Be Careful With Your Words

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Viva Cuernavaca | Wednesday, October 26, 2016

November is just around the corner and many of those in colder areas of the world will be visiting Mexico and indeed Cuernavaca to escape the freezing weather. Many will be tourist seeking a brief few days of warmth, while others are the “snowbirds” who will be returning to their winter homes in the City of Eternal Spring.

For the taxi drivers that line up outside of the Pullman de Morelos bus station to ferry their charges, freshly arrived from the Mexico City airport to their hotels and homes, it will be a busy but entertaining period as they contend with the varied languages, accents and mispronounces of common Spanish words. The same is true of hotel service personnel and the waitstaff in the restaurants. They have become accustom to dealing with the language problems and make every effort to understand their clients, even helping them with the correction of their misuse.

However, when approaching people on the street or over the telephone, the language problem can spell much bigger problems to those unfamiliar with the Spanish language or at the least the mispronounces of words. The use of Spanish phrases and words can be entertaining for the Spanish speaking residents of the city, often met with smiles and laughs from both the local and foreigner. However, it can also give rise to some unexpected looks of shock from both, as in any language there are often more than one meaning to a phrase or word.

If you assumed that buying that little Spanish language dictionary before you left home was a grand idea, think again. While the language of Mexico is considered Spanish, it was only derived from Spanish and that was in 1512. Today, the language of Mexico can be quite different from the Spanish language of Spain and other Spanish speaking countries. Likewise, just as in other countries, each geographical area of Mexico may have their own meaning to a word or phrase. If you must buy a dictionary, please consider one that states Mexican Spanish and was printed in Mexico, not in the UK or elsewhere. Use it only to help you learn how to pronounce syllables and individual words, but by no means should you ever attempt to piece together a sentence from individual words in a dictionary. The phrases may take on a completely different and often either amusing or disastrous turn of events.

It is time for a refresher course in Spanish, albeit a very short course with just enough information to keep you out of some trouble. It is suggested that you plan to arrive in Cuernavaca a day or so in advance of your visit and attend one of the many Spanish language schools for a more complete and able crash course on the Mexican language.

Warning: This article contains mildly offensive language that is necessary to educate you as to the improper use of some Spanish phrases and words.

Now for some of the ways you can get into real trouble with phrases and words.

We must begin with perhaps the first phrase mentioned in a greeting, Buenas noches! It is not uncommon to slip with the word noches, as most foreigners associate Mexican food with nachos, and thus the phrase comes out as Buenas Naches! The phrase, Buenas Naches, is Spanish street slang for Nice Butt!, and comes from the word nalgas meaning buttocks. This is not exactly what you should be saying to the taxi driver as you exit the bus station. While it may gather a laugh at the bus station, hotel or restaurant, on the street it could bring unwanted sexual advances that might take some serious effort to dispel.

Once in the cab, most drivers will ask you were you are from as a way in initiating small talk with, “¿De donde eres?” Please do not insult them by saying you are an Americano or Norteamericano, the driver may laugh and tell you that he is also an American. Mexicans are Americans and North Americans as well, since Americans are anyone from Greenland in the north to Peru in the south. If you are from the United States of America you are known in Spanish as estadounidenses, but it would be much simpler to say, “Soy de Estados Unidos” or “I am from the United States.”

When you arrive at your hotel, and the bellboy escorts you to your room, if you ask him to “turn on the light” again, you must be careful. The correct phrase should be ¡Por favor enciende la luz!, which means “Please, turn on the light!”. If you stay, “Me enciendes!” you are telling the bellboy that, “You turn me on!”, which could lead to hasty departure of the young man from your room.

If you arrive in Cuernavaca during the day from one of the colder regions of the world, you may be surprised at mild climate, where even in the winter months, the average year-round temperature in Cuernavaca is 20°c (68°f). In November, the temperature may be 28˚c (82˚f). The appropriate word for expressing the warm temperature would be “muy calor” and usually spoken while waving your hand in front of your face in a cooling motion. Please do not use the phrase “muy caliente“, which might send the message that you are in a state of heated sexual arousal. This might very well prove to be problematic.

The next morning many foreigners will make their way to the hotel restaurant or one of the many restaurants in Cuernavaca. You should know the difference between hambre (hungry) and hombre (man). If you say, I am hungry! incorrectly, you may be stating, “I am a man!” Hambre is pronounced ahm-bre and hombre is pronounced as ohm-bre.

Since the favorite breakfast dish might include eggs (huevos). One must be careful with this word, as in street language, it also refers to a man’s testicles. Thus you might not want to ask a waiter, ¿Tienes huevos? if you want to know if the restaurant has eggs. The phrase might get a big smile from the waiter as he states, “Sí, tengo dos y un chile grande, también!“, which would mean, “Yes, I have two and a large chile, as well!” For your additional illumination, the word chile while often referring to a chili pepper also refers to a man’s penis.

If you would like a bottle of water drink, you would use the Spanish word for water, which is agua, but you can not simply add an s to the end of word for multiple glasses of water, as aguas means look out or heads up. It is better to ask ¿Podemos tener dos botellas de agua, por favor?, which means, “Can we have two bottles of water, please?”

Ordering a glass of juice is not that difficult, “Un vaso de jugo, por favor! But it can get you in trouble as well. A glass is “vaso” in Spanish, and since the v is pronounced as a b, the word vaso sounds like baso. If you mispronounce and say “abrazo” when you meant a “baso”, the server may think you are asking for a “juicy hug”, since hug is “abrazo” in Spanish.

After enjoying your breakfast, you may want to ask for a toothpick. After perusing your small Spanish language dictionary, you do not find the word toothpick, so you revert to a descriptive phase and ask the waiter, ¿Tienes un palito? thinking that you are asking them “Do you have a little stick?” The Spanish word for stick is palo and a little stick would be palillo or palito in some instances. Obviously, asking a waiter “Do you have a little stick?”this might open up an unexpected response in reference to the size of the waiter’s manhood. The correct phrase would be, “Tienes pica de diente?

When paying with pesos, understand that with an accent it may be confused with besos, which means kisses. Of course, all you wanted to know how many pesos they wanted, not that you were offering them kisses.

If you are planning on sticking around until the New Year, you may want to be very careful when wishing people a Happy New Year or “Feliz Año”. The small tilde above the letter n changes the pronunciation from an n to a double N sound, or n’yay. Thus with the tilde the word año is pronounced as ahn-yo. Without the tilde the word become ano, which is Spanish for anus, which is very offensive as you just told the person to, “Be happy, asshole!” This is not a great way to make or keep friends.

If at some time you want to make an apology for your apparent language errors you might think that you should simply say, “I am very embarrassed!” Back again you go to your small Spanish language dictionary and piece together the sentence, “Estoy muy embarazada!” which actually means, “I am very pregnant!”

Here is a great tip: It is often difficult for the foreigner to remember the differences between tu and usted, and when to use them, since they both mean “you”. Spanish speakers use tú and usted, to convey the formality of a relationship. is less formal and is used when you’re talking to someone of the same age, the same rank, or the same educational level. An easy way around this is when someone says, “¡Buenos dias!” and you don’t remember the difference between tu and usted is to simply replace “¿Como tu?” or “¿Como usted?” (And, how are you?” with “¿Como estamos?”, which removes the problem and has a better ring to it.

You should make every attempt to speak Spanish during your stay as it will help endear you to the local population. In turn, they will help you learn their language. Again, arrive early and take a crash course at one of the Spanish language schools. You can get one-on-one coaching with a Spanish language speaker for very little money and it will prove to be very worth while. And, by all means, enjoy your stay while in Cuernavaca.

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G. William Hood is a writer, fine arts painter, educator and world traveler. He lives in Cuernavaca with his pet cockatiel, Pepe.