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A Few Words About Words in Mexico

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Hola everyone and welcome to my new blog La Sirena Tejana, or The Texas Mermaid. It’s a long story that I’ll tell you about some time. But today, I want to kick-off my blog with a few words about words in Mexico, and our continuing – and often hilarious – expat struggles with the Spanish language.

When I first arrived in Mexico, I lived with a host family in a nice condominium not far from the language school where I took classes. When a teacher asked me where I was staying, I told him in the condones a few blocks away. I knew I’d made a mistake when he started laughing so hard that he was eventually heaving in the fetal position on the ground, and once he was able to breathe again, he told me that “condoms” was probably not the word I’d been searching for.

To learn a new language as an adult is to humiliate yourself in a way that you are probably not at all used to. You probably weren’t used to that level of humiliation as a kid, either, since you had the excuse of being a kid when you learned the things that you did.

I spent a large part of that first month in Mexico crying. I’m naturally a crier anyway, and my face stayed permanently swollen and splotchy. I stumbled around the city in a daze, my eyes swelling with tears at the embarrassment of not understanding what was being said to me or being able to make myself understood. How was I going to make friends? How was I going to get laid? How could I convince people that no, really, I wasn’t a dummy?

Now, you’ll be happy to hear, my Spanish is excellent. I learned quickly, though not without a few (okay, more than a few) funny and embarrassing faux pas along the way. As my study abroad coordinator assured me, you have to make about a million mistakes before you get to the point of calling yourself fluent. I am proud to say that I’m into the billions when it comes to mistakes now, and while very few people think I’m Mexican (I don’t dress well enough and have a too-casual demeanor to be mistaken for even a rich güera one), they usually can’t pinpoint my foreign accent as American, either.

Mexicans love to laugh, and chances are, you’ll give them plenty of occasions to do so, especially if your mistake makes something sound sexual. Think about the things that you thought were HILARIOUS as a 6th grader, and you’ve nailed it.

In an attempt to help you prevent some embarrassment, I’ve compiled a list of some of the funniest (and unwittingly bathroom humoresque) Spanish-language mistakes that I and other learners have made along the way.

Words That Look and Sound Alike

Usually words with only a letter of difference can be confounding for English-speakers. English certainly has plenty of these too, but they can be especially funny in Spanish, as the language doesn’t really have a “schwa” sound that you can easily swallow or play off.

Ano vs año: Ano is anus, not year. Believe me, you want to get that squiggly line over the n. If you’re in a bind, type it out phonetically as either anyo or anio.

Cagar vs cargar: Cagar is an impolite way to say defecate. Cargar, though, means “to carry.”

Cojones vs cajones: Cojones are testicles. Cajones are drawers.

Pene vs peine: Pene is penis. Peine is comb. My favorite recent story is of a friend who asked for a pene to be taken up to her room at a hotel. Thank goodness, it never arrived!

The False Cognates

Cognates are words that look almost the same between two languages. In many cases, they are the same, like medicine and medicina. A false cognate, of course, is a pair that look alike, but have different meanings, as illustrated by a director who would say, “Mexico: where the sopa’s not soap, the ropa’s not rope, and the butter is meant to kill ya!”

Embarazada vs embarrassed: This one is so common that I’m surprised people still make this mistake, but I’ve heard it many times! Embarazada means pregnant. To say embarrassed, say avergonzado/a, though that’s a bit strong, akin to ashamed, or more common, me da pena, which literally means “it gives me embarrassment.”

Preservativos/preservatives: Preservativos are condoms, so most likely, no one, not just you, likes them in their food. Conservante is the word you want.

Here’s one more that I think is particularly humorous:

Estoy caliente: Though you think you’re saying that you’re hot, what you’re really saying is that you’re hot, and looking for some action. Tengo calor is (probably) what you want to say.

This is in no way a complete list – I think a book will be necessary to fit all the rest – but I hope it saves you from at least a bit of vergüenza. If you make these mistakes anyway, take heart: you won’t be the first nor the last, and your face will eventually go back to its normal color.