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How is the adjective ‘Spanish’ used in other languages?

From torture to deadly pandemics, the word carries a wide range of meanings outside of Spain, often with negative connotations

A scene from the Mexican soap opera ‘María del Barrio.’
A scene from the Mexican soap opera ‘María del Barrio.’

In the Spanish language, a wide range of objects and ideas are defined by a nationality, from the so-called Russian salad (ensaladilla rusa) and the English wrench (llave inglesa), to expressions such as “voting like a Bulgarian” (votar a aprobación a la búlgara), which refers to decisions that receive unanimous approval, typically out of fear.

In Czech and Slovak, the word Spanish is associated with the strange and incomprehensible

But what does the adjective “Spanish” mean in other languages? When, and for what reason, is “Spanish” used as a descriptor? 

On the one hand, certain languages associate Spain with the strange and incomprehensible. For example, in Slovak, saying that something is “a Spanish town” (To je pre mňa španielska dedina), means it doesn’t make any sense. The same expression exists in Czech (španělská vesnice).

In German there is a similar association; if something sounds strange and unreliable, then it “sounds Spanish” (das kommt mir spanisch vor). And in French, “speaking like a Spanish cow” (parler comme une vache espagnole) is to speak very bad French.

However, when we cross the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, the word carries a different meaning, particularly in the world of viral memes and social media jokes. Using the “cries in Spanish” meme can mean, among other things, that someone is being over-the-top and exaggerating their feelings of distress.

Negative connotations

The use of “Spanish” can often have negative connotations, with the adjective often unfairly used to describe unwelcome events and problems.

The most obvious example is the so-called “Spanish flu,” a reference to the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed 40 million people (including Austrian painter Gustav Klimt). Although the pandemic did not break out or spread from Spain, it is described as the Spanish flu in English, Slovak (španielska chrípka), Portuguese (gripe espanhola) and German (Spanische Grippe).

The flu was given this title because of the attention it received in the Spanish media. Other international media filled their pages with news of the First World War and censored information about the effects of the disease so as to not appear weak before their enemies. But Spain, which did not participate in this war and did not have to worry about its image, faithfully reported the news on the flu and paid for it with its name.

The adjective “Spanish” is also negatively used in the French phrase a “Spanish hotel” (l'auberge espagnole), which describes a place that is messy and disorganized. This was the title of a 2002 French film by Cédric Klapisch about a chaotic student apartment belonging to a group of European students in Barcelona on their Erasmus year (known as The Spanish Apartment and Pot Luck in English). Meanwhile, the French phrase to “make castles in Spain” (faire des châteaux en Espagne) is the equivalent of saying something is pie in the sky.

Poster from the movie
Poster from the movie "L'auberge espagnole."

Other negative uses of the adjective are related to the Spanish Inquisition. For example, certain torture methods used during the Inquisition are described as “Spanish” in other countries. In Slovak, a “Spanish boot” (španielska čižma) refers to the iron casting that was placed on a person’s leg to crush their bones.

In English, a Spanish tickler is the name given to a metal claw that was used to rip flesh away from the bone. Another example is the English phrase “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” which refers to an unexpected visit from a threatening figure. This expression comes from a well-known episode of Monty Python.

The Spanish rider

Other uses of “Spanish” in foreign languages are less negative. In ancient battles, to defend a strategic area, sharpened stones were stuck into the ground with their points facing outward. This made it hard for horses to walk and forced riders to take the road by foot. Examples of this are seen on pre-Roman walls in Celtic and Iberian areas. The invention has been called the “Spanish rider" in German (Spanischer Reiter) and in Slovak (španielsky jazdec).

Interestingly, in Spain this defense mechanism is called “fields of stones” or the “horse of Friesland,” an allusion to Friesland, a province in the Netherlands.

“Spanish” is used to describe paprika in German

When it comes to food, the word “Spanish” has a variety of meanings. Unsurprisingly, Andalusian olive oil is called Spanish oil outside of Spain (or sometimes, sadly, “Italian olive oil”). But it also has more unexpected uses. In Germany, “Spanish” is used to describe paprika (spanischer Paprika); in Italy, ice cream with sour cherries is called spagnola (even though the berries are not eaten in Spain); in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a meat roll stuffed with vegetables is known as a “Spanish bird” (španělský ptáček and španielsky vtáčik respectively).

Generally speaking, what is “Spanish,” according to others, tends to be associated with the outrageous, the exotic or based on common stereotypes.

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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