In Spanish, sometimes the etymology (the study of where words come from) can be very helpful in remembering the words. And in some cases, the meanings behind the words themselves can be odd, or funny, and quite a few are culturally relevant.
Here are some very interesting and strange Spanish words.
1 – (el) duende
The term duende is used in two different situations. First, el duende is a generic term for “goblin” or “gnome” or “wood spirit”. In this sense, the more Germanic legends of gnomes and goblins become linked to el duende, as does the Irish “leprechaun”.
In other situations, el duende can refer to something like a “poltergeist”. In some Spanish – and even Filipino – societies, a duende is a harmful or mischievous spirit that haunts a plot of land or a property. They tend to be spirits that are tormented or those that died unhappily, and are frequently either spirits of the earth itself or the souls of those who died.
Leaving aside the supernatural (for the most part), el duende is a hard word to translate with just one word when it is used in the sense of art or performance. It is said that when a person is inspired by a piece of art or someone’s performance in dance or music that they are experiencing “duende” which is something like “the thrill of being touched deeply”.
In most situations, tener duende or “to have duende” means that someone is so good at something that they can inspire this feeling in others. It’s something like inspiration or awe that is inspired by a person, but can be used as simply as a kind of “powerful charisma”. A way that it has been described to have or experience duende is that it is a kind of experience where a power works through someone or something, that they are an instrument or vessel through which their art flows. This makes it otherworldly, and emotional experience.
2- la medusa
In Spanish, la medusa is the word that is used for “jellyfish” by many. The name for la medusa comes from the Greek myth of Medusa, a gorgon, whose gaze turned men to stone. She was killed by Perseus in the myths. The reason that la medusa is used for a “jellyfish” is probably because jellyfish stun their prey and devour them, similar to the petrification of Medusa’s stare. Other terms for “jellyfish” are more regional, but two very interesting ones are la aguaviva meaning “living water” and la aguamala meaning “bad water”
3 – la amazona
Another word that comes from Greek mythology, la amazona, literally “Amazon”, refers to “horsewoman” i.e. a male “horseman”, or a horse rider that is a woman. The Amazons in Greek mythology were a tribe of warrior women who frequently came into contact with the other Greek heroes. Most notably is Hippolyta, an Amazon queen who comes into contact with Hercules and also Theseus, and also Penthesilea who is said to have fought in the Trojan War and is killed by Achilles.
The Amazons are frequently linked to horses, thus the term la amazona refers to “female rider”. The generic term for “horseman” or “rider” is frequently el jinete for men, though the term la jinete or la jineta for women does show up sometimes. On this note, a la amazona meaning “like an Amazon / like a horsewoman” is sometimes the word that people use for “sidesaddle”, since it is most associated with women. The more standard term is a mujeriegas which is related to mujer “woman”.
Spanish homonyms – words that have the same spelling but different meanings – aren’t as common as they are in English; you’re more likely to find homophones which are words that have the same pronunciation but are spelled differently e.g. la baya “berry” and vaya which comes from the verb ir, and la valla which is “fence”.
In this regard, la ginebra is quite unique. The word la ginebra in lowercase means “gin”, the alcohol. This is because it is linked to “juniper”. However, (la) Ginebra in uppercase can have two additional meanings. The first is that Ginebra is the Spanish form of the city Geneva in Switzerland, whose name is said to be Celtic. The third meaning of (la) Ginebra is that in the Spanish translation of King Arthur, Ginebra is the transliteration of “Guinevere”; this name being of Welsh origin.
5 – quijotesco/a
Every so often, a word or phrase will come about because of a famous work or movie, such as “Catch 22” or “a Romeo”.
The adjective quijotesco/a comes from Don Quijote which is the famous book by Cervantes. The term quijotesco/a refers to anything illusionary, bizarre, unreal, or dream-like, because Don Quixote (who is arguably mentally ill and delusional) misinterprets mundane things for fantastical ones; most famously mistaking windmills for giants. The English form of this word is “quixotic” which shares the etymology of quijotesco/a.
6 – el aquelarre
The word el aquelarre in Spanish is roughly translated to “witches’ coven” or sometimes “witches’ Sabbath”. Used to mean “a group of witches”, el aquelarre actually comes from Basque, though there are conflicting etymologies.
The first is that el aquelarre means “male goat in front”, where aker means “a male goat”. This is because the goat is a popular symbol for the devil or Satan; horned and with cloven feet. The other etymology says that it means “male goat field”, which may refer to groups of witches supposedly meeting in fields to praise Satan, or it refers to one of the many cities named Akelarre that used to be said to be full of witches.
7 – el sabotaje
The term sabotaje is the Spanish word for the word “sabotage”. The term “sabotage” came from French, and it was related to the rise of machinery and the industrial booms. The word sabot referred to “shoe”, and is where the term el zapato comes from for “shoe” in Spanish. In those times, many of the poorer people would wear wooden shoes or wooden clogs, called sabots. This is because the wooden shoes protected the feet from sharp metal tools or hurting your feet by stepping on something sharp.
When machinery became more and more common, people feared that machines would replace people, effectively making people lose their jobs and allowing factory owners to give people less money for their salary than before. Machines at this time were very sensitive and could break down unexpectedly for long periods of time. Periodically, one of the poorer workers would throw their wooden shoe into the machines, making it break. In this way, the machine would stay down until someone could fix it but in the meantime, flesh and blood workers would have some job security. That was what became known as sabotaje or “sabotage”.
8 – la guagua
The term la guagua has two different meanings in Spanish, depending on the region. In Central America and the Caribbean, la guagua is another name for “bus”, where it comes from the English and German word “wagon”. In South America, la guagua is another term for “a baby” where it comes from the onomatopoeia of a baby crying; “waaah” is guaaa in Spanish, so la guagua refers to a young baby no older than a child. In Quechua, which is an indigenous language most commonly associated with the Incas and Peru, la wa-wa or guagua means roughly the same thing and specifically refers to a child that is still breastfeeding.
9 – los escalofríos
In Spanish, the term los escalofríos is a compound word. The term los escalofríos means “chills” and occasionally “goosebumps”, though it is also known as la piel de gallina literally “chicken skin”. The word is made up of the verb escalar which is “to climb” or “to go up” and frío which is “cold”. In this way, los escalofríos can be thought of as “climbing cold” or “chills”.
10 – el espaldarazo
The term espaldarazo is made up of the root word la espalda which is “back” and the suffix –azo which means “a hit” or “strike”. Commonly, el espaldarazo refers to “a pat on the back”, “accolades” or “praise”, or “backing” either financially or by opinion. It can also refer to the action of “backing someone up” or “corroborating”.
11 – el azar
The word el azar is a word that comes from Arabic, originally meaning something like “flower”. The term el azar in Spanish, however, is more frequently used for “luck” or “fortune” but typically negative or very unknown; al azar meaning “at random”.
The word exists this way because dice used to be fashioned from animal bones. The anklebone – astragalus – of a goat or sheep was used, and this particular dice was marked with a little flower “az-zahr”. Over time, el azar became linked to a floral image on dice and became linked to the word “hazard” or “hazardous” because ostensibly the part of the individual die marked with the flower was bad news in gambling. In a related note, el azahar also comes from Arabic and is frequently “orange blossom” or “the smell of orange” as a fragrance.
12 – el matasuegras
The term el matasuegras is literally “kills mothers-in-law” but in Spanish it refers to “noisemaker” or “party blower”; a cheap toy that people blow into in times of celebration and it makes kind of a duck sound.
The popular etymology of this word is that in Russia in the 1950s, a KGB operative invented the matasuegras to be a disguised blowgun that could be shot at a target during a party for inconspicuous assassinations. The idea was that a poisoned dart would be loaded into the party blower and when the assassin blew into it, it would shoot the target like a blowgun, but it would be disguised as a party favor. It is said that at a party for this operative, he went to demonstrate this toy. However, he was drunk and accidentally hit his mother-in-law with the poison dart, killing her. It’s not known if this is actually based off of true events, but it’s the popular meaning for why it’s called matasuegras.