The door knob test

From Nicholas D. Kristof´s bi-weekly op-ed column in The New York Times:

“Here’s a one-word language test to measure whether someone really knows a foreign country and culture: What’s the word for doorknob? People who have studied a language in a classroom rarely know the answer. But those who have been embedded in a country know. America would be a wiser country if we had more people who knew how to translate “doorknob.” I would bet that those people who know how to say doorknob in Farsi almost invariably oppose a military strike on Iran.”

I know it! I know how to say doorknob in Spanish! All bow down to my semi-fluency! Well, one of the various ways . . . I am not exactly certain which word is most common here in Colombia. But, it doesn’t matter–I’m in the know. Perilla. Which I learned because it’s the last name of a new friend here in Bogotá, whose lovely little blog you will find to the left. Nicholas D. Kristof is making me feel so happy right now, like maybe I actually am doing a thing or two right down here, “embedded” in this country and culture. America is a wiser country because of me and my like. Sometimes I’m so hard on myself and get down about what my level of Spanish should be (perfect) versus what it is (less than). I still have a long, long way to go. Still, I am going to stop and be proud of myself for just a few moments. You can be proud of me, too.

Now, not that I have ever had to actually use the word . . . Still, I have a feeling that one day it’s going to open a lot of doors.

I wrote that in March of 2010. This may come as a shock, but Vocabat isn’t my first blog, nor my second, nor my third. I didn’t become a blogging diva overnight, you know–it took several years to cultivate my prowess. I’ve been spilling ink and my heart all over the internet for a long time now. O sea, I’m no spring chicken, although I wrote solely for myself before. Now, I try to think about what might prove interesting and useful to others who, like me, love the Spanish language. Or maybe we’re alike in that you too get a kick out of language in general, or maybe there’s some sort of deeper soul connection. You tell me.

Back to door knobs–I adore these kinds of pop quizzes, as silly and arbitrary as they may be. Pass and you feel on top of the world; fail and you feel so demoralized that you have a serious (and often necessary) heart-to-heart with yourself. Self, you’ve let me down. It is not acceptable for you to flaunt this kind of arrant ignorance. How can you not know the name of something you touch every single day of your life, and multiple times a day at that? This cannot and will not continue. Consider yourself warned. Yikes. While no fun at the time, I love the long-term effects of failure. I find it oh-so-efficacious, don’t you?

Regarding the door knob test, the standard word in Colombia for door knob is chapa (after reading the article, I conducted a rigorous polling of colleagues in Bogotá). Other possibilities include perilla, picaporte, pomo, tirador, and agarrador. I passed the test de pura chiripa, but I still knew enough to do Kristof proud. How did you fare?

I remembered this test today because door knobs came up at work during an autism diagnostic exam that lasted several hours. I had to ask the parents a million questions, one of them being whether their son could turn door knobs to open doors. A diferencia de two and a half years ago, all of these words came to me at once. Woohoo! It was a nice problem to have, believe me.

No doubt about it–the size of your vocabulary is very, very important. It’s by no means everything, but don’t blow off learning substantial amounts of new words and phrases just because you’ve reached a decent speaking level. We always know much less than we realize, and we greatly limit ourselves when we can only talk comfortably about a few “security” topics. Trust me, I fall into this trap frequently. Don’t be shy; we can all step out of our comfort zones together.

(Of course, you could call it minutia. Fair enough, but since when has life been about anything else? At the end of the day, does it really matter if you can talk about door knobs or not? Nope. Does everything hang on this one word? Tampoco. But you could likely make that same argument for most words in Spanish. True, there are few words you absolutely have to know to eke by. If you want to get to the point where you’re doing more than just scraping by (after all these years), though, if you want to thrive in Spanish, if you want to flourish and dazzle and twirl, you’d do well to (at least try to) learn all the words. Not from a dictionary, not from flashcards, not from some desperate systematic approach divorced from real life. Just figure out some way to embed yourself in the language. I don’t think you have to move to Latin America; I think you simply have to want to know. And don’t work backwards– don’t think of all the words in English you don’t know how to say in Spanish and hunker down in the dictionary for years. Just listen to what people are saying in Spanish. Read, listen, watch, devour. No one’s hiding the words from you–go out and find them. Be curious. Be nosy. Snoop, spy, eavesdrop, wiretap, pry, do whatever it takes.)

What about you? How did you do on the door knob test? What word would you choose if you were to make such a test? How do you learn vocabulary? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? How do you say door knob in your country? Do some of those words have different meanings where you live? Why don’t you devise a test for us? ¡Ponnos a prueba!


18 responses to “The door knob test

  1. I really like this post, Vocabat. I just started “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” and it does not take long to see how easily we demonize what we know poorly. Wittgenstein famously said, “The borders of my language are the borders of my world.” (“Die Grenzen miener Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.”) Maybe we should change this to “Las chapas de mi lenguaje significan las chapas de mi mundo.” Alternatives: Chupete? (having just double checked this in the dictionary, I should probably say that I mean “pacifier,” though the other senses might work too.)


    • Thanks a lot, P. I’m glad you liked it. I wondered if it had a cohesive message. I chose not to look at the big picture of demonization and xenophobia like Kristof did, but the connection is definitely there. A great question would be, How many languages can you say door knob in?

      Nice quote. Chupete? Where did you get that? For me, that is either a lollipop/sucker, a pacifier, a hickey, or a baby-bottle nipple. (All from the verb, chupar– to suck) I think perilla is the prettiest option.


  2. Hmm… The goatee of my language is the goatee of my world? No, V., I thought you asked what other words we thought might serve as a language test, and my guess is that many people don’t learn the word for pacifier early in their language study either. But if you think of the need of frightened, anguished children for pacifiers or their mother’s breast, it would be pretty difficult to imagine bombing them. And thanks to this post de rechupete, I can now say “doorknob” in four languages.


    • Ohhh. Sorry, I completely misunderstood. Yes, pacifier would be a good word. I only know it because of my job. It is an especially fascinating word in English! If only people would say things like, “I gave her her pacifier twenty minutes ago, but as you can tell by her screams, she’s clearly not pacified yet.” Or, amidst a baby’s screams, “What we need in this situation is a pacifier. What could we do to establish peace in this baby? I know, we’ll give her a piece of rubber to suck on. That should restore harmony.”

      Thanks for teaching me de rechupete, I’d never heard it before. A similar way to say the same thing is para chuparse los dedos. Finger-lickin’ good ;)


    • Also, so I increase your count, but you won’t increase mine?

      Another one-word test that occurs to me is hopscotch. I know they say golosa in Colombia, and the title of Julio Cortázar’s masterpiece is another way to say it, rayuela. I learned another way the other day from a coworker from El Salvador- peregrina. It’s also difficult to imagine dropping bombs on children at play.


  3. cesarincarabello

    Failed. Until I saw your answer. My uncle, a handyman in our apartment building, used to change “las chapas” all the time… To me it always sounded like a cheap, short-cut, made up word: like “thingies”.


    • As far as I know, I think the chapa refers most specifically to the lock. However, it has come to mean the door knob as well in some countries. I agree, it is not a beautiful word. Perilla is the nicest- a little pear!


  4. In French, doorknob is sort of “handful,” la poignée (de porte); a pacifier is une tétine. In German, the doorknob is der Knauf or Türknauf (door knob / Knauf is also a pommel of a saddle); a pacifier is ein Schnuller. In Italian, it is una maniglia or un pomello (also pommel) della porta; a pacifier is un ciuccio. In Spanish—well you know this far better than I do.

    I confess, I knew only the French and Italian words for this before today. Hopscotch would be a great word too. To play hopscotch is “jouer à la marelle” in French, but I don’t know in the other languages. Here is a youtube video of the effects of hopscotch pacifying the French: (terre = earth; ciel = heaven).


  5. Yo hubiese dicho “knob”, no conocía “doorknob”. Seguro que debe haber matices entre estas dos palabras. ¿A vos qué te parece? “Doorknob” es como más específica, ¿no?

    Acá se usa “picaporte” casi siempre. La mayoría no son redondos, sino que son como “handles” (¿Se usa esa palabra? Es lo primero que se vino a la cabeza después de “knob”).

    “De rechupete” se usa en Argentina, y me sorprendió que un no nativo la usara. Igual, es como un poco vulgar, no sé, suena feo =P

    Saludos desde Argentina



    • Gracias, Dani! Sí, knob a secas está bien si se sobreentiende el contexto. Sip, handle también está bien. Y qué quiere decir rechupete en Argentina? Se usa para la comida? Ese amigo apenas está empezando con el español, aunque ya lo entiende bien porque domina varios idiomas. Saludos.


  6. Pero en España son “Recetas de rechupete”:

    En inglés se dice “succulent”, y tambien es un poco raro.


    • Bueno, ojalá Dani nos explique su comentario pronto. Y para que sepas, me imagino que con lo de vulgar quería decir como “low-class”, ordinario, bastante coloquial. Pero no ofensivo. Vamos a ver.


  7. Antes que nada, gracias Katie por las explicaciones :)

    “De rechupete” significa “muy rico” (sabroso), y sí, se usa más que nada para la comida. Es como un poco ordinario. No sé, casi nadie lo usa, a no ser que uno quiera desentonar o llamar la atención.

    Sí, “succulent”, “suculento” en español; también un poco raro acá, se escucha de vez en cuando.

    Sí, exacto, me refería a “low-class”, tendría que haber sido más preciso =P

    Bueno, espero que les sirva :)


  8. Sí, es veridad, no hablo con fluidez, pero puede que hemos encontrado no sólo las fronteras del espagñol, pero las fronteras de la potencia del leguaje sólo para inspirar empatía.


  9. I just came back to this post today, because i was thinking about it. I had a friend in college who said you know you’re fluent when you count and do math in the target language, rather than switching back to L1. My own test is if you know different species of fish (i.e., cod, salmon, trout, tuna, etc). Another friend says it’s kitchen gadgets. Un beso!


    • ¡Hola! Long time no read. I’m happy to hear that I’m residing in people’s long-term memories, ha. I would never count and do math in Spanish, I know all those fish, and I’m iffy on kitchen gadgets. I’d go for translating/best expressing the untranslatable for a fluency test. Un veso para bos :$


  10. Pingback: The Things They Ask Me | you don't have to read v2.0

  11. I would say la cosa en la puerta que se usa para abrir la puerta.

    heheh but im am so very very far from fluent. And a late poster! :)


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