5 Spanish words I wish we had in English

More than 20 countries recognize Spanish as their official language. As the number of Spanish speakers worldwide continues to grow, so do the uses and interpretations for common Spanish words and phrases. 

The way I speak Spanish is from growing up Mexican in the small Central Washington town of East WenatcheeIt’s an intimate experience that can only be felt and understood by native Spanish speakers who grew up in the states and share my heritage.

We have a rooted insight into our language that the growing world of non-Native Spanish speakers can’t ever access no matter how fluent they become.

That said, my parents totally make fun of my Spanglish. I end up saying things that don’t make sense, or as my parents would say in proper Spanish, “Termino diciendo cosas que no tienen sentido,” while I say, “I termino diciendo things que no make sense.”

In East Wenatchee, nearly half of the community was Latino/a, so practicing English as a small child wasn’t easy. Before starting kindergarten, my parents put me in an all-English-speaking daycare to lose my Spanish accent.

Though I was raised to appreciate the economic value of being comfortably bilingual, I didn’t understand the deeper value of my native tongue — a priceless gift from my parents. It wasn’t until I entered college that I understood it as a powerful form of resistance to mainstream, anglo culture.

The language of my loved ones creates a sense of home and comfort for me that English never could.

So here’s to the first words I heard in my mother’s womb, the language of telenovelas and childhood memories, and of my grandmother’s love spoken over the phone from Mexico.

1. Chismoso/a

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The word chismosa (cheez-MOE-sah) translates to “gossiper,” which sounds awful, and frankly, just doesn’t cut it.

The word chismosa encompasses hundreds of generations of tías, tíos, abuelas and abuelos. In the day-to-day, it really means that your family members and friends are all up in your business: “Do you have a boyfriend?,” “When are you going to have kids?” or “What are you doing with your life?!”  

Mind you, a chismosa or chismoso doesn’t accept answers like“ I don’t need a partner” or “I don’t want children” or “Why do you care?!”

Prying like this is a form of caring and a way for the family to keep tabs on each other in a harmless way.  It’s a lifestyle born more out of love than anything else, but most of the time, it’s just annoying as hell!

2.¡Órale!

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“¡Órale!” (or-AHL-eh) is kind of one of those wild cards in an Uno deck. If I find myself in a situation where I don’t know how to respond, “¡órale!” usually works since it’s an exclamation that fits many contexts. 

It can simply mean “OK” in the context of playing board games: “Órale, you go first.” “Órale” can express approval in place of “All right!” (“¡Órale! Nice paint job. Your car looks brand new!”) or the bigger, more celebratory “YES! You aced your test!” in the situation of congratulations. “¡Órale!” can communicate encouragement or apply a bit of pressure, too (“I found half-price tickets to Mexico! Let’s go. Now!). And then there’s the expression of utter disbelief: “¡Órale! We won a million dollars!” or “¡Órale! You’re breaking up with me?!”)

As one of my favorite Mexican/Mexican American expressions, I’m glad Google Translate hasn’t even come close to picking up on it. (In fact, it suspects “órale” might be Hungarian!)

3. Greñuda/o

(Photo republished via Creative Commons 2.0 license)
(Photo republished via Creative Commons 2.0 license)

Greñuda/o (grey-NYEW-dah) is an adjective that specifically describes untamed hair that has a mind of its own. It can personify rebellious, frizzy strands that refuse to follow orders when you try to calm them in the morning. 

It can simply be used to describe someone who is wearing a messy bun (estás greñuda) or for a man whose beard hasn’t been trimmed in awhile (estás greñudo).  

People often use this word for young ones when their trencitas (braids) are coming undone after running around and playing, but in my grandparents’ eyes, this word is for everyone, and used as a term of endearment. 

4. Vergüenza

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You are in deep trouble, my friend, if the word vergüenza (behr-GWEN-zah) is being hurled at you. Vergüenza  translates into English as “shame” but implies that the action you committed requires a whole lifetime of reflection and regret. It’s often imposed by an elder as “¡Tengo vergüenza!” In Mexican families, your biggest mistake would be making a spectacle of yourself. Not only does it erode your personal dignity, but it makes your family look bad. And they’ll make sure you never forget!

“Ah, mira que horas son y estás para llegar. ¡¿No tienes vergüenza?!”

(My translation: “Aren’t you ashamed, embarrassed, abashed, feel guilty or wrong that you were out all night and decided to come home at this odd hour?”)

At this point, no one can save you from the proverbial chancla.

5. Te quiero

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This phrase is by far the most complicated to explain out of my five words. The literal translation of te quiero (teh kee-YEHR-oh) is “I care/desire/want you,” and it’s commonly used in family settings as an expression between “I love you” and “I care about you.” We use “te quiero” when we are saying goodbye to friends, family or relatives or with a significant other, whereas the more exclusive “te amo,” which literally means “I love you,” is reserved more for spouses or immediate family.

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