Spanish contribution to the English language: an observation

Amour fou, c’est la vie, la vie en rose, savoir faire, je ne said quoi, qui lo sa, faux pas, raison d’être, vogue, amateur, affair, voyeur, chauffeur, suite, cuisine, corset, culotte, douche, finesse, apperitive, bon appétite, bon voyage, bon-bon, prêt-à-porter, lingerie, burlesque, derriere, à la mode, ménage a trois…

It’s fascinating to look closely at those words or expressions from other languages that become of common use in English. The French tongue, as in the examples above, lends to the English vocabulary, words that describe an accepted debility for the pleasures of the flesh and the senses, which may –in the opinion of some– enlighten the soul and enrich the human experience. “Live the moment sans rien regrette! Because tomorrow we might be (and in fact will be) dead”, mort, fin. These words acknowledge the complexity of human relationships beyond moral limits or stifled constrains, arbitrarily set by society and religion. These mots indicate a certain level of comfort with the mysteries of life. They seem to proclaim with confidence, “We don’t need to have all the answers to be happy; nobody is parfait but it’s alright. Let’s have another glass of champagne (Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay or Savignon Blanc will do) and make love right now, right here, on your parent’s antique chaise-lounge!”. They define the essence of the bon vivant French esprit, a joie de vivre, as it were.

Similarly, in Italian we have words like paparazzi, dolce vita, opera, spaghetti, al dente, pizza, fritatta, casino, mafia, Machiavelli, commedia dell’arte, mamma mía, diva, Madonna, espresso, machiato, cappuccino, grande, venti… These ambassadorial vocables also show a gusto for life and an inmemorial appreciation for plain good fun, even if sometimes it means to be attained in less than wholesome ways. But unlike the French, they fail to scratch beyond the surface gilded with many layers of glossy Catholic guilt (and that exuberance of double letters). “Let’s eat uncomplicated but tasty food that even children love, listen to beautiful music, raise the spirit, buy a good pair of expensive shoes or get a nice tan at the beach, top it with gelato and don’t worry about reality (because it might get depressing), la vita e bella!”
In the same optimistic vein, Italian has the magical power to make every dish sound delicious, like in the following examples: “Mazzarelle alla teramana“, which in fact is no other than tightly wrapped rolls made with lamb’s lung, heart and tripe; or delicious “Torcinelli“: rolled strips of lamb tripe, sweetbreads, and liver cooked in caul fat, mmmm! Buonissimo!

The Russian language gave us intelligentsia, Molotov (the cocktail), troika (and perestroika), kalashnikov or vodka, words that paint the Russians as smart, temperamental, belicose… and, fond of drinking and of the letters “k”, “i”, “o” and “v”.

As an aside, Russian roulette, French kiss, Italian job, German engineering, Dutch oven, Made in USA, Belgian beer, Nigerian e-mail, Swiss cheese, Euro-trash, Turkish bath, Indian summer, Egyptian cotton, Mexican divorce, Chinese torture and Spanish fly are examples of misnomers that often carry a heavy load of prejudice and their use should not be abused.

Germans have their share with words like Gestalt, Doppelgänger, achtung, angst, Bauhaus, Jägermeister, kaput, spiel, zeitgeist, wunderkind, wunderbar (origin of the word wonderbra), Volkswagen, wiener and hamburger, and they denote these volks are seriously profound, complicated and precise.
Words starting with the prefix “sch…”, like “schlep” are invariably of Yiddish origin, and are meant to spice the informal schmoozing of New Yorkers and schtick a witty and knowing schmile on our faces. Failing to do so will only reveal that you are either not a real New Yorker or anti-Semitic. The popular tonic water “Schweppes” being one of these funny words, as well as others as varied as schedule, scheme, school, schizoaffective, scherzo, Schopenhauer or Schenectady.

We have seen so far how these words help define the stereotypes that simplify the characteristics of different countries and their cultures to a level comprehensible by the average anglocentric person.

Now, what happens with Spanish? Adios, amigo, barrio, bodega, cafetería, conquistador, cojones, chorizo (not to be confused with schoritzo: a Jewish-German sausage seasoned with paprika and garlic made with lamb instead of pork), Cuba libre, defenestrar, embargo, guerrilla, hacienda, hasta la vista, incomunicado, loco, Lolita, mano a mano, macho/machismo, margarita, marijuana, matador, mosquito, nada, paella (for some reason pronounced: payeya), rumba, tornado, derecho, salsa, siesta, sombrero, vigilante… well, I think you can easily reach to your own conclusions about the Spanish contribution to the English language.

Life among giants

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Good evening everybody, in order not to jeopardize my ongoing research, I’ll introduce myself under the assumed name of Tabby. I live in semi-voluntary seclusion among two giant upright cats with supernatural powers who serve and guard me. This type of giant cat is fascinating, so allow me to share with you some of my observations. For those of you not acquainted with the upright giant cat, I’ll start describing some of their most relevant physical features.

The giant cats are mostly covered in fur-like coats, except for their faces and paws, the result being rather aesthetically unpleasant, until you get accustomed to it. Their coat changes color and sometimes texture every day, shedding it every night before going to sleep (which, by the way, they conduct in the normal horizontal position). Upon waking up, the first thing they do in the morning is go under running water for a few minutes. I often jump in the large basin right after and lick the droplets, trying –in vain– to teach these gentle savages that the water is meant to be drunk, not poured over you. After this strange ritual, they grow new fur in a matter of minutes, have breakfast and disappear through the door to a place unknown, sometimes for the better part of the day. My only guess is that they might go hunting. If not, where do they procure the food? Food doesn’t grow on trees! (some audience giggles).

As I already mentioned, this race of cats is aproximately around ten times our size. They balance their huge bodies on their hinds, like in an excruciatingly painful circus act. I don’t fully understand the benefits of this behaviour, since I, being much smaller, can run faster in my all fours. One possible advantage is that it frees their long and deformed but dextrous paws to do all sorts of handy tricks. For example they are able to open food containers, replenish my water bowl, clean my box, comb my coat, as well as move silly strings and a variety of toys in front of my face, open and close doors and windows, move objects from one place to another, including me (which I hate) and thousands of other little tricks that I still have to find their utility for. I suspect they perform them mostly to keep themselves entertained. Other physical features are unremarkable, their ears are round and chubby, their fangs underdeveloped, and certainly they don’t seem to have great sense of hearing, vision or smell.

These cats are, in general, good-natured and docile, obeying most of my commands without delay, so it seems they must have a basic understanding of our language, which unfortunately is more than I can say about myself regarding theirs. The giant upright cat’s rudimental form of verbal communication is made of many complicated meaningless sounds that they certainly use more than necessary and for no obvious purpose, except perhaps because they find the sound of it pleasant. In all these years I got to understand two or three words at the most, including what I believe is a ridiculous name they insist upon calling me by (and I’ll spare you from hearing) and another expression they use when they don’t want me to shed my claw’s sheaths in certain surfaces. It sounds something like “wont-moo-mat” or “gunt-do-taat” (general laughter from the audience).

On certain days or in the evenings they spend many of their waking hours seated in front of flat windows where nothing of importance is going on, taping with their hairless paws on some kind of ratling toy or playing around with something that they mistakenly call a “mouse”. No doubt that they must find this purposeless activity fun or rewarding, but the reasons behind such behaviour escape me.

Introducing my talk I mentioned the supernatural powers these giant cats possess, and I could quickly see a flurry of impatient tail-waving among the most skeptical of you. Well, alright, in the spirit of true critical thinking and to appease those naysayers, I’ll say that what I earlier called supernatural should be more precisely defined as phenomena of unknown or mysterious origin. I have observed in countless occasions and can attest that the giant upright cat has the power by simply touching the wall, usually in the same spot, to turn the night into day and viceversa. They can also bring warmth to a cold room and cool a warm room. In brief, they have certain command of the elements that bewilders reason and defies imagination. There might be a perfectly logical explanation, I know, but after more than forty (cat) years, I can’t even begin to grasp it. In any case, and to conclude, I’ve learned to live with it and none of this puzzles me or keeps me awake at night anymore.

And now, speaking of questions without answer, I would like to open it to Q&A for the rest of the time we have left. For example… Yes, you, the calico in the second row…

(Translated from Cattish by Mr. Cruz)

Form follows Function

Form follows Function; corners her in an alley. At gunpoint but politely, Form strips Function of all her valuables (she doesn’t wear jewelry, obviously). Form runs with his bounty. Function feels violated and vulnerable, but in a strange way she also feels free and weightless, liberated. “Who is this handsome stranger?”, Function wonders.

Photography and the four dimensions

By Dr. Jiménez

Photography is the only art where each and every one of the four dimensions take part. In the diagram above, figure a. represents an hourglass in the three dimensions. Its image in the form of parallel rays of light (fig. c.) passes through a convex lens (fig. d.), converging at a focal point into one dimension (fig. f.). At the precise moment in time (b.) or fourth dimension, a exposure is taken resulting in an inverted two-dimensional photograph (fig. g.)

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Darwin’s valet dilemma

(Notable Quarrels, &c.)

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“To suppose that the eye with all of its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection is absurd in the highest degree.”

–Charles Darwin,
“On The Origin of Species”
(Early draft, ca. 1839).

“Syms, may I have a word with you?”
“Certainly, Sir.”
“In the study, if you don’t mind.”
Syms follows Darwin upstairs.
“Close the door.”
“Yes, Sir.”
“Drop the Sir, would you? At least when we are alone. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“I’m sorry…”
“Nevermind. What is this?”
“A piece of paper, Sss…”
“That far I got all by myself. What else do you observe?”
“Well, it appears it has been crumpled, but now it’s not.”
“Very cunning. Look closely. Who’s writing is it?”
“It is in my hand, no doubt about it.”
“No doubt indeed! I can recognize your penmanship with my eyes closed! I know it better than mine! Posterity will be reading my research in your handwriting, for Christ sake!” Darwin crushes his cigar on an ashtray shaped like a bivalve while holding the uncrumpled sheet of paper at arm’s length. “I presume you might have a rational explanation for it.”
“I do, it is a letter of resignation, a draft actually, and because of its personal nature I kindly and respectfully request that you return it back to me.”
“It belongs to the waste-paper basket, where I found it, and that’s where it’ll return! Furthermore, it is addressed to me, isn’t?”
“I believe it is.”
“This is all most upsetting. Let’s sit down for a moment, how about a glass of brandy?”
“Thanks, I rather not right now.”
“I would not mind one myself!”
“Yes, of course.” Syms hurries dilligently to the liquor cabinet, lights a candle, warms a cut glass snifter over the flame, pours about 2.5 fl. oz. (Imperial) of brandy and brings it to Darwin in a silver platter.”
“Your brandy.”
“Thank you, Syms. Mmm! Ah! Much better! Well, I am all ears.”
“If I may…” Syms sits in the edge of the ottoman, making sure not to rest his back or indicate that he is too comfortable. “Last Thursday, when I was transcribing your dictation, I couldn’t help but remember something you said, something that troubled me greatly –still does– and that it has given me quite a few sleepless nights since.”
“I’m truly sorry to hear that. And what would that something be, that unwillingly caused you so much distress, dear friend.”
“It’s what you said about the eye.”
“What about it?”
“Well, I’m confounded, to say the least. Has not the eye developed, like all the rest, as a result of evolution, through natural selection?”
“Maybe the eye didn’t need to evolve because it was already created perfect.”
“But it is not! Many of us need spectacles.”
“That’s highly arguable, my research is inconclusive in that regard. Could myopia be a consequence of the environment or an atrophy caused by our modern lifestyle? what’s more, I think we should give some credit to the Almighty where credit is due, and about the spectacles, well, there is the matter of freewill… you can choose to wear eyeglasses or you can choose not too, like many ladies do. I myself keep mine in the waiscoat most of the time. And how about our noses? We don’t need them protruding from our faces in order to sniff and breathe, what if our noses got longer when we needed support for our spectacles. Our ancestors… or the modern primates don’t have noses because they don’t need eyeglasses. See? Not conclusive.”
Syms stands up. “Sir, for five years we circumnavigated the world, endured all kinds of perils and tribulations. I have netted, snapped the necks, sketched and catalogued thousands of birds of all sizes, colors and beak shapes, trapped mice, dived after gentle turtles to cook them into your favorite soup. I shot, skinned and gutted monkeys that just moments before were beautiful, graceful creatures up in their magnificent trees, I got chased by vicious emus, smacked by a kangaroo, spat at by llamas, I even became ill with malaria!”
“I got sick too!”
“Yes, and don’t regret any of it! ALL sacrificed in the name of science and exploration! And now, with the due respect, you conclude that the eye is too good to be part of evolution?”
“I don’t have time for philosophy. This is all nonsense! I’m going to burn this hasted scribble and pretend you never had anything to do with it. After all you threw it away without signing it, didn’t you?”
“I had misgivings.”
“Aha!”
Syms snatches the letter from Darwin’s hand, goes to the desk and swifly pens his signature on it.
“Not anymore!”
“Syms! This is most unbecoming!”
“It might be, Sir, but from now on I am only following the dictum of my own conscience. My trunk is packed. I’m leaving tonight for Liverpool, where I’ll board the first ship to… to the farthest place away from here. Farewell!” Syms storms out of the study and runs downstairs.
“Syms! Syms! Come back here!” Stunned, Darwin drops himself in the Berber pillows and finishes his brandy in one gulp, realizing instantly that it might be the last drink served by the hand of his beloved friend and companion of countless adventures.

Twenty years later
Syms Covington walks in the misty beach. He carries a tightly wrapped parcel under his arm. His thoughts muffled by the roar of the vigorous waves. A few paces away, his youngest son pulls barnacles from the rocks with a pocket knife. Syms sits nearby, unties the twine and opens the package. It is a thick green volume: On The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Syms caresses the front, opens the leather-bound book and flips through the pages, stops at one and reads.

“To suppose that the eye with all of its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light…”

Syms smiles and yet his eyes fill up with tears, then he closes the book and looks at the horizon.
Syms Covington will die one year later, at 49, in Pambula, in the south east coast of Australia.

God’s Eye View

The world is divided in believers and non-believers. The believers believe the non-believers don’t have morals, are untrustworthy, unworthy, will rot in a place called “hell” or, in the opinion of the more extreme believers, should die violently. Contrary to the believers’ belief, the non-believers have some strong beliefs of their own too, like for example: the believers are gullible, irrational, crazy and wrong, follow absurd rituals and quirky superstitions, and have arbitrarily created more moral rules than there are morals. Most believers believe man was created in God’s image, while the non-believers think it’s actually the other way around. In this point the believers score 1-0, because the non-believers forgot to explain how something that doesn’t exist could ever be created, unknowingly admitting that God does exist, (although it might be a creation of the imagination).
There is a new age of alternative believers, that in order to avoid the dogmas of more traditional Belief Organizations, believe that “God is the Universe.” Perhaps these are amongst the most colorful and least dangerous of the bunch. Some of those on the fence but leaning in a precarious angle toward believing will explain their unexplainable spiritual world simply as a “kind of energy.” We must admit, to their credit, that in truth very few people today would like to live without the comforts provided by electricity, gasoline, burning coal, solar panels, a cooking stove or a humble bonfire.
The problem gets further complicated, because from the myriad of different kinds or factions of believers many have profound dislike for each other, even if they basically agree that they are worshipping the same one and only God, and their beliefs are inspired, copied, borrowed or stolen from each other’s sacred books.
Finally, there are the agnostics, or non-committed, which are those that having the benefit of the doubt, prefer –just in case– not to make up their minds yet, holding their own judgement until –and in the eventuallity of– the advent of the “Last” one. Agnostics pretend to get the best of both worlds (believer’s and non-believer’s) without getting either. As non-believers go, they are the purest, for their only claim is to be clueless. Unfortunately, they are perceived as folks that have their cake and eat it too by believers and non-believers alike, and it is because of this that –in a rare occurrence of agreement between believers and non-believers– there are the ones that most deserve to die and hopefully come back to let us know if there is really anything on the other side, or not.

A little known fact about the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon

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It is a little known fact that during the Apollo 11 mission, astronauts Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin had yet to decide who was going down to step, leap, walk, bounce and frolic on the surface of the Moon, and who was going to stay behind, orbiting in the command module.

After flipping a coin in the air and waiting for more than two hours without a definitive result due to the lack of gravity, Armstrong and Aldrin managed to convince Collins that it was best to go by alphabetical order, and thus history was made.

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Gilbert & George start their day

(Notable Quarrels, &c.)

The kitchen at Gilbert & George’s house. Gilbert is looking out the window into the garden. George enters.
“Good morning Gilbert, what’s for breakfast?”
“I don’t know, to be perfectly honest, I don’t feel like eating much.”
“Oh, I see.”
“And what do you suppose to mean by that?”
“What do I mean by what, my dear?”
Oh, I see.
“Why, I mean absolutely nothing.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t. “
“Yes, you do.”
“Alright! Alright! I SEE… that you’re still upset about last night.”
“Carry on.”
“And I SEE that you woke up rather unusually bitchy this morning.”
“I did, as a matter of fact.”
“Do you feel any better now?”
“I’m starting to, actually, thank you.”
“Jolly good, then, jolly good, because now it’s me who… doesn’t! You see? you made me…” George starts sobbing, leaning over the kitchen table.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that when you drink a little too much, and as lately it happens more than not, you start to break character, and we are Gilbert & George. That’s who we are. Just look around us, all that we have, that’s our job, our life!
“Do you think I did it on purpose?”
“I know you didn’t, silly.”
“But you agree that sometimes it gets tiresome to reckon with being Gilbert & George all the bloody time! Doing the stupid robot dance…”
“I understand –it’s the automaton dance– but please don’t cry. I forgive you about last night. Look, I even forgot already what all the fuss was about. Listen, why don’t you let me make you a couple of eggs with your favorite sausage, hash-browns, grilled tomatoes, beans with molasses, white toast and a nice and warm cuppa, alright?” George nods.
“Alright.” They kiss tenderly.
“Look at yourself, your nose gets so rosy when you cry… I love this pinky little nose. Who does this itty-bitty peach belongs too?”
With a smile still framed by tears, George answers: “To… Gilbert?”
“That’s right, and it breaks my heart to see my little Georgie glum. Here, take my hankie. There, that’s better, a little smile, chins up.”
“Thank’s, Gil.” George gets up from the chair and Gilbert spanks him graciously in the bum.
“Now you go upstairs, get off your pijamas, take a bath, dress up, and today you can even pick our ties! meanwhile Gilbert makes us a wonderful breakfast. Alright?”
“I hate ties.”
“I know, I know, deary, but it sure does beat a job from nine to five.”

"Early"

It is in those rare occassions when I don’t feel too inspired, that I feel generous instead. This is one them. Without setting a precedent, I will humbly cede this space today to my friend and colleague Dr. Jiménez, with whom not only I share some of the fondest memories, but to whom I’m also deeply indebted for all the years of loyal and helpful advice, and although not always intelligent, forever unbiased criticism and patience. Enjoy it.

–Mr. Cruz

“Early” by Dr. Jiménez
At dawn even the flourescent lights of the bar feel warm. We all look like if we just came from a funeral, sad but not depressed, because we are the ones still alive, and everything at this hour is more real and more alive, just like after a funeral. “Un café con leche, por favor.” Who is up so early? it’s not even day yet. Obviously a lot of people. Some walk quickly to work, showered and clean, wrapped in coats and scarfs, a few maybe coming home to a bed still warm from the bodies of their wives or husbands or lovers or friends. That might seem good, but they are not the lucky ones. Who knows. “The city awakens…!” says a voice on the radio, and it sounds like we hear it for the first time. But no, the city is not awakening, because the city is not sleepy, it’s just gradually getting busier, that’s it, like the night that goes away in just 30 or 40 minutes, a giant shadow in a hurry.
There is something comforting about the pressured steam of the espresso machine, the huffing and puffing of a new day. The energic banging in the trash bin to get rid of the used coffee puck, the grinding of fresh one, and the pumping of the water. The hands of one of the waiters are already pink from doing dishes. It’s February, and he’s wearing short sleaves, maybe that explains it. “¿Me pone un cruasán?” “¿Se lo paso por la plancha?” “Sí, gracias.” A cup of coffee on a beaten saucer on a stainless steel counter of a bar somewhere in Spain.