Humor and Translation: Yippee-i-o-ki-yay, Amigo!

By Mark Herman 

Thanks to Hollywood films, one of the most iconic American images is that of the Wild West, where rugged cowboys ride the open range with only howling coyotes for company, speaking iconic words, imported largely, of course, from Mexico.

Some of the words are obvious: arroyo, cañón (= canyon), corral, mesa, and the word for “cowboy” itself, vaquero (= buckaroo). Here are some more, as recorded in Stuart Berg Flexner’s I America Talking1:

  • bronco: from the Spanish word meaning “coarse,” “rough,” “uncouth”
  • chaparral (low thorny shrubs): from the Spanish chaparral (a dwarf oak)
  • chaps (short for chaparajos): leggings to protect the legs from horse bites, rope burns, and the chaparral
  • cinch: from the Spanish cincha (saddle girth)
  • lariat: from the Spanish la reata (the rope)
  • lasso: from the Spanish lazo (snare)
  • mustang: from the Spanish mesteňo (stray, wild)
  • pinto: from the Spanish word meaning “spotted” or “painted”
  • ranch: from the Spanish rancho (soldiers’ mess, gathering)
  • rodeo: from the Spanish rodear (to surround)
  • stampede: from the Spanish estampida (rush, uproar)
  • ten-gallon hat, which can refer to capacity but is more likely a variant of the Spanish sombrero galón, meaning a hat with braids or stripes.

In addition to contributing their own words, Mexicans also served as intermediaries for words taken from the languages of pre-Columbian Americans, such as:

  • coyote: from the Nahuatl coyotl
  • mesquite: from the Nahuatl mezquitl
  • poncho, the blanket with a slit for the head worn by vaqueros, from the Araucan Indians of Chile and Argentina
  • shack: from Aztec xacalli (wooden hut)

and

  • “Mexico” itself, from Nahuatl, place of the Mexih.

Words for foods were also brought into English via Mexican Spanish:

  • avocado: from the Nahuatl ahuacatl (meaning “testicle,” from its shape)
  • barbecue: from the Taino (frame of sticks)
  • chicle: from the Nahuatl chictli
  • chili: from the Nahuatl chilli
  • chocolate: from the Aztec xocolatl (bitter water)
  • maize: from the Taino mahiz
  • papaw and papaya, both from a single Carib word
  • potato: from the Taino batata
  • tamale: from the Nahuatl tamal
  • tomato: from Nahuatl tomatl

And let us not forget the drugs:

  • mescal: from the Nahuatl, the agave or peyote plant
  • peyote: from the Nahuatl peyotl
  • tobacco: from the Carib word meaning either the pipe in which it was smoked, or a roll of it smoked like a cigar.

Apropos of nothing, I will close this column with some bilingual puns, some old, some new:

  • Auntie Bellum: a particularly quarrelsome relative
  • con amore: love fraud
  • linguini: languages of limited diffusion
  • roman à clay: a very early novel, written in cuneiform
  • soccer bleu: an international football team
  • x libris: banned books
  • Дуитова (Do it ova): the clumsy Russian ballerina
  • Пикоп Андропов (Pikop Andropoff): a Russian chauffeur
  • цардийн (tsardean): a big fish in a Russian imperial school
  • Μελίνα Μερκούρη (Melina Mercouri): the Greek goddess of temperature.

Notes

  1. Berg, Stuart. I Hear America Talking: An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976).

Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.edu. Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

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