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Spanish ‘toes’ and linguistic woes - it’s English versus Spanish in the fight for numerical supremacy

Por: | 20 de mayo de 2015


It all started with the toes. Or the lack of them.

One day I casually asked my Sitges girlfriend what the Spanish for ‘toes’ was. My Spanish has been improving steadily since moving to Barcelona in 2011. But the odd word still obstinately fails to arrive.

“‘Dedos de los pies’,” she responded, raising an exasperated eyebrow. Or ‘fingers of the feet’, if you’re taking a literal view on things, which is turned out I was that morning.

“Fingers of the feet?” I asked, infuriated. “That’s not a real word. They’re useful things, toes. So why doesn’t Spanish have a word for them?” 

We could, of course, have left it there. Probably we should have done. But, no, the rubicon was crossed.

“Spanish does have a word for ‘toes’,” my girlfriend responded. “It’s ‘dedos de los pies’. Now let me get back to studying.”

Maybe it was the heat outside, or the two young children who wouldn’t let us sleep. But I wasn’t having that. “That’s not a word for ‘toes’,” I argued. “It means ‘fingers of the feet’, which is a different thing entirely. Why doesn’t Spanish have a word for ‘toes’?”

My girlfriend sighed and went back to her work. But if you thought that was the end of it then you don’t know the half of our relationship. A week later, when I was at my most vulnerable, my girlfriend attacked. “What’s the English for ‘madrugar’,” she asked, her face a picture of innocence.

“To get up early in the morning,” I said, not giving it a second thought.

“You see!” my girlfriend said excitedly. This is the most dangerous of all her tones. “There’s no English word for ‘madrugar’. You loser.” And she walked off triumphantly.

I was stumped. There is no English word for ‘madrugar’. And yet - if stereotypes are to be believed - aren’t we British fond of getting up early? Why the linguistic hole?

Despite this, I thought I was on pretty safe ground generally with the argument. English, I had always believed (and, I suppose, must have heard somewhere) has more words than most world languages thanks to a rapacious appetite for foreign imports. 

We’ve taken ‘bungalow’ from Hindi and ‘amok’ from Malay. We go to a café for a coffee and take our children to British kindergarten. Surely English is bulging with words? As for Spanish - it doesn’t even hard a word for ‘become’! (Come on - not really…)

Such rampant word incorporation is, of course, partly a result of Britain’s colonial past. But it helps that the UK has no real equivalent of the Real Academia Española in Madrid, no institution ultimately responsible for deciding which words are English and which aren’t. 

The Oxford English Dictionary is about the closest British analogue - and every year there is a great hoohah when it announces its “Word of the Year”, giving new linguistic respectability to the likes of ‘selfie’ (2013), ‘credit crunch’ (2008) and ‘chav’ (2004). But the OED - while hugely respected - is not a government organisation like the RAE and has no legal power.

Besides, the British have a great history of making up words: Shakespeare did it, coining some 1,700 words including ‘eyeball’ (A Midsummer Night's Dream), ‘skim milk’ (King Henry IV, Part I) and ‘grovel’ (King Henry VI, Part II), giving hope to inventive linguists ever since.

Surely, then, English must have shed-loads of words with no Spanish equivalent? 

I threw myself into research with a very useful Guardian article providing some ammunition. Alejandro Pareja, a translator from Madrid, claimed that after translating some 203 books from English into Spanish he could find no easy translation of ‘insight’; Lucy from Marbella said that she had spent six years trying and failing to translate ‘to have a crush on someone’ into Spanish. I was, at least temporarily, winning.

It couldn’t last though and in the end, no matter how much I tweaked the search terms, Google kept on throwing up articles that outlined brilliant Spanish words that have no English equivalent. 

There was ‘anteayer’ (the day before yesterday), ‘entrecejo’ (the space between the eyebrows) and ‘empalagar’ (to disgust with too much sweetness) from; the Huffington Post weighed in with ‘desvelado’ (unable to sleep or to be sleep deprived), ‘friolero’ (someone who is very sensitive to cold) and ‘sobremesa’ (the moment after eating a meal when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing at the table). My own girlfriend weighed in with ‘quinquenio’ (a period of five years).

English, it is true, has given us many technical terms that are now deployed in other languages. But faced with Hispanic terms as poetic as these it seemed the argument was lost: I was the loser my girlfriend had always believed.

Except, of course, I wasn’t (or not in this case anyway): language isn’t - or shouldn’t be - a competition and the more I learned of the richness of Spanish, the more the language delighted me and the more I could revel in the work of Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez et al.

Besides, as Shakespeare himself once put it: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Well said William.

Hay 21 Comentarios

@ GBA: re-Willard Gaylin's citation: yeah, English is a language. Duh.

I think that the proper translation for "to have a crush on someone" should be "estar loco por alguien"

Hola! Just a quick post to let you know that you forgot about the regional richness of the Spanish language in Spain. Here in the Canaries there is a word for toes, we say "ñoños". You would be surprised to find out we also have "naife", a traditional Canarian knife!

Did Shakespeare really invent the words first attributed to him or was that just the first printed/written evidence for them. I find it difficult to believe that such a wonderful word as 'grovel' was not already in use by the hoi poloi

"English is such a deliciously complex and undisciplined language, we can bend, fuse, distort words to all our purposes. We give old words new meanings, and we borrow new words from any language that intrudes into our intellectual environment".
-Willard Gaylin

Languages are always interesting to compare.
English seems to have more flexibility in forming new words than Romance languages like Spanish.
For instance, a "swing wing" aircraft is neater than "con geometria variable" (similar in French too).
To "pooter along' is so evocative. And of course a "tea cosy" has no equivalent, but more due to culture difference. Similarly there's no English word for "allubiada", or "chocolatada" or "sarmiento" (vine sticks for burning on the BBQ.

This is going to sound awful but...would we then say, "dedos del pie de cameo?"

"The Meaning of Liff" is a wonderful book which defines hundreds of things which don't have an English word for them - and then allocates the name of a town that sounds right for the definition e.g.

The woman you never fancied but whose mere name infuriates your partner - Mavis Enderby (a small village)

The horseshoe shaped rug that fits around a toilet - Luton

The feeling of ecstacy you get from driving a brand new motor bike for the first time - Nempnet Thrubwell (another small village)


Digits of the toes.

Not fingers.

Dedo is correct for appendages at both extremes, and require context to locate them correctly. Without that context the most common use is assumed.

To expand things slightly, I was just thinking how useful it is that French has a word for "brand new" (neuf) and "new" (nouveau). Many a time I have wished that English had the same.

I have finally given up in the argument over the difference between a 'melocotón' and a 'fresquilla', so now in our household we call the latter "freshies" when speaking in English, one of many invented words probably common in homes where more than one language is spoken :) If I eat too many freshies, I am at risk of a "digestion cut," though!

:) :) :)

Paula - it was only affectionate ribbing.
Gabriela - I may well be wrong but I think I remember from my Spanish lessons many years ago that "become" is difficult to translate into Spanish, as there isn't one word; rather it depends on the circumstance. So there are: devenir; hacerse, volverse, ponerse, llegar a ser...

Sorry, sorry: If you are an academic, with master degree and/or PhD in some language, if you make money with a language, only in this situation it is important to be absolutely correct.

To be furious with a word; or being called "looser" for another word. Are you teen agers? Las lenguas son sólo para comunicarse, nada más. Hay dudas? Pues explicalo con simpatia.


We do have a word in Spanish for "become ". it's "devenir".

To non-spanish speakers, try to burn your brain understanding the difference between "ser" and "estar". Much more significant that "toes" or "madrugar".
Como puede esta gente no diferenciar entre un ser y un estado?

Ah, a missing word here and a missing word there… in reality, it doesn’t matter, English has become the universal language for all we need to know and as the world changes so it’s the spoken words and its meaning adjustment… …linguistic synchronism and diachronism are always symbiotic regional linguistic elements of a particular culture, comprehensible only to the native speaker, but also it’s a fact of an ever-changing world…. That Spanish or “romantic” languages are a lot more poetic than English is something irrelevant… check the Webster and Spanish dictionary and see which language has brought more anew words into usage to an ever competing world….

sorry to burst your bubble, but "pantuflas" is the spanish word for slippers

Very good post

By the way, I meant to say, if you have any more English words that don't exist in Spanish and vice versa I would love to heard them. Mark Venning ‏on Twitter has just come up with a cracker: "Zapatillas de andar por casa" is a poor second to the good old British "slippers". I couldn't agree more.

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Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

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