homonyms which baffle language learners, carrying multiple meanings including “a sail,” “a candle” and “a vigil.” If you are dos velas, then you’re broke, penniless, with no money for electricity and just two candles, while si pasas la noche en vela, then you’re on vigil all night, or awake. “That’s it!” I thought. The opposite of en vela (to abandon the state of vigilance) he’s slept so heavily that he’s now struggling to return to the world of the living. I replied that I was happy for him, as I could never fall asleep in the sweltering Spanish summer.
He looked at me, yet more confused. Desvelado, it turns out, meant to be unable to sleep because something is keeping you awake.
8. Agujetas (Noun) – Muscle Stiffness
The final word on my list of favorite German words was Ahnungslosigkeit, which made it onto said list due to its euphony. Similarly, the word agujetas is a wonderful adventure which rockets and plummets between consonants and vowels whilst exercising some of the sounds that anglophones must master to mimic a Spanish accent successfully.
Agujetas refer to the muscle ache, soreness or stiffness that one experiences in the days following unusual physical exertion. The word’s approximation of the diminutive form of the Spanish word for needles (agujas dim. agujitas) immediately sparks the image of thousands of tiny needles pricking a tired muscle group, although the true root of the word agujetas is not believed to lie here. One intriguing theory proposes the following sequence of semantic leaps; agujetas was used as a term for objects of little value. This then became a colloquial, dysphemistic label for the meagre tips given to postmen on horseback in the 18th century, which in turn became synonymous with the aches an inexperienced rider endures after riding a horse.
Words are just wonderful, aren’t they?