Bigger than words, deeper than skin

Silvia Sala/Flickr
Silvia Sala/Flickr

My students often ask me how to say a particular Spanish word in English. Or they want the Spanish translation of an English word. Sometimes there’s no answer: English has words that Spanish simply does not, and the contrary is true too. If I want to see a friend I can ask in Spanish, “Quieres quedar?” The closest I can come in English is, “Do you want to set a time to meet?”

Before you set the time, you’ll want to agree to meet up, and quedar works for that too. The word is both neater and more versatile than the English equivalent, and for my British friend and me, it’s really the only choice. We find ourselves dropping the verb into our English sentences. I’ll ask her on a Tuesday, “Do you want to quedar for Friday?” and the answer might be, “Yes, at 5 on the beach.” The day before meeting, she might check with me or I with her, “We quedado-ed at 5, right?”

Sibling is a word English has and Spanish lacks, as is parent, a gender neutral term for your progenitor. Both languages do though have a word for a man cheated on by a wife, though not for a woman with a cheating husband. They both have words for the person left when a husband dies, when a wife dies, or when parents die. These words help us talk about these things that happen; perhaps they help us accept them too.

Neither language, though, has a word for what you are when your child dies. If you know anyone like that, whose child has died, you see how unnatural the state is, and though we can survive almost anything, you wonder from the look of a friend in this incomprehensible, wordless condition, how we do go on.

Friolero is another word Spanish has that English doesn’t, an adjective meaning especially sensitive to the cold and therefore always short a sweater and always shivering. That’s me. It’s a word I use a lot to explain chattering teeth or gloves in May. At 5 on the beach, shivering from the cold and thinking about hot tea and a hot bath to warm me, I see when I look at my friend what real cold is—something deeper than the skin, deeper than your bones, even than your heart, not something seeping into you but emanating from you. Something you are rather than feel.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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