Nerd alert: I love to read the dictionary. I don’t mean English-Spanish dictionaries (although those are cool too); I mean single language dictionaries. Not translations; meanings. Etymologies, literary references, pictures. There’s just one little setback, though: I don’t currently own a dictionary, alas. Solution? Go visit my best friend, Anna Laura, and her husband, Marshall. In lieu of a baby, they have this dictionary that weighs somewhere around ten pounds, and it’s chock-full of word goodness. I went and visited them a few weekends ago and had a ball scanning that thing for interesting and bizarre words. Here’s one that caught my roving eye, jumping out at me because I immediately associated it with its Spanish counterpart, and then the ensuing rabbithole it led me down. Would you have made the connection? That is to say, are you as adroit a nerd as I? A ver.
Pabouch 1687. [See BABOUCHE, PAPOOSH.] A heelless oriental slipper.
Babouche 1695. [ a.F., ad. (uH.) Pers., pa foot + posh covering.] A Turkish or oriental slipper.
Papoosh, papouch 1682. [ a. Pers. paposh slipper, shoe, f. pa foot + posh covering.] A Turkish or Oriental slipper.
I immediately thought: babuchas! What are babuchas? Why, they’re one way to say slippers in Spanish. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
Then I got curious about trying to find some sort of equivalent for pantuflas, which is the more common and standard word for slipper in Spanish. Expecting to be disappointed, I made my way in that direction to find:
Pantofle 1494. [ a.F. pan-toufle. Origin unkn.] A slipper; formerly applied esp. to the high-heeled cork-soled chopines; also to out-door overshoes or goloshes, sandals and the like.
That dictionary was revised in the 50s. It looks like modern lexicographers have been able to take a stab at its origin, though: [from French pantoufle, from Old Italian pantofola, perhaps from Medieval Greek pantophellos shoe made of cork, from panto- + phellos cork].
A little Internet sleuth work has confirmed that pantofles came in two styles–a medieval protective, outdoor overshoe or a slipper for indoors which could be high-heeled or Oriental style. They were very delicate and could be highly ornate.
Naturally, I then became curious about chopines.
Chopine, chopin A kind of shoe raised above the ground by means of a cork sole or the like. Nearer Heauen . . . by the altitude of a Choppine. Hamlet II. ii. 445
They apparently let women protect their dresses from mud and muck as well as denoted social status. The taller the better, desde luego. They’ve been described as what was possibly the first clothing fad, becoming all the rage in Italy and then spreading to Spain, France, and Switzerland. The dainty stride (read: hobble) they subjected women to apparently became quite attractive to men, assuring them that their wives wouldn’t go a-wanderin’ on them. Italian clergymen were also keen on women tottering on the shoes, giving them the thumbs up because they kept the wearer from indulging in lascivious activities such as dancing. There is also speculation that they were a favorite of prostitutes in order to make them more visible to potential clients.
That didn’t ring any bells, but Wikipedia tells me here and here that chopines in Spanish are chapines. Perhaps I shall one day find myself on a date with someone doing a dissertation on 16th century feminine footwear in Spain, in which case being able to whip out the word chapines just might come in handy, er, footy. Otherwise, I think I can safely relegate that to the useless knowledge section of my brain. Unless, of course, I’m talking about Guatemalans. They’re also known as chapines. Well, maybe I’ll be on a date with one of them someday and can ask for the backstory.
So, why all the fuss about some old shoes? Am I just your typical woman with a clichéd and boring shoe infatuation? Not hardly. However, this little trip through the shoes of yesteryear all too predictably led me back to Spanish, as so many of my mental meanderings are wont to do. The big takeaway was learning a little of the history and etymology behind two words I was already familiar with: pantuflas and babuchas.
Pantuflas are slippers. For some reason, there’s something about the sound of that word to me that makes it sound especially fitting for big, floppy, fuzzy bunny slippers (it must be the “tufl” sound), but the word covers all varieties.
I have no idea why, but for some reason the DRAE directs you to pantuflo when you try to look up pantufla. One of us must be out to sea, and I don’t think it’s me. Slippers are so clearly and divinely feminine; just look at them! You can safely use the word pantuflas in all Spanish-speaking countries and rest assured that your meaning is caught. Pantuflos? I’d be prepared for some head-scratching.
So there I was teaching my eighth graders in Bogotá a few years ago, and I said the word pantuflas. I know, I know; I wasn’t supposed to use Spanish with them. Every once in a blue moon, though, a Spanish word me salía, what can I say? One of our vocab words at the time was “shuffle,” and I was explaining how it’s typical to shuffle when wearing slippers. And then pantuflas simply slipped out of my mouth and into their delighted ears. They always got a kick out of me speaking Spanish. One girl yelled back, “Oh, you mean babuchas!” Babuchas? The girls all nodded sweetly, unaware of the meltdown taking place in my brain at that moment. So, yeah. There you have it. At least in Colombia, you can also call slippers babuchas, although it seems that pantuflas is much more common. (Maybe babuchas is more rural/old-fashioned?) I’ve pressed a few friends up against a wall and tried to demand that they explain the difference to me, and they simply couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I suppose no culture wants to give away all of its secrets after all.
I know that they mainly say zapatillas in Spain for slippers.
A word to the wise: do not walk around barefoot indoors in Colombia unless you want people to think you’re crazy as a loon and you take pleasure in causing high blood pressure in those around you. In my experience, people generally take their shoes off inside and then immediately slip into a pair of pantuflas/babuchas or house sandals- chanclas, chancletas or arrastraderas (I learned that last one from Blasina, my dear ex-suegra, when she once lent me a pair). Big emphasis on immediately. This is not one of those ahora/ahorita kinds of things you get around to three hours later. Seeing you flaunt your naked, unprotected feet in front of their very friolento sensibilities will not only cause them shock, it will produce extreme discomfort and anguish on their part. You see, for Colombians, bare feet = impending death. I wish I were making this up. You going around with your feet au naturel will keep them up at night. They will go to additional mass services just to pray for your health and to beg God to be merciful when the terminal disease is dealt. They will suffer. Don’t be cruel and insensitive; wrap those feet up.
There are a few more tricks I could teach you about shoes in Colombia, but I think this is plenty for now. Many thanks to Francis Classe for the permission to use images from his website! An amazing shoemaker/cobbler/cordwainer, he even teaches you how to make your very own pantoufles and chopines. Check him out.
What about you? Did you know about pantuflas and babuchas? What other words for shoes in Spanish do you know? Do you find dictionaries as fun as I do? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? What word do you say for slippers?