The Problem with Panty
When Your Native English Feels Foreign
Several friends and I are waiting for Julia to show up. It’s 4:15 PM in Plaza Italia, our meeting spot for biking up Cerro San Cristobal, a large hill in the middle of Santiago, Chile. We all agreed to be here by 3:45, and most of us are on time. Not Julia. “She’s on Julia-time,” people say.
When she arrives, she’s immediately taken to task for being a half hour late. “Me están haciendo bullying,” Julia says to me, using the English word in her Spanish sentence. Translation: “They’re bullying me.” The word bullying is part of the public discussion in Chile. At the university where I guest-taught for a month, there were posters calling for an end to bullying. It’s an issue that apoderados (parents and guardians of school-age children) and teachers also take seriously, calling meetings to figure out how to stop it.
But by my definition, my friend Julia is not being bullied. I don’t doubt that she doesn’t like being teased for showing up late, but to me, a native speaker of English, that’s not bullying. It’s not a hate campaign. It won’t undermine her sense of self. She’s being teased. In Chilean Spanish, there are many expressions for “to tease.” There is columpiar, tomar el pelo, agarrar para el leseo—all of which imply that the teasing behavior is just good fun. And teasing is a solidly entrenched part of day-to-day conversation. Words like gordita (“chubby”) and guatón (“big belly”) are liberally used as nicknames, and people routinely refer to their children as their enanos (literally, “midgets”).
Eileen Smith is based in Santiago, Chile, where she writes about language, travel, place, and identity. She is currently working on a memoir. Her blog is at www.bearshapedsphere.com.
As a native English speaker who came to Spanish later in life, I’m suffering from a disconnect. The Chilean understanding of bullying and mine do not line up. Bullying has experienced a semantic shift somewhere since its import, becoming more expansive as it has traveled south. It now means both teasing and bullying, simple joking around and destructive campaigns of intimidation.
And bullying is not the only English word imported into Chilean Spanish whose meaning I have to learn anew. Later on in the evening, having now come down off the cerro, three miles of curvy downhill cycling, I comment that I’m cold. Alejandro asks, “¿Y por qué no usas panty?” Which sounds a bit like he’s asking me why I don’t wear underwear. But (a) I do; (b) they’re not keeping me warm; and (c) that’s not what he’s asking. He wants to know why I’m not wearing tights under my pants. The answer being, I don’t like how the two layers of fabric rub against each other; and also, my problem with the cold is not going to be helped by more layers. I should live in a place with less oscilación térmica (variation in temperature). And maybe heat. But despite what I think panty means, Alejandro is right. Panty means “tights.” Atop a building a few blocks from where we met this morning, there’s a giant neon sign with sixteen colorful legs surrounding the glowing word “PANTYS.” The legs flash on and off in sequence.
Perhaps I’m not wearing a “panty” because I don’t have any. If I ask where to get some, surely my friends will point me to the shopping. Clang. Another imported word used to mean something I’m not expecting, this time even becoming a different part of speech. One cannot go to an activity, any more than one can have a singular panty, which is now a word I have never typed so many times before in my life. If I were to buy this panty at the shopping, perhaps I should consider getting some patterned ones, like animal print (used as I’m accustomed, though pronounced with Chilean phonetics). I would be so fashion. Where fashion means “trendy.”
To my ear, there are many examples of close-but-not-exactly-the-same importations of English into Chilean Spanish. I have a hard time dealing with these semi-homonym-synonyms. I feel an ownership of English. It’s my native language. And it feels as if they’re using it wrong. I’m looking at you, bullying, and panty, camping (which means “campsite”), flippers (which means “pinball”), brushing (a blow-out at a hair salon), heavy (“serious”), feeling (to have chemistry with), and fashion. Every time I have to hear or use these, it’s jarring.
Even after ten years in Chile, it is clear that I don’t always know which terms have made it into Spanish and which have not, especially in topics I don’t follow closely. Probably due to my own insecurity about how well I speak Spanish, I try not to use English words in Spanish, unless I know they are commonly in use. They feel like shortcuts. As they say in Chilean Spanish, it’s a torpedo, a crib sheet. I don’t want to cheat. But I can’t count the times when I’ve used a hearty dose of circumlocution to arrive at the fact that the key word is the one we use in English. It’s more than a bit deflating to compose an entire paragraph, only to find out that the word used in Chile, as it is in the United States, is merchandising, or that my word choice “bayas,” which means “berries,” but only to botanists, obfuscates communication (the word in Chile is berries).
The irony is that I don’t pronounce the Spanishified “merchandising” or “berries” correctly. I must not know all of the rules for transforming English phonemes to Spanish ones, and I definitely don’t know how to assign new words grammatical gender or how stress rules apply. It’s clear why certain Spanish words like Rodrigo, refrigerador, and adolorida trip me up; it’s the proximity of the liquids to the flaps. In those cases, the intrusion of my English seems familiar. But when the words that confuse me are recognizably English in origin, the intrusive effect of my English seems strange. When you live in another country for a long time, you get used to being foreign. But only a native speaker of English could have her language feel foreign to her in precisely this way.
Some cultures seem more actively resistant to importation of foreign-language words. On a trip to Iceland in the early 2000s, I had non-language-obsessed Icelanders explain (in English) that keeping language borrowing to a minimum was important for keeping Icelandic—a language spoken by only some 300,000 people—pure. The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies lists thirty different organizations working on developing Icelandic words for science, technology, business, and culture. And Ari Páll Kristinsson (from the institute) gave me an example of one in a recent email. Instead of the term psychiatry, “Icelanders use the native word geðlæknisfræði, a neologism made from the ancient Icelandic words geð ‘mind’, læknir ‘doctor’, and fræði ‘science’.” There are calques as well, he writes, such as gagnagrunnur, which means “database,” from gögn "data" and grunnur "base."
Perhaps Chilean Spanish is unusually vulnerable to English imports because Chileans think they speak the worst Spanish in all of the Spanish-speaking world, according to a 2012 study by Dario Rojas, a linguist at the Universidad de Chile. By “worst” they may be alluding to chilenismos like cuático, which means “strange,” with strong negative connotations, a word that’s not in the dictionary of the Real Academia Española. Would they also count siútico, meaning “pretentious,” but only in Bolivia and Chile?
Rojas told me via email that the use of English words in Chilean Spanish could be a case of arribismo, or a kind of social climbing, but only in limited instances. Mostly it has to do with identity, he says. Chileans use English to exemplify their membership in the larger international sphere where English is mainly spoken, in the same way that members of specific professions—say, economists or information technology professionals—use anglicismos to demonstrate that their professional affiliations cross borders.
Contrary to what I hear every day, there aren’t that many English loanwords in Spanish, Rojas tells me. He co-edited the Diccionario de uso del español en Chile (Dictionary of the Use of Spanish in Chile), which contained “only 150 entries in English. In a dictionary that has 10,000 entries,” he said. Most English words in Chile, Rojas says, “are there due to field-specific jargon” as mentioned above, and through what he calls “cultural loans,” which can be physical objects or cultural constructs that bring with them the names they are given in other cultures.
He acknowledges there are variants of Chilean Spanish that might contain more anglicismos, and it occurred to me that I must have stumbled into one of those spaces in Chilean Spanish where they surface more frequently. I note that all of my friends have at least one foreigner friend (me), which means that they at least have a consciousness of other languages in their daily lives. And several of my friends work in media and use English words exactly as Rojas indicates they would, using terms like rendering and timing when editing film because that’s what the field does.
When I first arrived in Chile in 2004, I often came home exhausted from so much new vocabulary. Even then, I had the sense that using an anglicismo pointed to my vocabulary gap. But I should have been easier on myself, because I had come late to the relexification party. Many of these words have been used, a Google Ngram search tells me, for several decades. Panty has been in use in Spanish print since the late 1950s, and use of feedback and embed have both been on the rise since the late 1930s. Flippers really took off in the 1950s, probably not coincidental to the fact that pinball as we know it—with flippers included—was introduced in 1947. And what about bullying? That predates my presence in Chile, too, first appearing in 1996, and increasing in use every year.
And just as I find myself defensive about what I perceive as the overuse of English words in Spanish, such as bullying, I also find myself defensive of the original Spanish, more of a purist than my Chilean friends. Why can’t I say “es poderoso” instead of “es puro power,” talking about a particularly fit friend, who dusts us all cycling up the hill? That’s not even how you’d say that in English, I think to myself, as I dither over which one sounds better to the Chilean ear. “Is he the one who’s an entrenador at a gym?” I ask. “¿Un qué?” Oh, right. I should have asked if he worked as a “personal,” which is what personal trainers are called here—stress on the first syllable, not on the last syllable (as in the Spanish word personal).
I try to make my case to my Chilean friends in lengthy, detailed, and elaborate statements in which I, the muse of English present, come to explain the intricacies of a language that’s being used incorrectly. And every time, my pronouncements fall flat. It’s nice that you do it that way in the United States, people seem to say. But just like we peel the tomatoes before we put them in a salad, this is what that word means here.