The strange history of muñeca

A stray comment on /r/Spanish got me thinking about muñeca, the word that, bizarrely, means both ‘doll’ and ‘wrist’. The ‘doll’ meaning is primary. It’s the one listed first in dictionaries, and if you do a Google image search on muñeca, you see more dolls than wrists. It’s the first meaning that I learned, since ‘wrist’ is one of the less important body parts. When I eventually learned the second meaning, I was surprised that one word could have two such completely unrelated interpretations.

I’ve just looked up the history of muñeca in my can’t-live-without-it etymological dictionary by Joan Corominas. It turns out that the word’s original meaning was neither ‘doll’ nor ‘wrist’, but something entirely different: ‘milestone’, in the physical sense of a road marker.

Muñeca ‘milestone’ turns into both ‘wrist’ and ‘doll’.

How did this bizarre transformation take place? According to Corominas, the key was the interpretation of a milestone marker as something that sticks up out of the ground: a bump, or using fancier English, a protuberance. The word was then extended to ‘wrist’ because the wrist bone protrudes from the arm. The road to ‘doll’ began with the extension of muñeca to a bumpy bundle of rags, and from there to a rag doll, and then other dolls.

Muñeca‘s original meaning of ‘milestone’ has been lost from everyday discourse, but is still included in the Real Academia’s dictionary — but only after ‘doll’, ‘wrist’, and other meanings related to ‘doll’, such as ‘cadaver’ and ‘bimbo’.

Incidentally, the earlier history of muñeca is obscure. It is not Latin, but seems to come from a pre-Roman language, possibly Celtic.

11 thoughts on “The strange history of muñeca

  1. Gina

    Thank you! Learning Spanish now and it helps me when I understand the origin of words. Muñeca was in a Spanish song I like. I couldn’t understand why the singer said, “wrist” in the middle of the love song. Lol

  2. Diane

    So delighted to learn this! I had only known the “doll” meaning and was startled to discover the very different meaning “wrist” in a Spanish class I’m taking. Being curious, I just “had” to know why. When I was in elementary school (long ago!!) I was (embarrassing to admit) part of a cliquish girls’ group that the leader had named “Las Muñecas” tho none of us knew much Spanish. Now I laugh to think of running around in my “gang” sweatshirt that could easily have been read as “The Wrists”. Ha, we thought we were so cool!

    1. Ralph

      That’s an interesting story that does not need to be embarrassing at all, because it nicely suggests the question of what native speakers of Spanish would think upon reading the word on one of those sweatshirts. I’m pretty sure that “the dolls” would be the only interpretation, simply by the context – especially as the use of “wrist” in daily language is relatively rare, so uses of the plural must be even rarer.

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  4. Melissa

    I’m curious as to how the leap was made from a traditional Guatemalan doll to Celts. Can you elaborate on how you reached this? I’m mostly Irish & Norwegian so anything Celt or Norse grabs my attention quickly. Thank you in advance!

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Before the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which began around 200 B.C.E., Celtic tribes were among the early peoples who inhabited the area. The Celts contributed place names, such as Segovia, and normal vocabulary, such as álamo ‘poplar.’ Either Celtic or another language of pre-Roman Spain is believed to be the source of the word muñeca, since it does not have a plausible Latin etymology.

    2. LA

      Did you read the post? Source is cited. And FFS, it literally says (pun intended), “Incidentally, the earlier history of muñeca is obscure. It is not Latin, but seems to come from a pre-Roman language, possibly Celtic.”


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