Category Archives: Vocabulary

En la chimenea (without a paddle)

I’m proud of my Spanish. I’ve spoken this beautiful language for decades, taught it for more than fifteen years, and have even written two books about it. Nevertheless, from time to time I am forcibly reminded that I am not a native Spanish speaker and will never attain total proficiency.

Today was one of those days. I emailed a Spanish friend to ask how he and his family were doing in Madrid’s unexpected snowy weather. He answered, in part,

Todos bien aquí. Mucho frío y mucha familia en la chimenea!!! 

Madrid nevada

The en la chimenea bit threw me for a total loop. His family was “in the chimney?” Surely this was an idiom. Pursuing this hypothesis, I read on WordReference’s Collins Dictionary tab that chimenea can be informal slang for ‘head’ (like noggin in English), and that the expression estar mal de la chimenea means ‘to be wrong in the head.’ So I concluded that mucha familia en la chimenea probably meant that many members of my friend’s family were going nuts. In English we’d call this cabin fever.

Thanks to WordReference’s Spanish-English vocabulary forum, where I posted to confirm my hypothesis, I soon found out that I was dead wrong. My friend wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but rather simply stating that many family members were gathered around the fireplace! My botched interpretation was the result of two differences in word usage between English and Spanish within that short sentence:

  • Chimenea translates not just as ‘chimney,’ but also as ‘fireplace’ or ‘hearth.’
  • En can be translated as either ‘in,’ ‘on,’ or ‘at,’ according to context. I knew this! In fact, this broad range of meanings is an unusual feature of Spanish, and so a major theme of Question 43 in my first book (“Why are Spanish prepositions unpredictable?”) as well as a prime example in the first chapter of my second book (“How is Spanish different from other languages?”). But my misinterpretation of chimenea as ‘chimney’ made it impossible for me to see en as meaning ‘at’ (‘at the chimney???’) even though this was, in fact, the correct interpretation of the preposition in the present case. (Around the fireplace is a more idiomatic translation.)

I stand corrected…and humbled.

Stepping back a bit, episodes like this serve an important purpose: they help to keep me a more empathetic teacher. My mistakes may be less frequent than my students’, and may involve more subtle aspects of vocabulary and grammar, but essentially we are all in the same boat, trying to navigate the tricky waters of a second language. There are always unexpected rocks both behind and ahead.

One fish two fish pez pescado

Never having caught a fish in my life, I certainly didn’t imagine that I would ever write a blog post about our aquatic pals, let alone two. Nevertheless this is my second post on the topic. I guess everything is more interesting in Spanish.

As I explained in my first fish post back in 2016, Spanish has two words for fish: pez for a live fish and pescado for one that you see in a pescadería (fish store), supermarket, or restaurant. The verb pescar means ‘to fish’ and pescado is its past participle. So a pescado is simply a pez that has been fished, or caught.

Pez and pescado were at the root of an amusing incident that took place while I was visiting my grandkids in May. This was during the first wave of COVID-19 in the Northeast and my grandsons’ classes had gone online. My younger grandson’s Montessori kindergarten had a weekly Spanish lesson via Zoom and we both thought it would be fun for me to sit in. I have to confess that I stayed out of camera range and fed Zachary answers to the teacher’s questions. (Wouldn’t you?) As you can imagine he was the star of the lesson, getting everything right and amazing the teacher…UNTIL the class started to go through a set of animal words and they got to ‘fish.’

The teacher showed a picture of a pet fish in a bowl and asked if anyone knew ¿Qué es esto? Zachary was the only student to raise his hand. The teacher called on him and he said, correctly, Es un pez, to which the teacher replied No, es un pescado. They went back and forth a few times and the teacher held her ground.

Es un pez


During the rest of the lesson I noticed other mistakes in the teacher’s Spanish. She said that a ‘kangaroo’ was a cangarú, which is basically a Spanish rendering of the English word instead of the proper Spanish word canguro. She also made a gender mistake, saying el serpiente instead of la. Given the teacher’s impeccable accent I concluded that she was a heritage speaker, meaning someone who grew up speaking Spanish at home but never had a formal education in the subject. Such speakers can have gaps in their knowledge.

According to Prof. Zyzik’s comment on this blog, heritage speakers are more prone to gender errors when using words such as serpiente, which lack a telltale -a or -o ending. Kids make such errors as well.

When I was back home in New York the next week, my daughter told me that Zachary had tried to answer el pez again during Spanish class and was again shot down. At this point I decided to do some research, looking up pescado on the Real Academia Española’s online Diccionario de americanismos. The first bullet in the entry read:

MxGuHoESNiPaCuPRCoVeEcPeBoPy. Pez, ya esté dentro o fuera del agua, sea comestible o no.

That is, in a number of Latin American countries pescado can mean a fish ‘in or out of the water, and edible or not.” So now I know.

In retrospect this dialectal variation might also explain the restaurant painting that inspired my first pez/pescado post, which showed a so-called pescado that was in the water (though hooked on a line). Chances are it was painted by someone with a similar background to Zachary’s teacher.

Stay tuned for my next fish post, four years from now.

New words for old

I enjoyed this article, in the magazine Perfil, about words that have recently been admitted to the Real Academia Española’s official dictionary. The RAE had previously prohibited them because they were “incorrect” in some sense: vulgar, archaic, or borrowings that encroached on existing Spanish vocabulary.

What most interests me about these words is their linguistic variety.

  • My favorite word on the list, vagamundo ‘vagabond,’ is a modification of standard Spanish vagabundo, which descends from Latin vagabundus ‘strolling about.’ It is a perfect example of ‘folk etymology,’ a process by which speakers reshape a word to reflect a plausible (though incorrect) theory of its origin. A classic example in English is female, a reshaping of Middle English femelle that implies a (fictional) relationship to the word male. The reformulated vagamundo implies that the word combined vagar ‘to roam’ and mundo ‘world’; i.e., someone who roams the world. This reformulation is so tempting that it appeared in written Spanish as early as the fifteenth century, not long after vagabundo itself (1387). In addition, the ‘vulgar’ verb vagamundear ‘to roam (as a vagabond)’ preceded its proper sibling, vagabundear, by more than a century.
  • Another personal favorite, murciégalo ‘bat’, appears to be a metathesis (transposition) of standard Spanish murciélago — but in fact, the metathesis went the other way around! Murciégalo is the original form of the word, a compounding of the (now archaic) mur ‘rat’ and ciego ‘blind.’ It has mostly been supplanted by the modern murciélago, but the RAE considers it common enough to have earned a spot in the dictionary. In either form, this is my go-to example of a palabra panvocálica, i.e. a word that contains all five Spanish vowels.
  • Speaking of metathesis, crocodilo is a transposed version of the standard Spanish cocodrilo, perhaps under the influence of English crocodile. What makes this example interesting is that the original Latin word, based on Greek, was crocodilus. So the word underwent a first metathesis in the transition to Spanish, which is now reversed in the word’s alternative version.
  • Güisqui ‘whisky’ and cederrón ‘CD-ROM’ are borrowings from English. I love their Spanish spellings.
  • Bacón ‘bacon’ is a more problematic (though now accepted) borrowing because Spanish already has a perfectly good word for ‘bacon’: the venerable tocino, first attested in 1061.
  • Asín ‘so,’ from así, and toballa ‘towel’, from toalla, both exemplify epenthesis, or the insertion of a sound. The RAE speculates that the -n added to así is related to the -n “in other particles”: meaning, I assume, en ‘in/on’ and con ‘with.’ Perhaps the added b in toballa was inspired by the word tobillo ‘ankle.’
  • Almóndiga is a common variation of albóndiga ‘meatball,’ a popular Spanish tapa. Like many other Spanish words that begin with -alalbóndiga is a word of Arabic origin. Perhaps the b changed to an m under the influence of other common almo– words such as almohada ‘pillow’, almoneda ‘auction’, and almorzar ‘to eat lunch’ (not an Arabic word).



More fruit, please

Today, still focused on gender, I reread Christopher Pountain‘s 2006 article “Gender and Spanish agentive suffixes: Where the motivated meets the arbitrary,” published in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America (81:19-42). As its title implies, the article focuses mostly on the suffixes -dor and -dora. Pountain makes the case that when applied to non-animate objects, masculine -dor usually denotes an “implement or material, sometimes even a machine,”  while feminine -dora “appears only to denote a machine.” One example pair is asador, meaning ‘spit’ or ‘roaster’ versus asadora ‘electric griddle.’ Pountain also points out the large number of cases where a non-animate feminine, such as pisadora ‘grape press,’ contrasts with an animate masculine: here, pisador ‘grape treader.’

This major point aside, I was delighted to see that Pountain begins his article with the topic of the ‘feminine fruit, masculine tree’ word pairs that I discussed in my previous post. He mentioned two examples that were lacking in that post (but which I’ve now added): lúcuma/oeggfruit (tree)’ and frambuesa/o ‘raspberry (cane).’ These examples are particularly significant because lúcuma and frambuesa are both borrowings, the former from Quechua and the latter from French. The fact that they were sucked into this pattern demonstrates its vigor.

“Eggfruit” is a new fruit for me. I am definitely going to try it the next time I travel to the Andes.

By OtterAM – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Fruit, trees, and gender

Having recuperated from three weeks’ intensive travel in Spain, and a long weekend with the grandbabes, I’m back to working full time on my new book. It’s coming along nicely, albeit slowly.

As part of a book section on gender I had a close look at the question of the gender of words for fruit and trees. Many readers are undoubtedly aware of the frequent gender pattern of “feminine fruit, masculine tree” exemplified by manzana ‘apple’ and manzano ‘apple tree’. I did a somewhat exhaustive survey of fruit and tree vocabulary to see how regular this pattern is. Linguee was my best friend in this quest.

It turns out that for feminine fruit names, the pattern holds strong. As you can see in the table below, most feminine fruits do have a corresponding masculine tree name, though a few have less frequent alternatives as well (shown in italics). The one major exception is morera ‘mulberry’, whose tree is the same word, morera. Spanish obviously needs a morero tree.

Feminine fruit Masculine tree -ero árbol de ____ same word
naranja ‘orange’ naranjo
oliva/aceituna ‘olive’ olivo/aceituno
lúcuma lúcumo
frambuesa frambueso
banana banano platanero
manzana ‘apple’ manzano árbol de manzanas
cereza ‘cherry’ cerezo
pera ‘pear’ peral
ciruela ‘plum’ ciruelo
morera ‘mulberry’ morera

Not all fruits are feminine, however, and the treatment of masculine fruits is much more varied. The tree of the higo is actually the feminine higuera, thus a major counterexample to the regular pattern shown above. Other fruits rely on the -ero suffix for their tree name, a sometimes ungainly solution (albaricoquero, anyone?). Some fruits have no dedicated tree name, and rely on the periphrastic árbol de construction (also listed as a backup for higueramelocotonero, and albaricoquero). The treatment of aguacate ‘avocado’ varies depending on where you look. According to WordReference and the Real Academia aguacate, like morera, does double duty as a tree and a fruit, with the “tree” meaning primary. WordReference also lists aguacatero as an alternative for ‘avocado tree’, but the Real Academia defines it merely as ‘pertaining to the avocado’ — nothing arboreal there. In the meantime, Linguee defines aguacate as a fruit, not a tree, and gives aguacatero as its only translation for ‘avocado tree.’

Masculine fruit Feminine tree -ero árbol de same word
higo higuera árbol de higo
melocotón, durazno melocotonero árbol de durazno
albaricoque albaricoquero árbol de albaricoque
aguacate aguacatero   aguacate
membrillo árbol de membrillo
mango árbol de mango

If I were the goddess of Spanish I would clean up this situation by changing the gender of some of the masculine fruits so they could have nice masculine tree names. Perhaps the next generation of Spanish speakers will get this job done.


I didn’t wake up this morning expecting to write a blog post about sangría. But while preparing a handout with instructions for student compositions, I realized that I didn’t know how to say indentation in Spanish. And when I looked it up in Word Reference (my favorite dictionary resource), to my surprise I learned that the correct Spanish word is sangría.

¿Sangría? As in sangría? This definitely called for some further investigation.

Image result for sangria

Again consulting Word Reference, it turns out that sangría has three basic uses. First, there is the refreshing summer drink made from wine, fruit, and other ingredients. Second, there are a few meanings clearly derived from the word sangre ‘blood’. These include ‘bloodletting’, ‘bleeding’, and ‘phlebotomy’; ‘the inside of the elbow’ (where blood is drawn) — this is an unnamed body part in English, what fun!; and, more figuratively, ‘drain’ or ‘loss-maker’. Third, there is the typographical meaning this post started with: ‘indentation’. Likewise, sangrar means both ‘to bleed’ and ‘to indent’.

Leaving aside the indentation meaning for a moment, the question naturally arises: does the beverage sangría get its name from its red color? While the English-oriented Etymology Online website claims that it does, the higher authority of Joan Corominas dismisses this possibility. He explains that sangría was not used with this meaning in Spanish until 1832, and that

It is unlikely that this is a figurative use of sangría ‘bleeding’, mostly because the English sangaree was already seen in 1736 (and Portuguese sangría, 1813); from English it soon passed to Minorcan in the form sèngri — which proves that the word was not used then in either Castilian or Catalan — and in American Spanish it is relatively unpopular. It probably comes from India, from a word derived from Sanskrit çarkarā ‘sugar’, which became sakkarā in Pali, çakkar in Hindi, and šakr in Urdu (perhaps a feminine sakkarī or *sankarī applied to sugared wine).

Corominas doesn’t address the typographical meaning of sangría, However, it occurred to me that bleed has a typographical meaning in English as well, where (to quote Wikipedia) “bleed is printing that goes beyond the edge of where the sheet will be trimmed. In other words, the bleed is the area to be trimmed off.”

I can easily see the origin of the English meaning, since the ink bleeds, or extends, beyond the intended trimming boundary. The Spanish typographical sangría is more opaque to me, since an indentation is a reduction rather than an extension. Maybe it comes, instead, from the ‘inside of an elbow’ meaning, since an indentation is like the bend of an elbow?

Papa, papa, papá

This adorable cartoon, which seems to be all over the Internet– my apologies, then, if you’ve seen it before — plays with the three meanings of /papa/:

  • la papa (fem.) ‘potato’
  • el Papa (masc.) ‘Pope’
  • el papá (masc.) ‘daddy’

So the last part of the cartoon depicts a daddy potato Pope with his potato Pope kids. Note the pacifiers.

If anyone can track down where this comes from I will be happy to give appropriate credit.

To gloss or not to gloss: a follow-up

Last week I wrote about my policy of handing out vocabulary lists with the English glosses (translations) written in. (Our textbook does not provide glosses for the end-of-chapter vocabulary lists, only a master list at the end of the book.)

When my students filled out their course evaluations I asked them to let me know what they thought of this practice. My question presented both sides of the issue:

“I like to give you the English translations of the chapter vocabulary to save you time and point out possible pitfalls. But other teachers think that looking up the words yourself is an important step in learning. Which approach do you think is best for you?”

I was pleased to see that my students unanimously appreciated the glosses. Also, even though I forgot ask them to explain their choice, most did so on their own. Saving time was most often mentioned as a benefit. Since this is a most studious group, I wasn’t surprised that many of these students said this was time they could spend memorizing the words or doing other homework.

One student gave a more nuanced perspective on the time factor:

” I looked up all my vocab words myself last year in Spanish class and although it did help me to know them better in the beginning, having the extra time saved from not looking them up meant more time to study them and memorize them later.”

A second benefit often mentioned was accuracy: students said that the glosses kept them from “studying the wrong meanings,” as one student put it.

Given this response, I will definitely continue to provide glosses when I teach this class again.

Some specifics: Sixteen students were present that day, and all responded. Of the thirteen who explained their answer, nine mentioned time and five accuracy. (These add up to fourteen because one student gave both reasons.)

Vocabulary: to gloss or not to gloss?

Everybody knows that flossing is good for you. But what about glossing?

The Spanish textbook series we currently use at Fordham University is Pearson’s Gente. The beginning and intermediate books in the series provide glosses, or translations, for the vocabulary list at the end of each chapter. But the advanced textbook does not. There is a Spanish-English glossary at the end of the book that students can use to look up words.

The first time I taught this course, I was struck by how inefficient it was for each student to have to look up the words. Moreover, I found some mistakes, or at least weaknesses, in the glosses:

  • missing words
  • glosses that average college students wouldn’t necessarily understand (‘foment’, ‘infusion’)
  • glosses that are correct but not necessarily satisfactory, such as ‘commitment, engagement’ for compromiso (leaving out that it’s often a pre-marital engagement) or ‘offer’ for oferta, where the usual meaning involves a special price.
  • glosses that conflate differences, such as genialidad and genio both glossed as ‘genius’
  • no heads-up for false cognates such as compromiso, which doesn’t mean ‘compromise’

So this semester, at the beginning of each chapter I gave the students a screen shot of the vocabulary page on which I had written on my own glosses. I photocopied these onto yellow paper — a teaching trick I picked up somewhere along the way. Here’s an example: my original, hence not yellow. Note that I don’t generally gloss cognates. This drives home their ubiquity, and also makes false cognates stand out.

(post continues after graphic)

When I told a colleague about my approach, she was mildly horrified. She thought that it was important for students to look up the glosses themselves, and that this was their first step in learning vocabulary. I believe that while it’s beneficial to use a dictionary while reading, and that this is a special skill that we need to teach our students, looking up 100 words, in alphabetical order, in a simple glossary is fundamentally different. It’s mechanical, rather than intellectual, essentially a secretarial task of collating two lists.

What do you think?

In this follow-up post, I describe my students’ unanimously favorable assessment of the glosses.



Ya and todavía, logical at last

The Spanish words ya ‘already’ and todavía ‘still’ are straightforward enough, but their negatives also have specific meanings: todavía no means ‘not yet’ and ya no means ‘no longer.’ So this small corner of Spanish vocabulary is actually a bit tricky.

As a Spanish student I dealt with the problem via brute force, memorizing the four expressions and their translations. This worked for years but was always a bit unsatisfying. Then, a few years ago, a member of reddit’s /r/Spanish subreddit posted the following infographic, which changed the way i think about these words. The focus on ya as change and todavía as continuity unites the positive and negative meanings of both these adverbs. I am posting it here with his permission.

(post continues after infographic)

This brings me to one of my favorite teaching anecdotes. Back in 2008, when teaching a lesson on these four adverbs, I thought that it would be fun to base an exercise on the previous year’s Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. I made a little table that showed who the candidates were at different stages at the primaries, and the students had to choose between ya and todavía to complete sentences like “En verano 2007, Hillary Clinton ________ no era candidata.” One of my students complained, “I didn’t know we had to know history for this class!” So cute…