Category Archives: Bad Spanish

Bad Spanish — MTA edition

Because Spanish has so many different ways to say ‘you’ — singular and plural, informal and formal — it’s important for Spanish speakers and writers to identify the appropriate version for each person or group they address, and stick with it. I always “ding” my students if they, for example, waver between formal usage (usted) and informal () within a paragraph.

A public service poster currently on display in New York City subways features an error along these lines.

si ves algo

This is a mediocre phone snapshot, I’m afraid, but I hope you can make out, after the large black words Si ves algo, di algo ‘If you see something, say something’, the smaller black words Tome un momento para alertar a un oficial de policía o empleado de la MTA, o llame al 888-NYC-SAFE ‘Take a moment to alert a police officer or MTA employee, or call 888-NYC-SAFE’.

I have put the key verbs in red. The grammatical problem here is that ves ‘see’ and di ‘say’ are  commands, but tome ‘take’ and llame ‘call’ are usted commands. Obviously, the MTA would do better to choose one mode of address and stick to it. Specifically, they should change tome and llame to toma and llama to reflect the informal usage of the ubiquitous Si ves ago, di algo slogan.

New York is full of educated Spanish speakers. Surely some of them work for, or consult with, the Metropolitan Authority (MTA)? As someone who profoundly cares about the Spanish language, I find this kind of bureaucratic carelessness infuriating and even insulting.

While searching for a better image of this poster, I came across a blog post about Si ves algo, di algo by a professional interpreter. He complained that this slogan itself is Bad Spanish. He argues that an English speaker hearing or reading If you see something, say something naturally interprets say something as say something about it, whereas a Spanish speaker does not make the same inference.

My native English intuitions in this case have been blurred by years of exposure to the slogan, and I am not a native Spanish speaker. Therefore it is hard for me to judge whether this interpreter’s nuanced distinction is correct. Readers, help me out here!

Next day: The same sequence of Spanish (more or less) is reproduced on the back of Metro Cards (subway passes), so you can see the writing clearer. Here what bothers me is all the Bad Spanish capitalization (e.g. “Combatir el Terrorismo”).

si ves ago bis

Good salsa, bad Spanish

I just took advantage of Fordham’s spring break to spend a few days at my favorite place, the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Besides yoga, dancing, lifestyle classes, the whirlpool, and lots of reading and napping, I enjoyed some excellent food. However, Tuesday’s lunch buffet line contained a Bad Spanish gem:

salsa

Salsa, of course, means ‘sauce’, so that Salsa sauce means ‘sauce sauce’. This error reminds me of some usages I noticed when attending graduate school at Stanford University, where students swim in Lake Lagunita (‘lake lake’) and drive on The El Camino (‘the the road’).

The salsa, however, was delicious!

[An addendum: my son Aaron helpfully pointed out that the second ingredient, verdes chilies, is a remarkable combination of Bad Spanish and Bad English!]

Say it isn’t so, (Trader) Joe

I love Trader Joe’s. We live about midway between two of their stores, so I end up shopping there two or three times a week. My husband would probably starve to death if I didn’t keep our freezer stocked with Chicken Tikka Masala, Mac ‘n Cheese, and the like for his lunches. And their goat milk brie reminds me of the excellent cabra cheese I enjoyed in Spain last summer, with a firm crust and a soft center.

But ever since TJ’s introduced their Chicken Asada, my happy shopping mood is punctured every time I cruise the refrigerator case. The problem is that chicken (pollo) is masculine in Spanish, so Asada should really be be Asado. The abominably feminine Asada is no doubt a carry-over from the more famous Carne Asada, which Trader Joe’s also sells. However, TJ’s gets chicken gender right in their Pollo Asado (this is just chicken, no vegetables or sauce), and Pollo Asado pizza.

Wrong gender! Abomination!

pollo-carne

Correct gender for pollo (with or without pizza) and carne

If you care about Spanish grammar, please contact Trader Joe’s to complain — maybe they’ll fix the product name if they hear from enough hispanophiles! Here is some suggested wording.

Please change the name of your Chicken Asada product to Chicken Asado, to match the (correct) gender you use for your ‘Pollo Asado’. Chicken (‘pollo’) is masculine in Spanish, so ‘asada’ is just plain wrong. ‘Asada’ is correct in ‘Carne Asada’, but that’s because meat (‘carne’) is feminine.

 

When does a pez become a pescado?

One of my favorite “fun facts” about Spanish is that it has two words for ‘fish’: pez, for a live fish, and pescado, for fish that is food, as in a restaurant or a fish market. Pez is a direct descendant of the Latin word pisces. Pescado is the past participle of the verb pescar ‘to fish’, and literally means ‘fished’; it’s fish that has been fished, or caught.

I was reminded of this word pair yesterday, when my husband and I had breakfast in Spanish Harlem, at a corner taquería, or centro de comida, called El Águila. The wall near our table was decorated with reproductions of Mexican state seals and lotería cards, which are used in a variety of bingo-like games as well as fortune-telling. Two of the lotería images caught my eye: “El Negrito” (next-to-last row, furthest right), because it’s so dated, and also “El Pescado” (bottom row, second from left, also see close-up).

El Águila

Since the fish is still in the water, and is still alive, I thought it would be labeled pez. Instead, the lotería card apparently captures the “decisive moment” in which the poor pez becomes a pescado. Once it’s on the hook, there is no turning back.

The taquería’s name, El Águila, is itself of linguistic interest. First, águila is one of those feminine Spanish nouns that take a masculine article (el) in the singular to stop the a of the feminine article la from blending in with the initial a of the noun, as it does (legitimately) in Italian words like l’amica (from la amica). Second, the taquería itself and its website are missing the accent mark in Águila. This illustrates the common, though technically incorrect, tendency to omit accent marks on capital letters.

 

 

Obamacare’s Spanish slip-ups

It’s great that more Spanish speakers, along with other Americans, are being covered under Obamacare, but I had to wince when I saw this photograph in the New York Times. How hard would it have been to put an accent on inscríbete, and inverted question marks before the shirt’s five questions?

Just nit-picking — mostly, I was thrilled to see the Spanish.

People met with insurance agents in Miami last November, looking to discuss health plans available through the Affordable Care Act.

 

Obama’s Spanish slip-ups

With civilization under attack from both terrorists and demagogues, the idea of a blog post nit-picking President Obama’s Spanish definitely feels — trivial. However, we all do what we can. I have no idea how to bring about world peace. But I hope that by sharing some useful insights into the world’s second-most-spoken language, I might, in my own way, bring the world a little closer together.

Terry Byrne of USA Today pointed out to me that Obama mistakenly said Es un nueva día ‘It’s a new day’ in his introductory remarks at his joint press conference with Raul Castro. This occurs toward the end of the clip below. Because día is masculine, the correct Spanish would have been un nuevo día. I also noticed that Obama began his remarks by wishing the audience Buenos tardes ‘Good afternoon’ instead of Buenas tardes, with the -as ending on buenas matching the feminine gender of tardes.

 

Noun gender — the difference between masculine and feminine nouns — poses a steep challenge to English speakers. The fact that Obama made these mistakes even though the correct Spanish was surely written in his notes reflects this difficulty. Beginners tend to ignore gender completely, especially when adjectives are separated from their controlling nouns (e.g. La casa es bonita). Even advanced non-native speakers make mistakes. I know that I still do, from time to time.

While Obama’s two mistakes — buenos for buenas and nueva for nuevo — both involved gender, they had different triggers. The first mistake was most likely a carry-over from the more common expression Buenos días. The fact that tarde ends in an -e, so that its gender is not obvious, may have played a contributing role. The second mistake was undoubtedly driven by the fact that día appears to be feminine because it ends in -a. In an earlier post I explained the historical roots of this irregularity. Essentially, dies, the Latin source of día, was the lone masculine among a set of Latin words (the “fifth declension”) that all came to have -a endings in Spanish. Others include materia/madera (both from Latin materies), especia (from species), and rabia (from rabies).

It’s particularly interesting that Obama correctly said un (masculine) and then changed the next word, nuevo, to nueva (feminine). I can think of two reasons why this happened. The first is that un isn’t as obviously masculine as nuevo because the final -o of uno is dropped in this context. The second is that nuevo immediately precedes día, so that the -a ending of día might have exerted a stronger pull.

Changing gears from linguistics to literature: in the speech that Obama gave in Cuba the next day, he quoted the Cuban poet José Martí’s “Cultivo una rosa blanca”, which alludes to the possibility of peace between long-time enemies. You can hear this reference at 1:30 in the clip below. I got a big kick out of this quote because I had just assigned the poem in my intermediate Spanish class. I can’t think of a better, and more timely, demonstration of the importance of literature!

Bad Spanish in Salt Lake City

When out for a walk on a recent visit to Salt Lake City,  I saw this sign above Popperton Park :

Bad Spanish

 

The substitution of Parke for Parque is one of the worst Spanish mistakes I’ve ever seen in public signage. Spanish doesn’t even normally use the letter k! Even Google Translate or its ilk would have gotten this right. Grrrr.

If you care about such things, please drop a line to parks@slcgov.com asking them to fix the sign.

“No niños en la canasta” — not!

I’ve been meaning for some time to share this horrendous sign I saw in a shopping cart at my local supermarket:

This sign combines several mistakes, evidently as a result of a word-by-word translation:

  • The upside-down ¡ is missing.
  • You can’t say no niños. It would have to be ningún niño. This is way too formal for a shopping cart, suggesting that a complete rewording would be better.
  • Canasta ‘basket’ is a bit iffy — depending on where you live, the correct word might be cestaCarrito ‘shopping cart’ would be safer.

I asked native speakers on reddit and many recommended something like ¡No sentar niños en el carrito! ‘No seating children in the shopping cart”.