10 fun facts about Spanish

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.


20 responses to “10 fun facts about Spanish

  1. Ah! There’s anything more refreshing than a “café con hielo” after a big meal in summer! 🙂 You forgot to talk about “cortado”, though! It’s similar to a macchiato. If you fancy an espresso with a drop of milk that’s what you should go for! And if it’s hot and you want it cold, you can also ask for a “cortado con hielo”.

    • There’s always a refreshing carajillo too – coffee with some sort of spirits, although you have to specify what kind of booze you want. I can’t see that popping up in Starbuck’s any time soon.

  2. Interesting! I remember getting tapas with my drink, though i never knew if I was going to get it. Do you have an explanation as to why they speak with a lisp? Is it because of an old king as the stories say!

    • It depends where and when you go, professor. August has been ferociously hot and Seville regularly records temperatures in the high 30s throughout the summer. On the other hand, Spain is Europe’s most mountainous country after Switzerland so there are chilly places too up in the Pyrenees. I live in Barcelona, where you can sit outside with a coffee pretty much year round, but when it rains, it’s like a monsoon!
      Speaking personally, I think Spain is the perfect holiday destination. It beats out Italy and France because it’s still cheaper than either of those countries and of course it beats England, because the weather is appalling.
      Where are you (other than the Punchy Lands of course)?

  3. Now, what do you say if you want a cafe con leche but without the leche?

    So we call them “The Stones,” but in Spain they are “The Rolling (Ones).” I love that kind of thing. In Poland, I found it was unlikely for someone to say the equivalent of “what time is it?” to a stranger. They would say something more like “does the gentleman have the time?” And the literal translation of “do you speak English” was something like “does the gentleman speak the English way?”

    Number 9 is interesting, isn’t it? What do you think that says about their mindset, Alistair?

    Here I am coming in behind the Professor again. I would very much like to beat him one day.

    • How interesting. Your Polish reminds me of Jaqen H’ghar, the face-changing assassin in Game of Thrones. He speaks a bit like that too. I’ve never been to Poland and I must go one day.
      To ask for a cafe without leche, you ask for un cafe, or un cafe sol and you’ll get an espresso.
      As for #9, ooh I couldn’t possibly comment, but I do think language changes the way you think and see the world. Another interesting one is the verb to eat in German. It’s different for people and animals: people essen, animals fressen.
      You’ll beat the professor one day, I know you will. Maybe you’re in different time zones, which gives him the drop on you?

    • Thanks! I think that there must be a physical reason why some people can’t roll their ‘R’s, maybe a kind of a lisp, because other English speakers seem to have no trouble picking it up. I’ve given up all hope now, myself…

      • And you’ll still be understood so not to worry.
        It’s certainly not natural to our tongues, which is part of the problem. It’s also not particularly easy to make sounds when they sound funny to our ears.

  4. I’m sure the BBC could make a whole comedy series about #3…or at least a Christmas special which was also have to feature accidentally picking up a briefcase full of money and being chased by the mafia.

    Are still loads of rabbits in Spain? I love the etymology of words…I’m surprised the Champions League isn’t called Real Madrid’s cup.

    • #3 is a bit like a 1970s sitcom, isn’t it? I haven’t seen too many rabbits in Spain actually. Did you know that they’re not a native species in the UK? It’s also not known where the English word rabbit comes from: it’s different in French (lapin) and German (kaninchen). In old English there was the word coney, as in Coney Island in New York, which must share an etymological route with the Spanish word for the animal (conejo). I got most of that from The Road to Middle-Earth by Tom Shippey, which is fascinating on etymology.

      • I love etymology and the mysteries that it throws up. I think i have caught the bug for it again now, I must seek out all the books I stored away.

  5. I’ve been lucky enough to tour Spain a few times and this is a great introduction.
    I love cool dry Spanish sherry but ordering it isn’t always easy. Asking for a ‘fino’ usually works but occasionally I end up with a glass of red wine instead!

    • You can have similar problems ordering a carajillo – coffee + spirits, because you have to specify which type of alcohol you want it to come with.
      My tip with sherry and all these drinks is to order by brand name and then wait in cold expectation to see what kind of glass they bring you (usually a large one)! You can also go to a bodega where they will have the house drinks in barrels behind the bar, and pour you out a cup from a tap!

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