24 Apr
2019

What’s that Word? Spanish Words without English Equivalents

When learning to speak Spanish, you’ll probably find yourself asking, “¿Cómo se dice…en español?” pretty often.  Here’s a little good news – Spanish is sometimes more efficient than English at conveying ideas! There are many Spanish words without English equivalents or that would take longer phrases to describe in English. This can make the learning process easier – and really impress your Spanish-speaking amigos! However, if a Spanish speaker asks you, “¿Cómo se dice… en inglés?” you might find yourself scratching your head as you search for a word that doesn’t exist in English!  

A Story to Illustrate

Here’s a silly little story that incorporates MANY examples of multi-word English phrases that can be expressed with single Spanish words.  When you see the Spanish translation below, you’ll notice that it’s shorter.

The day before yesterday I stayed up the whole night. Of course, yesterday I was sleep-deprived, but since I’m in the habit of going out for a snack with my brother-in-law’s wife, we met at our usual cafe. We recognized our waiter from previous visits – he’s a one-armed, one-eyed man with no facial hair, and a large space between his eyebrows.  

I’m very sensitive to the cold so I was wearing a new, brownish grey coat for the first time. Just as the waiter told us to enjoy our food, he tripped and spilled coffee all over me!  I felt so embarrassed for him.  Luckily, I knew I’d have time to dry clean my coat before work next week, because we have a day off between a holiday and the weekend.  

The waiter brought me a dessert to make up for the mishap, but it was so sickly-sweet that after tasting it I couldn’t take one more bite.  When the plates were cleared away, we stayed at the table talking and laughing.  We always enjoy long chats after meals. We have a lot in common and we even share the same name. After a while, we noticed my mom and mother-in-law walking up to the cafe.  We commented on how nice it is that they enjoy spending time together too.

Now for the Spanish Version…

Parts of this story are far fetched in any language and the Spanish translation below uses words that may not be common in all parts of the Spanish-speaking world, but it’s a good snapshot of some everyday expressions that have unique words in Spanish. It’s interesting to see that it uses 43% fewer words than the English version!

Anteayer me trasnoché. Por supuesto, ayer estaba desvelada, pero suelo merendar con mi concuñada, así que nos juntamos en el café donde acostumbramos ir. Reconocimos a nuestro mesero: es manco, tuerto, lampiño con gran entrecejo.

Soy friolenta, así que estrené un abrigo nuevo color pardo. Justo al decirnos “Buen provecho” el mesero se tropezó y derramó café sobre mí.  Eso me dió pena ajena. Afortunadamente, sabía que tendría tiempo para llevar mi abrigo a la lavandería antes del trabajo la próxima semana, porque mañana es un puente.

El mesero me trajo un postre para compensar el percance, pero fue tan dulce que me empalagué.  Cuando retiraron los platos, nos quedamos en la mesa hablando y riendo. Nos encanta la sobremesa. Tenemos mucho en común e incluso somos tocayas. Después de un rato, vimos a mi mamá y a mi suegra entrando el café. Comentamos qué simpático es que las consuegras también se llevan tan bien.  

Here’s a summary of the words used in our example::

  • Anteayer (or antier in Latin America) – the day before yesterday
  • Trasnochar –  to stay up late or to stay up all night
  • Desvelado/a – to be unable to sleep or to be sleep deprived
  • Soler – to be in the habit of; to tend to do something on a regular basis
  • Merendar – to have a snack or to go out for an afternoon snack (la merienda is the snack)
  • Concuñada – the wife of your brother-in-law (or concuñado – the husband of your sister-in-law)
  • Manco – a man with only one arm (or hand)
  • Tuerto – a man with only one eye
  • Lampiño – hairless, particularly a man who cannot grow facial hair
  • Entrecejo – the space between a person’s eyebrows
  • Friolento/a, Friolero/a – someone who is very sensitive to cold
  • Pardo – the color between brown and grey
  • Estrenar – to wear or use something for the first time
  • Que aproveche/Buen provecho – Enjoy your meal (like “Bon appetit”)
  • Vergüenza ajena/Pena ajena – to be embarrassed on behalf of someone else, even if they are not embarrassed
  • Puente – a day off before or after a holiday that extends the holiday through a weekend
  • Empalagarse –  to feel sickened or nauseated because a food is excessively cloying or sweet
  • Sobremesa/Sobre-mesa – conversation/socializing around the table with family or friends after a meal (literally conversation that takes place “over the table”)
  • Tocayo/a – someone who has the same first name as you
  • Consuegras – the relationship between mothers-in-law (consuegras are the two mothers of a married couple; consuegros are the two fathers-in-law)

It’s Not Just Spanish

Every language has unique words that don’t have equivalents in other languages.  Some are poetic, like the Japanese word komorebi, referring to the dancing light as sunlight shines through tree leaves. Some are more practical, like the French word (sortable) for those family members and friends you can take out without fear of being embarrassed!  Others are very specific, like badkruka, the Swedish term describing someone who won’t get into a pool or lake.

It’s fascinating to learn about these unique words, and we challenge you to share examples in the comment section below!  Whether you’re a native Spanish-speaker or you speak another language, please feel free to post examples of words that don’t seem to have an English equivalent!

So, what do you think?