In his comment on my last post, Daniel (commenter extraordinaire, though he is always so kind as to comment in Spanish, so you may have missed it) reminded me that gross things are almost always more palatable when we’re talking about them in our second language. Whereas he could read about eye goop/gunk/crust/crud/etc. without any problem, the mere thought of the word lagaña turned his stomach. And vice versa. The word lagaña rolls off me like water off a duck’s back–I believe I may have even described it as “elegant”–but all of its English equivalents are pretty revolting. We just don’t have an ear for our second languages, and it’s unlikely we ever will.

Still, I wasn’t ever trying to say that lagaña sounds pretty or anything. I just like that there is one word for it, and that word doesn’t mean anything else. It’s to-the-point, non-graphic, and just seems more mature somehow.

Another example: cloaca

It means sewer. I don’t remember how I learned this word, but it was in Colombia, and for some reason I also associate this word with the Ninja Turtles, even though I have never been into them. Alcantarilla is a much more common word for sewer, but I remember cloaca catching my attention because . . . wait for it . . . I just found it kind of, well, pretty. It flows so nicely off the tongue, doesn’t it? That beautiful cl sound. It kind of has the same ring to it as my favorite word in English: colloquial. I imagine that any native Spanish speaker would tell me to get my head checked, but maybe that guy would turn around and tell me that sewer sounds like poetry to him. Let’s nobody judge.

Tapa de alcantarilla, Bogotá

I got to thinking about cloacas because yesterday I learned something profound– the word cloaca also exists in English, specifically in the field of zoology. Do you know what a cloaca is? Without going into too many unsavory details, a cloaca is the posterior hole that all amphibians, birds, reptiles, and egg-laying mammals have through which they do their business (both kinds) and have sexual relations. A lot of people find the idea of cloacae disgusting, but I can’t say that I do. I’m not squeamish. It’s just . . . different. And thus, interesting.

Anyway, isn’t it fascinating how the name of that orifice is the same as one of the words for sewer in Spanish? Apparently, the word comes from Latin, and means sewer. This was derived from cluō which meant cleanse. In fact, cloaca also means sewer or privy in English, but good luck finding a layperson who knows that. Another one of cloaca’s meanings in Latin was the stomach of a drunken or voracious woman. Good to know–I d0n’t know what I’d been calling it all these years.

Are there any words in Spanish that, despite their nasty meanings, you can’t help but be drawn to because you think they sound pretty? And, Spanish natives, are there any words in English you think are beautiful despite them meaning something really wretched? I can only think of cloaca at the moment, but I know I have many more. Also, vice versa! Beautiful, lovely things that you think have the most horrid names. I’m sure we could come up with quite a list.


15 responses to “Cloaca

  1. Mateo 15:17– “¿No se dan cuenta de que todo lo que entra en la boca va pasando de allí a los intestinos, y se expele en la cloaca?”

    I can’t tell you when, but I can tell you EXACTLY where I first heard this word: Sometime between 8 to 14 years old, I would come often come across this scripture in our congregation and say to myself.”Oh, so THAT’s how you say butthole!”. Glad I never came across a situation where I tried to use it! I always wondered why people’s faces never squirmed at the sound at that word as I did. My association with it was NEVER pretty. reminds me of another word that rhymes with it.


  2. Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö

    Oh my goodness!!!! How graphic!!! In English, I see:

    …out of the body… cast out into the drain… cast out into the draught… into the place where discharges are deposited… out into the sewer… out into the latrine… out into the privy… into a toilet… sent out into the going away.

    I think “into the going away” is my favorite :) It seems that most modern translations just say out of your body. That seems to be the trend with most modern Spanish translations as well, although I did see the versions with cloaca as well as others with letrina.

    How funny that you thought it meant butthole as a kid. And completely understandable! I can’t imagine that cloaca is particularly pleasant, but I think it’s pretty neutral. Maybe Daniel will come and tell us. Thanks so much for teaching me this. I had no idea that cloaca would conjure up a biblical reference for some–maybe many–people.

    Oh, and since it’s such a traumatic word for you, I definitely recommend that you just stick to alcantarilla! Which I’m sure is what you’ve been doing anyway :)


  3. Hola, me encanta tu blog, es muy útil para nosotros los estudiantes, y además me gusta mucho tu estilo de la enseñanza. Y estoy de acuerdo contigo, nunca vamos a entender todos los matizes del español de la misma manera como podemos en inglés – no tengo un sentido intuitivo de la connotación, o mejor el “carácter”, de las palabras aunque las sepa. Sin embargo he oído “cloaca” en inglés, como un término biológico, así que a mí me suena muy feo.


    • Hola Conor, muchísimas gracias por tu comentario tan lindo. ¡Bienvenido al blog! Espero seguir viendo muchos comentarios tuyos en el futuro, pues siempre me encanta conocer los pareceres y las experiencias de mis lectores. Tienes toda la razón en cuanto a lo de los matices. Sin embargo, aunque es muy poco probable (si no imposible) captar todos los matices de las palabras, sí podemos aprender muchos de ellos, aunque no sea del todo. Por cierto, escribes muy bien el español–te felicito :)


  4. ¿Así que esa era la idea que te había dado? ¡Cloaca!

    Jaja, no, no es una palabra que me guste mucho. “Alcantarilla” es muchísimo más placentero al oído, y creo que en Argentina también se usa (algunas veces) como sinónimo de “boca de tormenta” (la conocía como “storm drain”–¿”storm sewer” en EEUU?).

    ¿Palabras en inglés que me gusten pero que sus significados no sean muy agradables?

    Hmm…no sé, siempre me gustó la palabra “sweat”, tanto en sustantivo como en verbo, y el adjetivo “sweaty”. No sé si suena muy lindo en inglés. En español, “transpirar” suena medio feo, y “transpirado” peor todavía.

    Parece chiste, pero “cologne” no me gusta. :P

    Una palabra que me suena bien y que su significado me gusta es “daffodil”. Siempre me encantó.

    Wow, ahora soy famoso. Aparezco en tu blog. ^^



    • ¡Cloácala!

      Mm, pues claro que no hiciste sino señalar lo obvio, pero por alguna razón no se me había ocurrido.

      Storm drain, sí.

      Sweat está bien; sweaty es asqueroso. No te voy a decir lo que nos viene a la mente al pensar en esa palabra. Yo ni siquiera conocía transpirar, pues siempre digo y escucho sudar.

      Sí, daffodil es hermoso :)


      • Sí, sudar se escucha acá, pero es un poco más formal, creería yo. “Transpirar” es lo más común en Argentina. :)


        • No estoy segura, pero según veo me parece algo muy argentino. También acabo de aprender la palabra chivar. Qué raro que sudar les suene más formal, pues yo hubiera esperado lo contrario.

          Entonces, ¿cómo dicen? ¿Que uno transpira como un chancho? ¿Y que uno transpira la gota gorda? :)


          • Sí, creo que es muy argentino. Siempre me llamó la atención que en los otros países usan más “sudar”.

            Ugh, Katie. Sí, “chivar” y las otros dos son muy informales y medio vulgares. :P


            • Qué lástima. Sudar la gota gorda y sudar como un pollo (o cerdo/chancho) sí son muy comunes en otras partes. Uy, me das la impresión de que los argentinos son un poco refinados. Aunque desde luego que no hay nada malo en eso :)


  5. HI. The word “kloaka” exists also in Polish and means “a very unclean place” (no connection to biology, as far as I know).
    As to the “possibly offensive words in your native language vs in the foreign language” I think that English has a much greater pool of mid-register words describing sexual sphere of life than Polish. In Polish many such words are either vulgar or too formal. Very awkward.


    • That’s a shame. You rarely find sexual liberation and justice in places where people aren’t even grown up enough to have the vocabulary for adult, non-awkward conversations on sex.

      Yes, apparently cloaca in Spanish can also refer to a filthy place. I did a quick Google search and it showed kloaka as meaning sewer or cesspool in Polish.


      • I’ve recently read (and recorded my reading of) a Polish poem from the first decade of the 20th century, where the author was lamenting the prudishness of the Polish literary language.


  6. I came across your blog from lang-8 and it’s good to see someone thinking about language from some strange angles.. when birds procreate, it’s called a cloacal kiss. That makes the word seem somehow less dirty to me, like using Liverpool kiss rather than headbutt.

    Anyway, as I get my nerve up I will start posting in Spanish as well..




    • “Thinking about language from some strange angles”– I like that! Thanks for the description.

      I’d never heard of a Liverpool kiss. Cool.

      I’ll try to look for your posts. Good luck! Un abrazo, Katie


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