The Ecphorizer

Idiom's Delight
Jerry McCann

Issue #31 (March 1984)



While I am a firm believer in raising children to be bilingual, I do not regret my own experience of having to learn Spanish the hard way, the paradigms, the exercises, the recurrent sense of despair, always compensated for by the elation of discovery. [quoteright'/>"So that's how you say 'Up yours'." I do not agree with the Chinese that one picture is worth a thousand words. In their language all their words are pictures, so they are never exposed to the wonder of discovering that an automobile jack may also be a cat, or that one cannot buy groserias in the Safeway store.

What price the pleasure of knowing an expression like "He became the eye of an ant" to describe the successful escape from an uncomfortable situation? On the other hand, how to explain to a student of English why "to split the scene" or "to bug out" mean what they do? How logical but unsympathetic is the response, "Las balas se reparten entre los presentes," to indicate to a victim that you feel he should not have been at the scene of whatever misfortune overtook him. "Bullets," says this dicho, "are always shared only by those present." Would that such a reminder in English find its way into the Oval Office in the form of a little embroidered pen-wiper when the pen is used to authorize another "peace-keeping" or "rescue" mission.

We are fortunate to live in a bilingual community with access to both English and Spanish for the nuances we need for the optimum expression for the occasion. Who would not prefer, having broken a friend's best crystal, to say, "Se me cayo," rather than "I dropped it," thus placing the blame upon the cosmic forces beyond one's control? And the beautiful copout of "se me perdido," instead of the shame-faced "I lost it" when you cannot find a borrowed book?

The pitfalls of translation, of course, can be as painful as the shades of meaning can be delightful. I remember hearing the expression "Ay, que milagro que andas por aqui," and presumed that it meant "How miraculous (marvelous) to find you around here." Of course, it mean that, but it cannot be projected beyond that meaning to serve the purpose to which I put it the first time I used it. One of the girls in my class came bubbling up to me to tell me that she had passed a final examination in another class which we shared.

"Ay Que milagro," I said. The bubbles broke and her face fell.

"¿Porque dice yo esto? No fue milagro. I studied hard for this test and you say that it must be a miracle."

She left me in the corridor and never thereafter shared her little victories with me.

I paid for this and other booboos (how to explain boo-boo?) as I struggled with words which always seemed to be either much more or slightly less than that which they appeared to be. How to guess the meaning of Me cae gordo (he falls me fat) to indicate that someone pisses you off. I am sure that my bubbling classmate felt that I had fallen her very, very fat, indeed.

I could not have asked her help later when I had to deal with the concept of the "vuela-manzana." Why did two very simple Spanish words become incomprehensible when they opted to share a hyphen? I remember the revelation, itself a "blockbuster," when stories of the London blitz supplied the key to the hybrid and further confused the student by translating "bombs" as "bombas" while retaining the Spanish sense of "pumpers" for the words "bomberos," or firemen.

My problem with the "flying apple" was not as personally embarrassing as a later confrontation with a half an orange. Media naranja, in Mexico means a steady girl or boyfriend, the idea of joining the two complementary halves of the orange. I remember my uncomprehending acquiescence, when one of the many suitors of the most attractive girl in the class asked me if I were her media naranja. He was baiting me, of course, but I will never forget the tirade she delivered me in the presence of the entire class.

It would have been more devastating had I understood it, but all the Spanish I knew took instant refuge in some dark corner of my psyche, hiding from the anger in her voice and the contempt in her eyes and the laughter of the boys who had set me up. It was this merciful inability to comprehend which has diffused the memory over the years but I still wince at another incident years later when I came back to Mexico as an adult and presumably fluent in the language. I was being presented to my in-laws, and the parientes were scattered throughout the Republic, from the Mexico City slums of Tepito and Peralvillo to the haciendas of Oaxaco, where the affluent branch of the family lived in old-world elegance, the men in white suits the the women in black. The widows were all called senorita because ancient custom retrofitted them with virginity upon the death of their husbands.

I was a big hit with the Mexico City branch of the family; my own shanty-Irish background adapting at once to the noise and the kids and the cooking smells and the dogs and the chickens running between your legs while you answered the ritual questions about the climate and the altitude and, "How do you like Mexico?" And they loved me even when I called the kids escuincles which I knew to be a Nahuatl word which I thought meant "little rascals." It actually means "dogs" and only parents have the right to call their own children esquincles.

My performance in Oaxaco was less of a gran exito and I still wince from this appearance. I wore a white suit out of deference to the audience as well as a smile which rapidly degenerated from asoleade to babose as I realized that in one dramatic moment, everyone had stopped smiling. We had all shaken hands and bowed, and I was parrying the routine questions with as much charm as I could muster behind my all-too-visible teeth, when one of the widows wanted a little more elaboration.

"But is it also cold in the United Stated, true? What is the difference?"

"Well," I answered judiciously, in an effort to speak as perfect and accentfree Castilian as I could muster, "the cold in Mexico penetrates my bones."

Or that is what I thought I had said. I was aware instantly that my wife was wearing her well-you-blew-it-again-dum-dum look, which I recognized so well, and the group had become a still-photograph, a tin-type tableau from the wall of an 18th century Barcelona drawing-room. I realized that instead of the word huesos for bones, I had used the word huevos. This word generally merely means "eggs." It is, however, the euphemism for testicles, even in 18th century Barcelona drawing-rooms. I still wince at the freeze-frame of parientes in Oaxaca and realize that I have never, before or since, fallen so many people so very, very fat, so quickly. And I remember wishing at the time that becoming the eye of and ant was not just a semantic expression.

Needless to say, I never played Oaxaca again, but I still remained big, big, big in Mexico City, with the dogs and the kids and the chickens and the cooking smells and the guitars and the mariachis of Tepito and Peralvillo, and they continued to love me even when, or maybe because I called the kids escuincles.

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Jerry McCann




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