I got hung up on a matter of terminology while revising a section about Spanish nicknames in my book: are nicknames like Mabel for María Ísabel acronyms? Not according to the English definition: “an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word.” However, the RAE’s Ortografía, my source for the Mabel example, states that it is an acronym (p. 628). When I looked up the RAE’s own definition of acronyms, copied below, I saw that the first meaning matches the English definition: an acrónimo is a sigla, or initialism. The second meaning, though, is broader: “A word formed by the union of elements from two or more words, made up of the beginning of the first and the end of the last, or, frequently, other combinations.”
Live and learn!
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!
Yesterday I came across an interesting article on El País about the founding of the Real Academia Española, one of my favorite institutions. The article relates, with a lamentable lack of detail, how a group of eight Spaniards began meeting in 1713 to create the first Spanish dictionary. Three other colleagues soon joined the project, it received royal sanction the following year, and the rest is (linguistic) history. Missing from the article are the founders’ identities (besides the Marqués de Villena) and backgrounds (more nobility? writers? scholars?). Still, it’s an inspiring tale.
As usual, I read the article with an eye out for unfamiliar vocabulary. All I encountered was a novel (to me) expression: the author compares the RAE’s founding to cuatro gatos [que] se lanzaban al abismo (“four cats who jumped into an abyss”). Lanzarse al abismo was clearly a metaphor for starting a venture into the unknown. Cuatro gatos, on the other hand, seemed purely idiomatic.
Thanks to an appeal to the friendly folks on the wordreference.com Spanish-English vocabulary forum, and a Google search that yielded similar results, I learned that cuatro colloquially refers to a small quantity (in English we’d say “a handful”) and gato can be slang for “person”. (Wordreference.com itself gives a slang interpretation of gato as “person from Madrid”, but the usage seems to be more general.) So the mystery sentence boiled down to “a small group of people started an uncertain venture”.
I love the parallel between this use of gato and the English slang meaning of cat as “a cool person”. The choice of cuatro to stand for “a handful” is also pleasing. As a rule of thumb, I think of three as “a few” and five as “several”; four is right in between. From a literary perspective it was also rather bold to mix literal numbers (8 and 11 founding members) with the metaphorical number 4.
Still, it’s hard to shake off the image of a cat playing a lemming…
I enjoyed a recent article in the New York Times about new economic-crisis-inspired vocabulary in Spanish and other European languages. The Spanish terms mentioned are the following. I’ve included glosses for non-transparent meanings, and links where available.
- los hombres de negro: European Union officials
- prima de riesgo
- bonus (a borrowing from English)
- burbuja in the sense of an economic bubble
- población activa: working population
- ni-ni: a young person neither studying nor working (my favorite on this list)
- indignado: economic protester
- yayoflauta: an older person who protests on behalf of younger people
- marea blanca: protester from the medical community
- troika: IMF, ECB, and EC
This cartoon illustrates both “yayoflauta” and “indignado”. Make sure to check out the other cartoons on the site.
According to the Times article, the Real Academia Española, or RAE (the international Spanish language Academy) has added or modified 200 crisis-inspired words this year, including several of those above. Being a big fan of the RAE, I went onto their website to confirm the Times‘s reporting. I found two contradictions: neither serious, but I’m listing them just to be thorough.
- The Times reports that población activa refers to people old enough to work, but the RAE definition (see link above) doesn’t mention age. Also, this is not a recent addition or modification.
- I couldn’t find prima de riesgo in the RAE, although the dictionary recently added nine (!!!) other new risk-related expressions.
A technical note: some of the links above are to special pages on the RAE website for new or modified words. It’s possible that these links will malfunction once the new words or meanings are incorporated into the main RAE dictionary. In that case, you will be able to find them using the normal RAE search page.