"False Friends"

                                Gemma Cruz Araneta

An article on Spanish words that have different meanings in the Philippines:

“Cubetas— 50% de descuento”— I saw that enormous sign the first time I went to Gigante, a supermarket chain with several branches in Mexico city. How unusual , I thought, for a supermarket to sell sanitary installations and at half the price. Little did I imagine that the word cubeta is a “false friend”. In Filipino it refers to a toilet but in Spanish-speaking Mexico, cubeta has an entirely different meaning. The items on sail were pails, both plastic and metal, in rainbow colors and of various sizes and prices. Over there, cubeta had retained its original meaning which to us is, timba or balde. Now, why and how did we start calling a toilet or rest room cubeta, especially in non-urban areas ? I suppose that during Spanish colonial times, many houses did not have plumbing so in each room there was a pail to collect the night soil. The Spanish colonizers must have referred to the night pail as la cubeta as a kind of euphemism, to disguise its real use. The word casillas, which also means toilet or bathroom in many Philippine provinces, must have had a similar origin. The “out house,” a small structure detached from the main residence was where one went to answer the “call of nature.” In fact, casilla is a diminutive form of casa. Happily, we now use CR which has become so generic it can mean water closet, toilet and bathroom.

Last week, I stumbled upon a former co-worker at the DOT who was pleased to report that he was about to leave for Madrid. He very graciously offered to send messages to my relatives there but since I have none, I said I would instead do him a favor and warn him about “false friends.” Aside from cubeta and casillas, I felt I had to explain to him the most vulgar of them all-- lamierda. I told him to bite his tongue whenever he would be tempted to say it for under no circumstances should he pronounce the word. In Spanish, it has absolutely nothing to do with “painting the town red” or “going along for a lark” or having good wholesome fun with friends. Mierda means fecal matter, never to be uttered in polite society.

How that crude and tasteless expression got into our contemporary vocabulary, I have yet to find out. I first heard that unfortunate phrase in the 80’s while vacationing in Manila. I had never encountered it in the genteel 60s nor during the turbulent 70s, before leaving for Mexico. When I first heard lamierda in its Tagalog usage, I was too flabbergasted to correct the person who had so casually said it. I heard it again from a Leftist friend who had returned from Managua. She wondered why the Nicaraguans were so appalled when she said she “wanted to go lamierda”, in broken Spanish. Needless to say, that friend was both horrified and embarrassed when I explained why that must have been so inexplicably offensive to Spanish-speaking people. According to some showbiz friends, lamierda is gayspeak but no one could tell me exactly how it came about. Fortunately, it is being replaced by the less vulgar “ gimmick”, or “gumimik”.

By far the most persistent and durable is the hideously unrefined and indecent kesihoda, also gayspeak, with its variants, quesijoda or quesihoda. In the vernacular its intensity seems to vary from “ the hell with them !“ (or you) to “ damn you ! ”. The original, expletive is ugly “!Que se joda!” ; to f—k is the English equivalent of the Spanish verb joder.

There are other “false friends” that we should learn-- puto sigue, siempre, seguro, “cebo de macho” and mamon, to name a few — so we can use them with care and in the proper context. Native Spanish-speakers should also be told that Filipinos can get very touchy when referred to as muchachos and muchachas, even if these are harmless words. The Instituto Cervantes will publish a list of misunderstood terms and phrases, most appropriately, on Phil-Hispanic Friendship Day or Dia de la Amistad Filhispana.

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