Category Archives: Vocabulary

Waiting and hoping, i.e. esperar

In an earlier post I summarized some asymmetrical differences between Spanish and English: the many distinctions in meaning seen in Spanish but not English, such as ser vs. estar (both meaning ‘to be’), and some seen in English but not Spanish, such as his vs. her vs. their (Spanish su). A recent thread on r/Spanish brought to mind another asymmetry of the second type: the Spanish verb esperar, which can mean either wait (for) or hope:

  • Espero el autobús ‘We’re waiting for the bus.’
  • Espero que venga ‘I hope he comes.’

Comments in that thread pointed out an interesting difference between the two uses of esperar: when used without a direct object, esperar can only mean ‘to wait’. This means that, for example, Tienes que esperar cannot mean ‘You must hope.’ The only way to express this is via a work-around, such as Tienes que tener esperanza — literally, ‘You must have hope.’

I love it that after spending decades with Spanish I can still come across such fresh nuances of meaning and usage. This is, of course, a “glass half full” reaction — perhaps I should be frustrated that there is always more to learn. But for me, this richness is part of what makes languages interesting.

A new online Spanish etymological dictionary

Today’s post is about a new online resource for the Spanish language lover: the Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish, or OEDoS. A screen clip of the welcome screen is below. The website was inspired by Douglas Harper’s very useful online etymological dictionary of English. It went live in July, and has its own Facebook page. The primary resource consulted to create the entries has been Corominas’s Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana. (This is the six-volume standard, whose shorter version is one of the “top 10 books” on my bookshelf.)


I contacted the OEDoS Team to find out more about their methodology. Via a friendly return email I learned that the dictionary began with the 2000 most frequently used words of Spanish, with others added because of etymological importance, user requests, and other reasons. My OEDoS contact’s (Patrick Welsh) explanation of how the OEDoS handles etymological disagreements was quite interesting:

As regards conflicting etymologies, we the OEDoS team recognize a dual responsibility of both accuracy and readability. We aim to capture disagreement between linguists whenever possible. In the interest of our time constraints and resources, this is not always possible. Sometimes this breeds disagreement on our side as well. For example, the etymology of hacer ( sparked significant disagreement on historical accentuation and lexical borrowing; this caused the publication of the entry to be delayed for some time. We note the incisive criticism of Penny and others in the 1980s toward Meyer-Leubke, as well as very recent scholarship on Latin’s reflexes in Romance. Ultimately, we decided Meyer-Leubke’s comments were strong enough to overcome our initial wariness. Brief mention of two modern publications were included in the entry as well. Sometimes the entry you see in the dictionary is a snapshot of disagreement: not only between historical linguists at their university desks but between us as well


I hope that you will all visit this website and spread the word about the project.

Trabajar por vs. trabajar para

My airplane reading for my flight home from Spain was the third book in Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” series, Cinco días de octubre. I love these books! The plots are gripping, the Spanish is lively, the links to modern Spanish history are illuminating, the Barcelona setting is vivid (Sierra’s events unfold on actual streets, parks, and whatnot), and Inspector Mascarell himself is a compelling character, from his brilliant investigative skills to his mental conversations with his dead wife.

Of course, I always have my eyes out for interesting linguistic tidbits, and I found one on p. 223 of the paperback edition. There, Mascarell reassures a nervous witness that although he is temporarily in the employ of the unscrupulous Benigno Sáez de Heredia, he isn’t Sáez’s ally. He does this by juxtaposing por and para with the verb trabajar:

Trabajo para él, accidentalmente, pero no por él, descuide.
‘I work for him, accidentally, but not for him, so relax.’

Por and para both translate as ‘for’ in English, and mastering the subtle differences between them is one of the less pleasant tasks in learning Spanish (see, for instance, the por/para handout on my Teaching page, and also this earlier post). The contrast between trabajar por and trabajar para is a standard part of this topic. However, Sierra does not exploit the contrast in the usual way.

Normally, trabajar para means ‘to work for (as an employee)’ and trabajar por means ‘to work for (as a substitute)’, as when a usual worker is sick. My por/para handout includes examples of both uses. However, in this case Sierra is using trabajar por to mean instead ‘to work for the sake of’, or ‘for the benefit of’. This is a perfectly reasonable use of por, but startling after focusing, for years (!!!), on the employee/substitute contrast.

Like other contrasts that exist in Spanish but not English, such as ser vs. estar ‘to be’ and the preterite vs. imperfect past tenses, the por/para contrast can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, the contrast is a genuine challenge for novice Spanish students, and even old hands: after decades of striving, I still occasionally find myself stumped as to which preposition to use. On the other hand, Sierra’s example here shows the expressive power of the por/para contrast. It accomplishes elegantly, with a single lexical choice, a difference that in English requires either dramatic emphasis on the second for (as I’ve tried to show via boldface), or a more drastic, and stiffer, rewording: perhaps ‘…but not on his behalf’. It’s always comforting to see such a useful payoff for a challenging aspect of the language.

[Other posts based on Sierra i Fabra’s books have concerned leísmo (here and here), the personal a, and the imperfect subjunctive.]

Jespersen’s Cycle in Spanish – past and present

When I started teaching Spanish in 2004, I put linguistics on the back burner — I assumed, forever. This changed in the summer of 2008, with a single “Aha!” moment during an advanced Spanish class I was taking at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. (Another class that summer was the source of a useful reading list of Spanish light fiction.) Our professor, José Luis Ocasar (now at George Washington University), explained that en absoluto ‘absolutely’ had come to mean ‘absolutely not’ because of its frequent use in negative sentences, such as No era un nombre árabe en absoluto ‘It was absolutely not an Arab name’.

This immediately struck a linguistic bell: it was clearly an example of Jespersen’s Cycle, the well-known process by which affirmatives become negatives. Readers may be familiar with this process from the use of French pas (as in Je ne sais pas) to mean ‘no’ even without the ne. Recognizing it in Spanish was thrilling, like running into an old friend in an exotic locale. It also made me realize that my linguistics background gave me the privilege of understanding facts of Spanish in a different way than my fellow students. The desire to share this privilege is what eventually led me to write ¿Por qué?.

For me, Jespersen’s Cycle in Spanish has been the gift that keeps giving. I later learned that en absoluto is not the only ongoing instance of the process; en modo alguno ‘in some way’ has also come to mean ‘in no way’. Even better, looking back into the history of Spanish, it turns out that Jespersen’s Cycle starred in the creation of four Spanish negatives: nadienada, jamás, and tampocoNadie and nada began with Latin expressions built on the verb nascor ‘to be born’ (the source of nacer): non homines nati ‘no people born’ and non res nata ‘no thing born’. These were roughly equivalent to English ‘not a soul’ and ‘nothing on Earth’. Over time, nati became nadienata became nada, and both became standalone negatives. Jamás developed from the expression ya más ‘any more’, and tampoco from tanto poco ‘so little’, both paired with no so frequently that they became negative themselves.

Until this morning, I thought I knew all there was to know about Jespersen’s Cycle in Spanish. Then I read this useful blog post about the Spanish of Don Quijote. It included the use of persona instead of nadie — for example, in the sentence Una noche se salieron del lugar sin que persona los viese. While this usage is not possible in modern Spanish — the RAE doesn’t even list it with an ‘archaic’ warning — it is directly analogous to the rise of the French negative personne ‘nobody’.

Please let me know if I’m missed any other instances of Jespersen’s Cycle in Spanish.

Note: this post is basically an expansion of slides 20 and 21 of my 2016 New Year’s listicle, “The top 10 surprising ways that Spanish isn’t special”.


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.

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.



The top 10 surprising ways that Spanish isn’t special

¡Próspero Año Nuevo!

My previous post presented the Top 10 reasons why Spanish is special. This post presents its opposite: the Top 10 reasons why Spanish isn’t special. Like the previous Top 10 list, it includes examples from Spanish grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation.

This Top 10 list was constructed with native speakers of English in mind. It describes core aspects of Spanish that may seem peculiar, but turn out to be normal when considered in a broader linguistic context. Some of these are truly surprising! The inscrutable ‘personal a, for example, turns out to be a prime example of a linguistic phenomenon known as Differential Object Marking, while the use of positive expressions like en absoluto (‘absolutely’) with a negative meaning (‘absolutely not’), illustrates a well-known historical process called Jespersen’s Cycle.

To me, the two lists are equally interesting. I love both the special features of Spanish and its reflection of broader cross-linguistic tendencies. I hope you do, too.


The top 10 reasons why Spanish is special

Today’s post is the first of several I plan to make in the next few weeks to summarize the broad linguistic themes that emerged as I wrote my book. It is a follow-up on a post I did some months ago, “What makes Spanish unique”. This post is somewhat more general, and, I hope, more fun because it’s a slideshow.


Click the bidirectional diagonal arrow to view in fullscreen mode.

Does “andurriales” have an English equivalent?

In my current research I’m revisiting the topic of pluralia tantum: words that are normally used in their plural form, even when no plural meaning is intended. Two good examples in Spanish are vacaciones ‘vacation’ and tardes in Buenas tardes ‘Good afternoon’.  In particular, I’ve been plowing through the list of pluralia tantum in the Real Academia’s Nueva Gramática de la lengua española (a lot of scholarly bang for your buck at $14.75). There I came across andurriales, which means parajes extraviados o fuera de camino ‘isolated or out-of-the-way places’.

I love the fact that there is, I think, no exact equivalent for this word in English. (Let me know if you think of one!) Andurriales doesn’t have boondocks’s negative connotation. In fact, this thoughtful exploration of the word on a Spanish vocabulary blog, La llave del mundo “The key to the world”, expands the definition poetiically as follows: esos paseos fuera de las rutas señaladas, que sugieren un paraje remoto, poco transitado, apartado, ignoto y cautivador… ‘those unmarked routes that suggest a remote, unknown, rarely visited, and captivating place.’

To my delight, the Llave bloggers illustrated the word with a passage from El séptimo velo, Juan Manuel de Prada’s prize-winning novel, which I wrote about a few times more than a year ago (most recently here). El séptimo velo is, as I described then, packed to the gills with recondite vocabulary, so it’s appropriate that andurriales should show up in it. The specific passage cited is from the dramatic description of the heroine’s family’s escape, over the Pyrenees, from Civil War-torn Spain: Sacando fuerzas de flaqueza, Estrada se internó por andurriales sólo frecuentados por las cabras, porteando a una Catalina exánime “Tapping his last reserves of strength, Estrada sought out andurriales barely used even by goats, carrying the exhausted Catalina.”

Every pair of languages undoubtedly has bountiful examples of such untranslatable vocabulary. Here’s a pretty good list for Spanish versus English. I take issue, though, with pena ajena ‘shame on someone else’s behalf’ (since it’s a phrase, not a word) and estrenar, since English has debut, and I wish they’d included anoche ‘last night’ along with anteayer ‘the day before yesterday’ (it was interesting, though, to learn the variant antier). The word tuerto ‘one-eyed’ is part of a larger set of words for disabilities that I discussed here.

My favorite example of an English word that doesn’t translate directly into Spanish is borrow, whose awkward Spanish equivalent is the phrasal pedir prestado ‘to ask for as a loan’. It’s remarkable that Spanish lacks a word for this everyday action.

Here is a longer list of words from a variety of languages that don’t translate well into English — but perhaps should.

A RAE map for Spanish dialects

I just stumbled across a fun feature on the Real Academia’s website: an interactive map that lets you find country-specific dictionary entries:

As an example, if you mouse-hover over Cuba, you will see that the country has 1892 acepciones, or lexical entries, in the dictionary. Clicking on the country brings you to a list of these entries. Some words on the list are used only in Cuba, such as abakuá, meaning a member of a men-only secret society. Others are general Spanish words with uses specific to Cuba. For example, in Cuba abanico ‘fan’ can refer to a wooden device that signals to a train conductor the correct branch of a track fork to take.

To my disappointment there are no acepciones for the United States, even though we have our own branch of the Academia, and more Spanish speakers than Spain. In contrast, the Philippines have 88 entries even though Spanish is no longer spoken there. Not fair!