Spanish in the grass

Tu nombre me sabe a hierba
de la que nace en el valle
a golpes de sol y de agua. – 
Joan Manuel Serrat

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars. – Walt Whitman

Hierba común, señora. De esa que comen los burros.La hojarasca, Gabriel García Márquez

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked. – Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome

One of life’s chief pleasures is walking barefoot on grass, don’t you agree? I think one of my favorite things about being back in the U.S. has to be that I have two small parks of my very own– my front yard and my back yard. Down in Colombia, I didn’t have a single blade to call my own–ni una brizna. In Bogotá, it was all concrete; in Medellín, bricks ruled the scenery. There are undoubtedly some advantages to living in dense, urban environments, but I think my soul is generally happier and more at peace when it has a carpet of green.

I’ve just remembered that when I first started this blog back in 2011, the header was an image of me lying in a bed of grass in Medellín. If you’ve been reading me that long and remember back that far, you definitely deserve a prize! Or a kiss. See, even in Colombia I dreamed of green. That is, especially in Colombia.


I told you a while back that I was considering moving back to Latin America. I wrestled with it for a long time, but I eventually decided to stay put while sitting on my front porch one day and just surveying my idyllic neighborhood. I had been dwelling for several days on one of my favorite songs, Mercedes Sosa’s Canción de las simple cosas. Its wisdom is so very poignant for me.

Uno se despide, insensiblemente de pequeñas cosas . . .
Uno vuelve siempre a los viejos sitios donde amó la vida 
y entonces comprende como están de ausentes las cosas queridas. 
Por eso, muchacho, no partas ahora soñando el regreso, 
que el amor es simple y a las cosas simples las devora el tiempo.

Without even realizing it, you say goodbye to little details. And when you later realize their worth, it’s too late to go back and recover them. So, think long and hard before you take off because you won’t be able to just waltz back when you realize how good you had it before. Don’t blithely leave only to be haunted by wistfulness and regret down the road. These oh-so-simple things, like love, all evaporate over time. Ah, how this song gets to me. Who’s got a hanky?

Cortacésped anti-crisis

Cortacésped anti-crisis

Well, I thought hard about what small details I take for granted now but would come to miss immensely. I didn’t want another bout of the regret I experienced after my last departure, even though I knew full well at the time how much I would miss what I was leaving behind. And as I sat there on my porch, I knew that what I would miss most would be the open spaces, the green, the tranquility, and the quiet of my city. I don’t need the stress, chaos, hustle and bustle, and anonymity of a large Latin American city right now. So, that was that. Of course, my job, friendships, family, and personal projects were strong incentives to stay as well. But, grass ended up being the clincher. Of course, I recognize that grass wouldn’t be enough to motivate another person to stay or come.

Flowers have enjoyed their day in the sun before here on Vocabat; here, then, is an ode to grass.

There are several ways to say grass or a lawn in Spanish. There’s hierba, grama, pasto, and césped. In most places, césped best transmits the idea of a manicured lawn, though I usually hear and see jardín for a front or back yard. Patio and yarda also do the same thing (yarda is obviously out-and-out Spanglish). Pasto and hierba really convey the idea of long, lush pasture, the kind that livestock grazed on once upon a time. I know that grama is strictly Latin American. It’s la grama, ignoring that -ma, -pa and little –ta rule you may have learned in a Spanish classroom. Each country will have its particular ways of saying grass, but it’s good to know them all.

No pisar el pasto

And here’s the most recent word I’ve learned for grass: zacate

Nice, eh? I happened to learn it just in the nick of time for summer, and I’ve already heard a few patients use it. Thank goodness I picked it up; I wouldn’t have had a clue otherwise. It’s very Mexican in origin, but check out its purported modern-day diaspora: Mexico, Central America, Philippines, California, and Texas. Zacate comes from the Nahuatl word zacatl which is either a type of grass or merely dry weeds and grass, and the Mexican state of Zacatecas is so named because zacatl apparently is or was common in the region. I’m obviously being a bit lax today about my usually obsessive precision.

Two impetuses started me down this grassy rabbit hole: a patient used a word I didn’t know to say lawnmower, and I later learned how to say sickle-cell disease.

Mafalda césped

I only knew cortacésped for lawnmower, and all I know is that this guy was saying something else. Now that I’ve looked it up, I’d bet good money that what he said was podadoraIt appears to be the most popular word in Mexico for the tool you use to cut the grass. For me, podar was always to prune, but I really like the idea of pruning the grass.

When confounded by sickle-cell disease, I couldn’t make heads or tails of how to translate the components in English. Sickle? I couldn’t even remember what that meant. Ahh, a sickle! Like the hammer and sickle (hoz y martillo). Like the Grim Reaper’s sickle (actually, it’s a scythe–guadaña). You see, sickle-cell disease is characterized by red blood cells that assume a sickle shape. So, a sickle is an hoz, and by moseying about in the dictionary I came to learn that segar is the verb to describe that motion of an arm swiftly reaping tall grass with a sickle. No surprise, then, to learn a few weeks later that segadora is another way of saying lawnmower, especially the large industrial ones.

Image by panta-rei via Flickr Creative Commons

I never was very sure of how to say the classic line, The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, in Spanish. Once I tried looking it up, though, I went dizzy with all the options and gave up. If you know how to say it, please fill me in!

When I worked at a high school in Bogotá, I’d tote my laptop to and from work every day so my students could use it for presentations. I once accidentally banged one of its corner into a wall and then watched its slow deterioration over the next few months. The protective covering on my screen fell off one corner to expose several wires I always expertly avoided, until one time when I didn’t and shocked myself a few times. This left the whole left side of my body feeling like ice for several days. I remember that one of my surrogate moms down there recommended that I walk barefoot in grass to discharge the electrical current in me. A little easier said than done when you’re living in the concrete jungle of Bogotá (she was in Medellín, where green’s a bit easier to come by), but I was charmed by the suggestion. If I ever move back to Colombia, I’m going to have to keep a Chia pet or something in my apartment so I can follow these old wives’ tale remedies to the letter next time.

From Los tres cerditos (The Three Little Pigs)

From Los tres cerditos (The Three Little Pigs)

And now to go out and sit–where else?–in the grass. Do pour yourself a glass of wine and join me.


17 responses to “Spanish in the grass

  1. Green spaces….the lack of these was one of the things that drove me to move back to the U.S. I never realized how much I loved nature until it was so inaccessible. I know it was all over in Colombia, much more so than where I live now, but it wasn’t easy to get to.


    • Very true. Green is a very precious commodity down there (well, I can only speak from experience of Bogotá and Medellín) for everyone, especially for the poor. Here’s an article I read on green grabs in Bogotá a while back:

      And in this article I remember reading about Medellín being committed increasing the amount of public space per person. I guess this has to come from creating more green space:

      “La ciudad va a tener más espacio público por persona. Hoy tenemos 3,8 metros cuadrados por habitante y lo que quisiéramos tener con estos proyectos son más de 15 metros cuadrados por habitante”, advierte la gerente de la Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano (EDU), Margarita María Ángel Bernal.

      Señala que en el mundo se habla de un índice mínimo en el espacio público de 10 metros cuadrados por habitante y agrega que en 2020 sueña con poder disfrutar el Parque Vial del Río, el Cinturón Verde Metropolitano, la renovación urbana en Naranjal y Arrabal.

      I think that mostly it has to do with these cities just being very urban. It’s not like here where you have a teeny tiny downtown that’s basically a financial and touristic center and with everyone living out in the suburbs. There, you have these huge cities and they’re all urban. Of course, you don’t need a car, and I HATE needing a car. Pros and cons!


  2. En Honduras usamos bastante la palabra “zacate” y también se usa “Monte” mas que todo cuando la hierba ha crecido mucho y no se ha alli salen otras expresiones que si te las digo te confundirán jajaja


    • Hola Sharon, muchas gracias por avisarme, no sabía hasta dónde se extendía el uso de zacate. Y desconocía lo de monte. ¿Confundirme? ¡Jamás! Jeje, créeme que soy buena para manejar muchas expresiones confusas y enredadas. No me tortures así, ahora que has mencionado otras expresiones te toca enseñarme por lo menos una. ¿O tengo que rogar? ;)


  3. Perfecto !! veo que tu español es avanzado :)….por ejemplo nosotros decimos”qué zacatera!! o “que montarral ” cuando expresamos que el zacate o monte ha crecido mucho, entonces el zacate o monte ocupa una “chapeada” (sinonimo de podar) solo que no se usa una máquina para podar sino que un “machete”….como veras aqui en mi pais usamos muchos modismos, te los puedo enseñar después, voy a conseguirte unos buenos :)….a propósito muy buen post !! me gusta mucho la canción de Mercedes Sosa y la caricatura de Mafalda !!…..


  4. Nice green post. :) Good to read you. Un abrazo desde Graná.


  5. Good to see you keeping your feet on the ground whilst still having your head in the clouds V. Having been living deep in the suburbs for the last 9 months, I am looking forward to moving back to the concrete jungle, mainly due to a firm commitment to a pedestrian lifestyle (in the literal sense).. however this time a herb and salad garden will definitely live on the terraza.

    From a language perspective, being a reformed french speaker “No pisar el cesped” was a slightly different instruction and always brought a little giggle..


    • I guess some cities can manage a balance between the concrete and the green better than others. I too miss being a pedestrian. Gardens sound nice!

      Does no pisar el césped sound like don’t piss on the grass to a reformed French speaker?


  6. Muy intersante y entretenido tu articulo. Una de las cosas que amo en este lugar es el cesped que crece generosamente a lo largo de todo el estado sin exepcion en barrios ricos o pobres adornando con sutil belleza cada rincon de la ciudad . La gente no se da cuenta lo hermoso que es poder tener cesped gratis, y ademas durante todo el ano.
    En mi pais , tener cesped es un lujo que solo la gente de altos recursos puede tener, pues el solo hecho de tener que regarlo casi todos los dias implica un gasto exesibo en la “cuenta de agua” (water bil), sin considerer la mantencion. En mi pais la gente suna con vivir en ciudades modernas rodeado de comodidades y con cemento por tdos lados. Cortan los arboles para tener mas espacio que cubrir con pavimento. Ese es el concepto de progreso y modernizacion de nuestros paises.


    • Hola amigo, muchísimas gracias por tus palabras tan lindas. Me gustó tu poética descripción del césped que abunda en este país. Sabes, tocaste un tema del cual quería hablar en el post pero que se me olvidó, precisamente que tener un césped es un lujo en Latinoamérica, así que ni modo, ni siquiera es importante que uno conozca todas estas palabras cuando esté por esa región. La verdad, tener un césped es muy antieconómico y, según algunos, un gran desperdicio, pues toda esa agua para regar ¿y para qué? El verde sí es lindo, además es lindo si hay una familia con niños andando por ahí y jugando, pero hierba nada más no es tan hermosa que digamos. Pues, más hermosos serían flores y árboles y un verdadero jardin. Sí, muy lamentable la tala de árboles dondequiera que pase. Pero vamos a Chile, vamos a tu país, vamos vamos vamos :)


  7. Your post reminded me of other words used to broadly describe the concept of grass. You did mention “hierba,” but there is also yerba. While we could think of those as alternative spellings for one and the same word, many people (including me) use yerba only in some specific cases. Yerba, is marihuana; you wouldn’t normally say “hierba” for that. Also, in Argentina and Uruguay they have yerba mate, and again, the words are not interchangeable. Then there is “yerbabuena.” Could it be that “yerba” is only used for plants that humans consume? You probably know of “yerbateros,” and of the song that Juanes composed for the Soccer World Cup in South Africa.

    And speaking of sports, the word “gramilla” is used to describe the surface of a soccer pitch. However, horses race on “pista de grama,” and tenis is played “sobre césped.”

    It is quite interesting that when I go to Bogotá, I have the impression of seeing green everywhere, in comparison to New York. I love being in the city, and love sidewalks and buildings, so it is not like I feel deprived of greenery. I run about 5 days a week in Central Park, and when I go to Bogotá, I go pretty much everyday to el Parque Simón Bolivar or el parque de Los Novios. I am within minutes of the parks in both cities, but it’s fewer minutes when I am in Bogotá (if I want to see water the it is a little closer in New York; and if I want to see a lot of water then it is much closer in New York). Best of all, I don’t have to cut the grass or drive a car in either place. So it all depends on your particular situation, but for a more global perspective you have to look at the statistics, and the links you provided gave us a good perspective.


    • Hi,

      I did know about yerba, and I wasn’t quite clear on the difference. Thanks! But, tell me something– do you pronounce yerba and hierba differently? (You, specifically) I pronounce y’s (and ll’s) in Spanish like English j’s, so I guess they would sound different. I don’t think I’d catch it, though. I think (think is the operative word here!) that yerba buena and hierba buena are the same thing :) But maybe one is more common. I did know Juanes’ song, but didn’t know it was written for the World Cup. Hey, what do you think about all the riots in Brazil now regarding the World Cup?

      Nice to hear your perspectives on Bogotá and New York. I have always dreamed of living in NY for a while (who hasn’t?), and some recent events in my life may make this happen sooner than later :)


      • Well, now you threw in a third sound. Yes, I pronounce “hierba” and “yerba” differently. For “hierba,” the “h” is silent, so I say “ierba.” Same thing for “hielo,” etc. So if somebody took a picture of me at the start of the word, I would have a faint smile, kind of like Gioconda’s but not quite. What you are describing is more like “yerba,” but I’m sure you know that the Spanish “y” is softer than the English “j.” In fact, this is one common error for Spanish speakers of English (yellow vs jealous), although the Spaniish “y” is not the same as either of these two English sounds. If somebody took a picture of me starting to say “yerba,” my lips would be a little bit forward. Not quite sending you a kiss; just a little bit. The “ll” is a different beast. I pronounce it just like a “y” but this is not true everywhere (for example in Santander, Colombia, and I say this based on a very small sample). So the “l” is alveolar (the tip of your tongue on the upper part of the incisors); “ll” is dorsal (the top of your tongue is against the palate). I think I can pronounce it but I am not sure I do it correctly. I think it is similar to the “gli” sound of Italian. BTW, yerbabuena is not the same as yerba buena :) Tómese una aguita de yerbabuena mijita.

        Yes, Juanes was in the opening ceremony of the World Cup in South Africa; Shakira was the main artist, though. Her song “Waka Waka” was the official song of the Cup. I saw part of the show, and she was great; first time I saw her singing “She Wolf.”

        The riots in Brazil… it is a long conversation and the comments section of your blog is probably not the best place to have it. I would personally like to see World Cup, and especially the Olympics, being toned down a lot. I think they are both worthy events for bringing people together, and for whatever economic activity they generate, but this trend making it fancier and fancier, with the costs going astronomically high is not something that I like. At least for soccer, the stadiums (do you say stadia?) will be used in the future, particularly in a place like Brazil. A lot of the specialized facilities for some sports in the Olympics will just decay, as we have seen in Greece and China.

        Well, give me a heads-up if you happen to come to NY. Or if you go to Bogotá, in the unlikely event that I happen to be there in my annual trip.


        • Note added on proof: Just got tickets to see Juanes at Radio City Music Hall! Tomorrow night at eight. This happened just after writing the above lengthy piece :)


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