Thursday, March 16, 2006


[Note: Here is yet another essay that I’ve recently had published in Expatica Spain.]

Someone once said that, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That’s especially true when “little knowledge” pertains to a foreign language.

For those of us who were not born with the linguistic gifts of the average Belgian, navigating the peaks and valleys of daily life in Spain—in Spanish—can be fraught with peril. Peril, that is, not to the body—but rather, to the ego. Why? Because in the hands of the lazy or ill-prepared, a little knowledge of Spanish can lead to, at best, a good laugh—and at worst, an acute case of foot-in-mouth disease.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about. Many of these were taken from my own checkered history of bilingual ineptitude. Others (particularly the less naughty ones) were the products of a brainstorming session with my good friend, fellow US expat and Vaughan Radio on-air personality, Drew Crosby.


Based on a poorly-controlled, roundly unscientific study I’ve conducted over the past six years, the most popular liquor in Spain is Dyc. Dyc is a Scotch-style whiskey. It is typically mixed with Coca-cola and guzzled in disturbing quantities by twenty-something Spanish men. It’s also my first (and perhaps favorite) example of a false cognate. Why? Because this product’s name is pronounced “deek.”

That’s right...“deek!”

Why-oh-why some misguided marketing executive decided to name a brand of whiskey after the English slang word for male genitalia is beyond me. Perhaps he viewed globalization as passing fad.

But it gets worse. When Spaniards place their orders with a bartender, they don’t ask for “Dyc.” No...they ask for “Whiskey Dyc.”

Spelled differently but pronounced the same, the term “whiskey Dyc” in English slang means—are you ready for this?—alcohol-induced impotence.

Ironic, isn’t it? That which Spanish men routinely request, their English-speaking counterparts routinely deny.


The Spanish phrase “Estoy constipado/a” means that the speaker’s head and chest are congested—usually due to a cold or allergy. But its English cognate (i.e., “I am constipated”) means congestion of quite another sort. Of course, none of my Spanish professors bothered to explain this subtle yet important distinction...and the results were predictable.

I was working in a large law firm in Barcelona, and sharing an office with another lawyer. My office-mate was a woman of immense beauty, elegance and professionalism. One morning during the month of March, she entered the office and slouched in her chair.

“Good morning,” I said. “How are you today?”

“Not very well,” she answered.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Estoy constipada.”

I sat there for several seconds, frozen in shock. And then, sensing an awkward silence, I uttered the first response that popped into my head.

“Well...what have you been eating for breakfast?”


Pregnancy is a time of great joy. It’s certainly *not* a time of embarrassment—unless the father happens to be one of those idiots from Gran Hermano.

Unfortunately, the Spanish phrase “Estoy embarazada” implies otherwise to the English-speaking ear. It sounds remarkably close to “I am embarrassed.” But in fact, it means, “I am pregnant.”

Confusing, isn’t it? I suspect that I’m not the only man in Spain who has announced his pregnancy at a crowded dinner party.


Even the wholesome world of ice cream can be a minefield. Take the Spanish word “cucurucho.” It sounds like the name of that wiry guy who delivered pizzas when you were a grad student in New Haven, Connecticut. But in fact, cucurucho means a cone for ice cream.

Please, please, please...remember the word “cucurucho,” because there exists a false cognate just waiting to humiliate you. That cognate is “coño.”

Let me be clear about one thing. This word does NOT mean cone. In Spanish, coño is [ahem] a gynecological term—but one so vulgar that no respectable gynecologist would dare utter it outside the confines of a bowling alley. And it’s a word that I misused once, and only once.

I was in the seaside town of Javea; between Valencia and Alicante. It was a hot summer day, and I spotted a cafeteria with an ice cream bar. I flagged-down a waitress.

“Hello. I’d like two scoops of coconut ice cream, please.”

“Would you like it in a bowl?” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “I’d like it in a coño.”

Bless the professionalism of that presumably underpaid waitress. Looking down at her shoes, she briskly plopped two scoops onto a sugar cone. Only her furled brow and quivering lower lip hinted at the tsunami of repressed laughter that struggled to unleash itself from the confines of her convulsing throat. When I was told of my error later that day, I had only one thought. Thank God that I opted for coconut ice cream, rather wild cherry.

On a separate but equally-important note, take care to use the correct gender when ordering chicken in Spanish.


A “ganga” is not something to run from. It’s something to run toward.

An “éxito” is not a way out. It’s a way up.

A “carpeta” isn’t something that’s thrown onto the floor. It is thrown into a drawer.
If you have high blood pressure, then it’s not sensible to be too “sensible.”

The phrase “en absoluto” does not mean “absolutely.” To the contrary, it means “to the contrary.”  

And always remember...“cucurucho” means cone.


At 2:45 PM, Blogger ironporer said...

Ahhh...fond memories of my first few years in Spain and the horrid mistakes I made.
I always had to laugh at whishey Dyk...and who could forget Gin Fockink. Nothing like mixing Dyk and Fonkink.
One of my biggest gaffes was at the Polleria...I wanted to buy chicken, and wondered why the lady was laughing so hard after I asked for a polla. Afterall- I wanted to make sure I got a hen, not a rooster. Ooops. But that pales in comparison to getting one's icecream in a coño... though helado en un coño might be fun to try.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Angie said...

Ironporer, my hometown pal! :) That last comment of yours made me crack up (and blush)... lol.

Sal... I just wrote a longer comment and my compter ate it. Damn. I feel your pain. I think I kept a running list on my blog of the dumb things I said while in Spain -- and those were only the ones I knew about! (June/July '04, if you're bored.) But my Spanish friends who tried speaking English were equally challenged at times. I'll never forget my host father, Victor, coming out to the patio after dinner one evening with a plate of fruit, and asking carefully in English, "Angela, would you like a plumber?"

In other news -- how is Spain in early November? I wanted to come this summer, but plane tickets are twice as expensive in the summer as they'd be in November... plus it would give me more time to save up some cash. My Spanish mama is already preparing my room in Madrid. Maybe I will even swing up to Guadalajara to see the windmills...? Of course, it all depends on the powers-that-be in the office who control the six lousy vacation days I have left in 2006. We'll see.

At 7:40 PM, Blogger woman wandering said...

I giggled helplessly through this ...

At 7:45 PM, Blogger woman wandering said...

And you convinced me about avoiding speaking 'my version' of Nederlands aloud ... I get enough irreverent comment regarding my kiwispeak.

I shall become silent ... you were party to this Sal DeTraglia ... it would please me greatly to find you had been catholic at some point in your life and you are now consumed by guilt and, as penance you send me whisky ... in the interests of undoing the harm done today ;)

Just kidding, it was a superb post.

At 8:46 PM, Blogger traveller one said...

That's so funny and makes me more aware of words and language!

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Iron Man: If any of your past girlfriends called you "The Good Humor Man," now we'll know that it wasn't because of your gregarious personality.

Ang: Hey! You're coming to visit (or re-visit) our fair country? November can be an OK time. Of course, your risk of encountering rain is greater than at other times of the year. We had several days of hard rains during each of the past two Novembers (I know, because my roof leaked and cost 4,000€ to fix it), but then again...there were also plenty of good days. But even if it rains, so what? You're still in Spain and it will be a helluva lot warmer than in Chicago. Obviously, October is a more stable month. But's weather. Even in July, there can be bad weather. Might as well take the risk with cheap tickets.

BTW...forget windmills. If you venture into Guadalajara, you can finally try some goat. I'll buy.

Lady Di: Yes, I was Catholic at one point in my life. And I am consumed with guilt (or is it "quilt?"). But for me to send you a bottle of whisky, there's a stipulation. A six pack of Orval must be heading in the opposite direction.

Traveller One: There's a downside to being too aware of words and language. You become afraid to use them. Ignorance is indeed bliss.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger woman wandering said...

Orval ...?

Educate me. I don't think I've ever heard of Orval.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Lady Di:

Orval? Belgium's finest beer?

Are you suuuuuuure you're living in Belgium? Or is it BelAir?

If you haven't tried it, you should. It's even better than some wines.


At 8:05 AM, Blogger woman wandering said...

Over breakfast I might have enquired about Orval and discovered this fact.

Are you aware of how many beers there are here ... and I have had Jenever and various other local spirits forced upon me during my time here. How I suffer lol.

Sigh ... I didn't consider you making a counter-offer, I was merely pursuing and hoping to develop a deep feeling of guilt within your soul re: my nederlands silence.

Anyway, if I were to sehd Orval I would enclose peanut butter as well, which surely explains my confusion ... I did wonder if it was a brand of peanut butter.

Better than wine ... I don't consider that possible.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger ironporer said...

Angie, hope all is well back in ACDville. I need to get back up there.

You asked Sal about November in Spain- due to the airline pricing that is when we typically go and it is actually the BEST time IMO. Cool weather (we don't do playa and hot if we can avoid it) and hardly any obnoxious Americans/other tourists milling about. Our favorite place so far is San Sebastian (Donosti to 'friends'). This fall we hope to spend a week near there at a Pension Rural- the only way to go in our opinion, and then stay a week in Galicia at another PR. If you never have done the PR thing, look into it- they are great!!

At 3:07 PM, Anonymous Jo said...

Yes indeed, linguistic imparement...

Vamos a el mercado para comprar grosserias... grosseras? (followed by blank, dumbfounded looks from all adults within earshot)

At 5:21 PM, Blogger GC PHILO said...

Haha! Whiskey DYC... that is golden! The constipado thing never happened to me but it did to a friend who first came to Spain a few years ago to improve her Spanish. She was living with a host family and the host mother, at dinner when she was seving the main course, announced that she apologized for being "constipated". My friend told her to try some prune juice...

At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Kristen said...

Estoy constipado/a is much worse for the Spanish speaker using the false cognate than the other way around. Imagine my husband's embarrassment when he actually said the words "I'm constipated". By now, both sides of the family are familiar with the weird things that pop out of our mouths. I once asked my mother-in-law (in Donosia) if she wanted to go to the beach with me "con yo". Oops! Not that using language like that is really a problem there. It's just better to know what it is you're saying, so that you can exclaim "cojones!" with feeling (and not a dresser drawer--a word I've learned to stay away from).


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