Thursday 24 September 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Swear Words)

- You know what? In Cuba they would probably arrest you for having that bottle on display in a public place.
- Why?
- Because to us 'cojonudo' is a swear word. It comes from 'cojones', which is as rude as it gets in our neck of the woods.

The man shrugged his shoulders, turned around and began to talk to another customer. After all the Santoña market was buzzing by now and he had a business to attend to. My linguistic grievance could take a bench and sit on it all day if it wanted to. He was not in the mood for pesky busybodies lecturing the locals on what was correct language and what was not.

It never ceases to amaze me the stark differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and that used elsewhere in the Hispanic diaspora. It is not just words and phrases that make their norm distinct, but a whole cultural mindset that makes us outsiders feel more prudish occasionally than a heroine from a Mills & Boon novel.

During my recent holiday in Cantabria I was fascinated and shocked in equal measure by Castilian Spanish. The former occurred when talking to the locals and noticing the familiar 's' sound at the end of words that finished with 'd' as in 'verdad' (truth). They would say 'verdads', the 's' an almost imperceptible sound, but easy to hear. It reminded me of Irish English speakers who add a soft 'sh' sound to words ending in 't'. My consternation, on the other hand, was the result of coming across words that I was used to seeing in veeeery different contexts. Like the aforementioned 'cojonudos', which in this region of northern Spain referred to asparagus. More baffling for me was when I saw a stall in the same market advertising 'Chochitos Ricos' (Cuban female readers, you have no idea how much I have agonised over writing that sentence, please accept my most sincere apologies). Never mind the fact that the word 'rico' translates as 'yummy' or 'nice' into English, it was the other term I blushed over. Ironically, by then I was of a darker hue due to a couple of visits to one of the local beaches. Nevertheless, I still turned a bright red when I read that caption. The word 'chochito' (diminutive) or 'chocho' is a sexual colloquial term - although some people would call it slang - for female genitalia in Cuba and one of those vocables not to be used unless you and the femme en question are very intimate. Would Cuban women be less offended by the fact that this word was casting their privates in a positive light? Bigging them up, so to speak? Would the fact that 'chochito' (and it does sound like a term of endearment, doesn't it?) referred to a local confectionary delicacy lessen its impact?

Later on that day I had the chance to put these questions to the test. I happened to walk past a group of my fellow countryladies who were completely immersed in a discussion about how high the prices at the market still were. I was tempted to interrupt the flow of their conversation and ask them what they had to say about these linguistic peculiarities but on second thoughts I desisted because by then I'd already had enough of 'chochitos' and 'cojonudos'.

First photo taken from, the other two images were taken by the blog author.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 27th September at 10am


  1. Dear friend I laughed out loud at you appologizing to the ladies and turning red.

    Thank you for the love.

    Renee xoxo

  2. Hi Mr C

    your story was very amusing. After returning from a trip to Mexico ages back my husband thought of naming his new Ixtapa inspired apartment block after the conch shell...I can't remember the correct word but it was something like la concha...until he was warned of the possible connotation...

    Happy days

  3. Que cómico está esto!

    Mañana mismo voy a la tienda de la esquina y pregunto por conjonudos y chochitos a ver que me dicen.

    Si me cojen presa, sera tu culpa. :)

  4. so interesting -- and perhaps explains why cursing in a foreign language doesn't feel so bad. And spending foreign money seems easier...

  5. Mi ha divertito questo post Cuban. Le varie parole per descrivere.....Beh, si capisce no? ;)

    Mi ha fatto ricordare una vecchia scena del nostro Genio nazionale Roberto Benigni.
    Lui venne invitato in uno show televisivo di Raffaella Carra anni fá. Sinceramente si aveva sempre paura di invitarlo, perché benigni non preparava mai, lui impovvisava. E diceva tutto quello che gli veniva spontaneo, per il terrore di alcuni politici ;)

    Comunque, Questo filmato che ti metto qui come link in Italia é culto in assoluto.

    Sará non facile da capire tutto, ma sono sicuro che ti divertirá:

    Buon post Cuban, at usual :)

    Saluti da Colonia,

  6. Not too familiar with the Spanish language but I seem to recall Castilian dialect is considered a higher dialect in Spain? I can imagine there would be great differences between it and other Hispanic language dialects. Actually it is like that everywhere. Language only serves to remind us all how different we all are, yet we are alike because we speak and communicate.

  7. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Cubano, I feel your pain. I think that writers just take words more seriously, no matter the language. I had similar frustrations in Brazil because Portuguese words are spelled very similarily with similar meaning to Spanish. Bom Dia, for instance, clearly resembles Buenos Dias, with the same Latin root words. Only, it's pronounced Bom Gia. Where the heck does the "g" sound come from and why is it there? I spent the first few days in Brazil upset because I really thought I'd be able to converse a little but nothing made sense to me like I thought it would. I ended up speaking Spanish, which people understood better than my Portuguese! Cho cho by the way, has the same connotations throughout the Caribbean although it's also another name for the vegetable christophene.

  9. Hi Cuban;

    this is fun, I never thought to look at words that way seriously, it is so often a subject causing sniggerings.
    Right, guess what the German word 'Muckefuck' means? Would you believe "ersatz coffee'? I swear that's true.

  10. Love, can you advise the pronounciation of chochitos? I promise it is for educational purposes only!

    This sort of thing happens everywhere, when I lived in Edinburgh I suggested a group of men have a chugging contest, I guess in their region that meant something VERY different then downing beer the quickest ;)

  11. Ha ha ha! We had the same experience from the opposite side, in central Borneo. We were asked to teach a high school class some basic English, so to engage music and motions we decided to teach them the Hokey Pokey ... but neglected to check whether "poki" meant anything in that language ... on the plus side, they'll never forget us.

    In Steve Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought there's a whole chapter about swear words and crude language. Interesting discussion ... if you can stand to read it. :-) Very true that curse words in other languages or dialects just don't have the same emotional punch, even if you know what they mean.

  12. Hi Mr. C,
    Thatz very true. In Tanzania swahili is our National language,there are some of the words and phrases in other languages which have got very strong and negative meanings. For example, some of the Japanese names cannot be called infront of the people you respect or children. names like "Kumamoto" have got very negative meaning, that is, it explains about female genitalia

  13. "It never ceases to amaze me the stark differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and that used elsewhere in the Hispanic diaspora"
    Perhaps the Great Divide has something to do with that...

  14. Another reason to adore your column and thoughts, my friend. When you respect your readers and blush to think upon their potential offense. May we all continue to learn about each others' cultures with such grace.

  15. Hola señor C, gracias por haber visitado mi bloguito!
    Si, te entiendo. Vivo en Italia desde hace treinta años, y el hecho de que los dos idiomas se parezcan mucho crea confusion.
    Me encanta tu lista de peliculas¡ Aqui en Italia llega poco. Por suerte los libros en español no faltan.
    Divertidisimo tu post¡

  16. that is funny but so true.
    I hear some words here or rather pronunciation of words and I cringe because in my mother tongue it would be like swearing.

  17. LOL!!!!!!! Cuban it's been a long time since I visited and this is what I came back, too. What happened to the other blog layout? I guess you came back to the old you. That's the funniest thing I've read in a long time. Don't you just love being Cuban.

    My father-in-law has a great story about his first visit to a Spanish bakery when they came to the US via Spain. My husband was with him on their way to market for bread and food for breakfast. When at the bakery the lady behind the counter ask him if he would like (and i'm blushing, too) bollos calientes...he froze! She had to repeat it a couple of times before he realized that she was offering fresh hot buns!!! LOL...oops, another bilingual pitfall.

    Saludos de la Florida.

  18. Isn't it funny how swearwords are so incredibly culture specific and don't make sense (or don't have the same connotation) when translated to another language. It's interesting to see that this can happen within one langage if it evolved in different cultures.

    My favourite Polish swearword means "pale chicken" in English. Who would have thought...

  19. I had to chuckle reading this - oh the joys of language! I think every language when it has variations in it, has this "problem". :-)

  20. Many thanks for your kind comments. Yes, the word 'bollito' is another term that makes me blush :-).

    Greetings from London.

  21. ha! very enlightening. thank you for sharing this.

    i've been missing in action as of late, but i always enjoy reading your wrods/thoughts when i can. :-D

  22. These words...aha what confusion...the same is true in Puerto Rican Spanish... Some words are offensive in Mexico but in Puerto Rico-no problem. (and vice versa) And then the naughty ones you mention...would make me blush too! Cubas and Puerto Ricans share a lot of language use slang forms!

  23. I only speak English, but can only imagine the embarrassment and confusion of uses of one's language!

  24. 'chochitos'... you're right, for me (with my limited knowledge of Spanish) does sound like a term of endearment. My boyfriend (billingual Spanish/English) lived in Spain for 1,5 years and traveled in South America and Cuba. He thinks that Spanish Spanish (Spanish talked in Spain) is the nicest version of Spanish. I wonder, what's your opinion?

  25. I suppose you could say the same about English spoken here and around the world. The evolution of creatures developing in (near) isolation?

  26. O living amongst the natives - or other!
    I have learned to mostly keep my cross-cultural observations to myself. I enjoy a chuckle when I am with someone who is at home in both languages (or all three of them, as far as I am concerned).

    Btw, "Bollito" is nothing to blush about,
    at least to this Italian speaker. ;-)))

  27. I lived in Madrid for a year and loved the way they swore so creatively and with such good humour and relish. I remember 'cojonudo' as a cheeky but positive word...a swear word but with no bad intent.
    Of course the Britain/US divide has similar moments. As kids we laughed and laughed at what asking to borrow a rubber meant over in the USA.

  28. I liked this post a lot, of course as you know I love the subject. Very true what you wrote, I seen it all.

    I am hoping that two things happen at the same time. That we develop a universal language, naturally and organically, that retains the best bits of all the world's languages and that the great rich diversity of separate languages (including indigenous languages)is retained and respected. I hope we can achieve both.

    Take care friend

  29. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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