April 8, 2010 | Spanish

Word Choice Matters

The seasons turn and some words are contemplated.

I took this picture in Washington Heights back in January, on one of the coldest days of winter. It is of a dentist’s office, and the sign second from the left reads, “Dentistas Especialisados en Pacientes Cobardes.” On the far right is a rough English-language equivalent reading, “We Cater to Dental Cowards.” The blunt specificity of their marketing made an impression on me. 

For Dentistphobic New Yorkers

Yesterday, by contrast to that day, was the hottest of the year so far. I did more Pimsleur, some while on a run. It was 80-something degrees outside. It is hard to negotiate the heat, running, and Pimsleur at the same time. What came out of my mouth did not always resemble Spanish.

I was reminded in one of the lessons that “tomorrow morning” in Spanish is mañana en la mañana (literally, “tomorrow in the morning”), because the word for “tomorrow” is the same as the word for “morning.” I was trying to think of similar phrases in English, i.e., where the same word is used twice in quick succession but with different meanings. It sounds funny to me in Spanish, but I must say similar types of things in English, without noticing the word duplication (simply because I am used to it). I have yet to come up with an example, though.

I find interesting a sentence that has been recurring in the Pimsleur lessons: “A qué se dedica?” It means, “What do you do?” That is, for work. Literally it means, “To what do you dedicate yourself?” Which at first struck me as funny phrasing for describing what your profession is, but ultimately very appropriate. It could be useful for people to have to answer such a question about their life’s work, since the wording itself seems to oblige them to consider very directly the implications of choosing a career they don’t relish for reasons of financial gain—i.e., that they will be dedicating their lives to that.

“To what do you dedicate yourself” demands more personal and philosophical honesty than the equivalent but much less passionate question in English: “What do you do?”  

Comments (5)

oscar • Posted on Mon, April 12, 2010 - 9:35 pm EST

good post! but only 2 comments: Tomorrow morning is “mañana por la mañana” and “¿A qué se dedica?” is a real sentence, of course, but you can say “¿Qué haces?” that is, literally, “What do you do?”

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, April 13, 2010 - 1:17 am EST

Gracias, Oscar. Creo que “¿Qué haces?” es la pregunta que aprendí en la escuela. Also, your comment just reminded me that I am neglecting the opening question mark on my Spanish questions. Oops.

oscar • Posted on Tue, April 13, 2010 - 6:48 am EST

heheh, Im spanish teacher, and its very funny when the students try to write, for the first time, the opening question mark :P

Jill Mitchell • Posted on Fri, February 11, 2011 - 4:44 pm EST

I’m just finding this and Studying Spanish myself… so it’s late, but

Isn’t “What do you do?” an example of 2 uses of the same word, in English, just like “Manana in the manana?”

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, February 11, 2011 - 6:48 pm EST

That recurring “do” does sound funny when you stop to think about it. I am now picturing a heated argument:

Man: I don’t do that.
Woman: Yes, you DO do that!

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