I’ve been living in Barcelona for over eight years and in that time I’ve learned quite a few things about the Spanish language, even if I haven’t yet learned how to roll my Rs. Here are ten of my favourite facts about Spanish.
1. Spanish doesn’t have the verb to stand. The closest you can get is to say estar de pie, literally to be on your feet.
2. A sombrero doesn’t just refer to those huge hats that tourists wear in Cancun to fit in with the locals. Sombrero just means hat, any hat.
3. Be careful when starting a relationship in a Spanish-speaking country. The word for girlfriend or boyfriend, novia/novio, also means fiancée/fiancé and bride/bridegroom (gulp!).
4. Nobody really knows the origin of the word Spain, but the mostly likely explanation is that España is a derivation of an old Phoenician word, meaning ‘land of rabbits’.
5. Ordering a beer in Spain is easy, just ask for una cerveza or una caña. Ordering a coffee is a lot more difficult. If you ask for un café, they’ll bring you a shot of espresso, so you have to specify exactly what you want, e.g. un café con leche (coffee with milk). In summer, people here also like café con hielo (coffee with ice). They bring you an espresso and a glass of ice, and then you tip the coffee on top of the ice cubes. I’m not a fan.
6. Of all Spanish’s colourful expressions, my favourite is “pongo la mano en el fuego” (I’ll put my hand in the flames), which means something like “I’d stake my life on it”. I suspect it harks back to the Medieval concept of trial by ordeal, where a defendant might have to perform a task like grabbing a coin out of a pot of boiling water. Their guilt or innocence would then be determined by how the wound healed over a set period of time.
7. Spanish-speakers use loads of English words and names in their everyday speech, but when they take an adjective-noun pair, they often use the adjective, not the noun. So The Champions League and The Premier League in football are called La Champions and La Premier, respectively. Best of all, The Rolling Stones are Los Rolling.
8. There are also quite a few loan words which are incomprehensible for English speakers. For example, un lifting is a face-lift and footing doesn’t mean paying for the bill, but jogging.
9. Spanish makes no distinction between earn and win: the language uses the same verb ganar. So in Spanish, there’s no conceptual difference between winning the lottery and earning your salary by the sweat of your brow. Either way, you ganar dinero.
10. Tapas are huge in Britain these days and they’re definitely one of the best things about living in Spain. The word tapa actually means ‘a top’. In the old days, drinks would be served with bread or ham on top of the cup or glass. You can still get a free tapa when ordering a drink in lots of places in Spain, especially down south.