Category Archives: Things

Turn turn turnstile

anti tourniquet 


bus station tourniquet

Those are three Google searches I did a few minutes ago to no avail. Can you tell what I was looking for? Hint: I was (unintentionally) thinking in Spanish. I’d read that Bogotá’s TransMilenio BRT system is planning to implement anti-colado faregates, and I wanted to see what such an apparatus would look like. Just really tall? Google was no help, though, until the last query, when the first result was the Wikipedia page for turnstile. Oh, turnstile! Of course, of course. You know what, though–I’m pretty sure I’ve been saying tourniquet in English for the last good while or so. I’ve definitely talked about turnstiles in Spanish far more than I ever have in English, so I guess it figures. Probably because now I live in a major city where I regularly take public transport, and my exposure to turnstiles in the States was decidedly skimpy. How I previously lived without that daily or even bi-daily metallic brush against my waist, I don’t know.

So, yes. Turnstile is el torniquete in Spanish. Tourniquete is also the word used for a medical tourniquet. A tourniquet constricts an artery on an arm or leg to control bleeding, and the idea of a turnstile/torniquete is to constrict and control access into a location. Apparently they say molinete in Argentina (like a pinwheel) and torno in some areas of Spain. Another throwaway fact is that turnstiles are also called baffle gates. The DRAE also said that a torniquete can be some part of a bell, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

At the end of the Wikipedia article on turnstiles, they dedicate an entire paragraph to “Turnstiles in Russia.” The novelty is that “In the early 2000s, Moscow authorities sought to further improve fare collection; since enclosing all bus and tram stops and providing them with fare gates was not feasible, they installed turnstiles inside each city bus and tram.” Yes, and? That seems normal to me (isn’t it? I’ve lost all touch with normality), but Wikipedia clearly did a double backflip about the far-out insideness of these turnstiles. Though it mentions that these groovy inside turnstiles are also seen in Chile, Brazil, and Hong Kong. They’re pan de cada día here in Colombia.

Enemies of crinoline petticoats

I’m going back to the U.S. tomorrow and will be there for eleven days, so if Vocabat can make herself stop eating all the delicious food that will abound–we’re doing an early Thanksgiving–and get around to blogging (oh, who am I kidding? I need to blog like I need to breathe), then she’ll be broadcasting from the U.S. of A, very happily a few pounds heftier. Tune in!


In addition to getting a lot of practice speaking Spanish during my two years in Colombia, I also got to do my fair share of eating. And while I’m incapable of mustering up much excitement for Colombian food in general, there are two categories of Colombian victuals that are decidedly good: fruits/juices and bread. The tropical fruits are abundant and simply spectacular; as for the bread, there’s a bakery on every corner overflowing with it. When I lived in Bogotá, I’d frequently be too lazy to cook and would scarf down big bags of fresh, hot bread all the time. Panes hojaldrados were my favorite. I admit that I’m a little ashamed to out myself as such a (former) bread glutton, but at least I got a useful word from my Pantagruelic ways: ñapa.

The ñapa is the little extra added to something, and its most common usage is the extra roll that a baker tucks into your bag. You know, a baker’s dozen. I learned this my first weekend in Colombia when I went with a group of people to Medellín. I took a bus with my friend Flavio, we stopped at a bakery beforehand to load up on bread, and he flashed a winning smile to charm the women at the bakery into throwing a little extra bread into the bag for us. He’d been sweet-talking them the entire time. He later explained the custom of the ñapa to me. It’s also sometimes called the vendaje or encime in Colombia. Although it was once very common for people to say Vecina, ¿me da ñapa? to the baker, the custom is slowly dying out as modernization kills those little intimacies between neighbors and economic stress puts a damper on generosity. A real shame, the decline of the ñapa. So, enjoy your ñapa while you still can! I should say here, though, that you probably shouldn’t ask for a ñapa unless you’re a regular patron and know the baker well. Otherwise, it could be taken as a little conchudo on your part–one must also know that they are never entitled to a ñapa. Thus, anytime you’re the recipient of one, consider yourself lucky.

La ñapa

Ñapa comes from yapa, the Quechua word for gift, which derives from yapay, or to give more. You didn’t know you were going to learn Quechua when you stopped by my blog today, did you? As you’d figure, ñapa is used in many parts of South America, and it’s also used in the Caribbean. It’s even used in English! How so? Ever heard of the word lagniappe? (You’re forgiven if you haven’t.) Well, it certainly exists, and I’ve certainly seen it . . . a time or two in my life. Apparently, it came into the rich Creole dialect mixture of New Orleans and there acquired a French spelling. It’s still used in the Gulf states, especially southern Louisiana, to denote a little bonus that a friendly shopkeeper might add to a purchase. By extension, it may mean an extra or unexpected gift or benefit. Lagniappe comes from la ñapa. Nifty, eh? I bet you didn’t even know that you knew a Quechua word. Not that it would be the only one in your vocabulary; let’s not forget lima (bean), jerky, condor, llama, and puma, among others.

One phrase I like is de ñapa. It means that something is said or done as a little unsolicited favor. It’s like, Oh, and one more thing. Oh, and since I’m on a roll. Oh, and since I’m so nice, here’s a little extra.

Nos vimos, hablamos, todo bien, no pasó nada, nos despedimos y de repente me dio un beso de ñapa.

We met up, talked, everything was good, nothing happened, we said goodbye, and then he decided to throw in a little kiss.

Has hecho muy bien con tus diez frases de inglés. Ahora te regalo otra, pues esta va de ñapa.

Good job with your ten English phrases. I’ll teach you one more just because I feel like being nice.

It can also be used negatively to mean “on top of all that” like y encima.

Los muchachos atropellaron a una anciana y de ñapa tuvieron la desfachatez de robarle 500 pesos.

The teenagers ran over the old lady and to top it off had the nerve to steal 500 pesos from her.

La ñapa

Although it had been a while since I’d heard or said ñapa, I was reminded of it last week while talking to a Puerto Rican patient. Well advanced in years, she told me that she felt that the portion of life left to her was a ñapa granted from above. O sea, she had lived a good, long life, more than enough to be grateful for, and she viewed any and all additional years added to that amount as an extravagant gift. I liked her way of looking at life. Myself, I hope I have many more loaves of bread to look forward to.

Did you know about la ñapa or its English equivalent, lagniappe? What is this called in your country? Would you be brave enough to ask the baker for una ñapa? Ñapa or no ñapa, bon appetit!

Movin’ on up, movin’ on down

This morning I read a scholarly article in Spanish on how videos used in standard Spanish teaching curricula promote the idea that Latin Americans are, as Elaine Benes once put it in a Seinfeld episode, “a very festive people” to the exclusion of other more nuanced, sophisticated analyses and the ideological implications of such patronizing, superficial caricaturizations. It was fascinating.

I learned a lot from the article, and it definitely gave me a lot to mull over; I also learned some Spanish from it, as I’m wont to do almost every time I read in Spanish. Most of the words I jotted down were ones I’ve learned but don’t have much familiarity with; however, there were a few that I didn’t know at all– ramplón, en sordina, and gradas. The first two were, meh, medianamente interesting, but gradas, now there was a blog post just waiting to be written. It had Vocabat written all over it. Who was I not to heed that call?

So, gradas! They mean bleachers (or terraces–I never knew that bleachers was an Americanism) or stands, and I’d never heard the word until today. It seems like such a basic word–how had I gone so long without it? I couldn’t tell ya. But now that it’s in my brain, I’m certain that it won’t be leaving. In my defense, I had an incredibly diverse wealth of experiences while I was in Colombia, and these were very intimate experiences where I basically got to be part of various families. One thing I never did, though, was go to any athletic events. So it’s no wonder I didn’t know gradas, though you would think I would have picked it up somewhere. Oh well. No need to feel degraded.

Gradas are the stands or bleachers at a sporting event or the kind of seating you’ll find in a TV studio audience. (Gradería and graderío are other ways to say this in some places, though much less common) La grada encompasses the idea of the entire area of the stands and the people in them. In some countries, gradas can mean stairs or even individual steps. Good to know.

La grada

You do know how to say stairs and steps in Spanish, don’t you? I’m sure you do, and I certainly don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence, but let’s go over it anyway just in case there’s one shy person in the lot who’s afraid to speak up. The review will do us all some good.

Stairs can be escalera or escaleras. I would say that escaleras is much more common, but they are basically interchangeable. It probably depends on regional use and personal preference. For some reason, escalera sounds more elegant to me, but I might be imagining that. I also wonder if perhaps escalera was originally the correct way to say it, but the influence of English and “stairs” crept in. I don’t know, though. In any case, they’re synonyms, and you’ll probably hear escaleras more.

En caso de incendio

Cortázar once wrote a great short essay titled Instrucciones para subir una escalera. I love it. I once translated a beautiful essay that referenced this piece. It happens often that we grow so accustomed to the ordinariness of day to day life that we no longer need instructions on how to go up a flight of stairs . . . Here’s a witty response to Cortázar’s witty but sincere and moving piece, Instrucciones para bajar una escalera by the Antioqueño writer Héctor Abad Faciolince.

To go up stairs is subir las escaleras; you can also say subir por las escaleras, which often suggests that there was another option. That is, you could have taken the elevator or levitated yourself to the third floor, but you either chose to take the stairs or had to. To go down stairs is bajar las escaleras or bajar por las escaleras

What about an individual step? Escalón or peldaño

Peldaño comic

What if you miss a step and fall down? You can say caerse de las escaleras, caerse por las escaleras, rodar/se por las escaleras, rodar escaleras abajo, or caer/se escaleras abajo. Knock yourself out.

An escalator is escalera eléctrica or escalera mecánica.

Medellín has six flights of escalators for residents in the Comuna 13, the first public outdoor escalators in the world

An elevator is ascensor or elevador— a word I only learned once I moved back to the Spanglish-rife U.S.

If we’re talking about a really grand or wide staircase, escalinata is the more proper word. I remember learning this in a book and then hearing the gym teacher at the school where I used to work use this one time. As you can see, names eventually escape me, the topics of conversations fade over time, but the words used? Never! Well, almost never.

Image by Carmen Alonso Suarez via Flickr Creative Commons

Don’t forget that escalera is also ladder. Context should always make things obvious, but I can still easily imagine some mistranslated sign somewhere: ELEVATOR BROKEN, USE LADDER. You can also say escalera de mano if you’re talking about a ladder. It’s funny, there’s a ladder store down the street from where I live, and I’ve always found it so charming and Latin American in its single-mindedness. I guess it would be an escalería? Just imagine, selling only ladders! You don’t see many specialty stores like that around anymore.

Escalera comic

Led Zeppelin’s much beloved Stairway to Heaven? Escalera al cielo

Were you blown away by any of this new knowledge? Can you think of anything I missed? Catch you on the stairs somewhere.

The language of scents

The other day, I realized that I had utterly and irredeemably forgotten a word in Spanish. It was terrible. How does one go about looking for a forgotten word when they can’t remember anything about it? I tried calling out its meaning on Google in as many creative ways as I could (as I lacked its name), I tried with all my might to simply wish it back, and I finally fell into a slump. The word had left me for good because of my own neglect. As there was nothing to be done (I was just too glum to ask anyone else about it), I parted with the word emotionally and let it go. I wished it well. I forgot about it. I moved on with my life and told myself that there were plenty of other words out there. Deep down, though, this was no consolation; I wanted that word. Woe was me.

Then yesterday while waiting for a patient, I lazily thumbed through a copy of Entertainment Weekly at a clinic. And what jumped out at me from that bastion of culture? You guessed it: my word! My lost little sheep, my precious coin. I’m going to devote a post to him to make sure I don’t forget again.

The word in Spanish? Pachulí. The word in English? Patchouli. No, I didn’t know the word in English until yesterday. Somehow it had escaped my notice and stayed far away from my olfactory receptors. As I don’t think I’ve ever been around patchouli, I have no idea what it smells like. While technically just a fragrant oil that comes from mint leaves, apparently patchouli is a real instigator and makes people choose sides. It seems like most people come down on the side of hating it, and it’s very heavily associated with the hippie movement and pot-smoking. Others extol its seductive, come-hither powers, however. The patchouli jury would seem to be out.

In Colombia and some other places, pachulí means any cheap perfume that stinks to high heaven. A gaudy, cloying, foul perfume or cologne whose stench is 100% effective at killing all hopes of romance or camaraderie. It reeks from miles away. It’s what a two-bit hooker or sleazy truck driver would rub on themselves. Are you catching my drift? You don’t make friends by walking around doused in pachulí. Step on an airplane or any other enclosed space with pachulí on and you’re asking for it. Don’t be that person. If someone tells you that hueles a pachulí, take the hint.

Ese pachulí que te echas me tiene a punto de vomitar.

That foul stuff you put on makes me want to throw up.

Ni de fundas voy a dejarte ir a esa cita oliendo a puro pachulí.

There’s no way I’m letting you go on that date reeking of cheap perfume.

I love the vocabulary of smells, both good and bad. Hediondo is superb, for example. Also, pecueca. If you really want to luxuriate in the world of smells, there’s likely no better book than Patrick Süskind’s The Perfume. But, wait. I should stop myself right here. I want to write in the future about El perfume, so let’s call it a post. In the meantime, be thinking about smells. What are some of your favorite words (especially adjectives and descriptive nouns) or phrases for describing odors? I’d like to learn many, many more.

Also, have you ever had any joyous reunions with words after you’d thought you’d never see them again? Tell me about it.


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.