Everybody knows that there are a lot of ways to say drinking straw in Spanish. And there are almost as many words for baby bottle as there are babies. But for my money, I think the word that might have the greatest number of regional differences is popcorn. I think it’s cool that in each country a would-be poet thought that none of the numerous pre-existing denominations for popcorn sufficiently captured its popcorny soul and essence and then took it upon him- or herself to invent one that would. For his or her people, in that time. As fun as these regional words are, it’s helpful to keep a more universal term in your pocket for when you cross borderlines.
I drew a blank on this most basic word the other day. I was interpreting at the OB/GYN clinic for a prenatal care alternative they offer for women where they meet in a group. After interpreting the chat at the beginning, the leader put in a movie about newborn care. She jokingly apologized for not having any popcorn, and my mind went blank. Popcorn! The only thing that came to my mind was a word that I knew would be absolute gibberish to the women there (all of them were from Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras). However, it was the ONLY word I could recall in that split second, and it is a legitimate one in Colombia: maíz pira. Doing my best to mumble, I hoped that people would understand the spirit of my message from the context and not get hung up on the strange words themselves. I’m usually good at toning down my Colombianness while stateside. I know, I know: When not in Rome, nobody understands (nor, for that matter, cares) what the Romans do.
As I sit here writing this post now, I’m thinking, now how do you say popcorn? Just as convinced as I could be that the standard words for it up and left my brain a long time ago. But, aha! Palomitas graciously flys over to me. Good, good. A little longer and then . . . crispetas crackles in a cobwebbed region of my brain. Excellent! I’m re-earning my popcorn wings. Oh, why did palomitas fail me earlier? Se me fueron las palomitas. If you get that double entendre, go you.
The idea of pyre corn sounds barbaric and medieval. I don’t think you’re supposed to munch on popcorn at a funeral pyre, but that’s what they say in Colombia. (In their pseudo-defense, a pira can also be an hoguera- a bonfire.) Some people use maíz pira only for uncooked popcorn kernels, but others don’t make a distinction. I remember being teased mercilessly one time when I mentioned maíz pira at a movie theater as if this were the most ridiculous thing I could ever say. Movie theater popcorn was always crispetas, I was told. Rightly or wrongly, I then concluded that maíz pira was this unpretentious, folksy term that you only use to describe the humble popcorn you prepare and eat at home. But when you hold it up to the light and are honest with yourself, you see how unsophisticated (seriously, a pyre?) and embarrassing it really is. The term clearly can’t be used to describe the glamorous, gleaming movie theater popcorn you eat while watching Hollywood movies in English. Enter, crispetas. This term appears to come from the Valencian and Catalonian crispetes, which comes from the English crisps. In some parts of Colombia, they only say crispetas.
Palomitas (little doves) or palomitas de maíz is the best catch-all, universal word for popcorn. For some reason, rosetas de maíz (rosettes) is how popcorn is usually translated in movie subtitles and dubbing. No country was stepping up to the plate, though, and claiming it as their own. A prescriptive term that some translator is trying his dangdest to disseminate despite its failure to catch on after decades? Finally, Andalusia owned up to it.
Here’s a sample of the many words for popcorn, organized by themes that jump out at me. Countries mean that the word is allegedly used in at least some region of that country, and possibly all of it.
Little goats: chivitas (Mexico), cabritas (Chile)
Onomatopoeia/fun to say: pochoclos (po + choclo- corn) (Argentina, Uruguay), poporopos (Guatemala), cotufas (Venezuela)
Indigenous words: esquites (Náhuatl- Mexico), canguil (Kichwa- Ecuador), pororó/pururú (Guaraní- Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia), cancha/canchita (Quechua- Peru), pipocas (Tupi- Bolivia, Brazil)
And many, many more! So, does popcorn look more like little doves or little goats? What other words do you know? Which one’s your favorite? Don’t tell Colombia, but I quite like pochoclo myself.