There is a very interesting word in Mexican Spanish called a “pilón” (pee-LOHN). Basically it means about the same thing as the thirteenth donut in a “baker's dozen”. It is something extra that the merchant gives to show his appreciation for a customer's patronage. The pilón can come in many forms. It can be a piece of candy for the child who goes to the store for his mother to buy a loaf of bread or some milk. It is often just an extra handful of beans or an extra tomato tossed in the bag after the merchant has already weighed the purchase on the scale. Mexicans, like people the world over, are always in search of something for free. Thus the tradition of the pilón is very effective in generating loyalty. People will always tend to gravitate to the merchant who gives a pilón. Nowadays globalization, modernization, and standard packaging is putting an end to this sacred bond between vendor and customer. Nevertheless, my local Walmart usually has some places in the store where you can grab a little piece of cake, a slice of ham, a bit of fruit, or some corn chips and still feel that you are a winner without feeling the guilt of actually pilfering.
The origin of the word “pilón” is a bit mysterious. I think that the word has a jumble of origins. The first thing that comes to mind is that it is short for the word “piloncillo” (pee-lohn-SEE-yoh)) which is a “little cone” of raw sugar that is extracted from sugar cane. It is shaped like the top of a mountain and perhaps it it the tip of the mountain or “something on the top” that the merchant adds to the “hill of beans” in the sack. The word pilón is also the same as the English word for “pylon”. The technical term for the shape of a pylon is a “frustum” which is a truncated cone or pyramid in which the plane cutting off the apex is parallel to the base. A good example of a conical “frustum” or “truncated cone” is the orange traffic cones that you see on the highway when there is construction going on. Another example, a “pyramidal frustum”, may be seen on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill. The pyramid" is a “truncated pyramid” with the "Eye of Providence" in the tip above it. Some people say that the word pilón comes from the drop weights that hang from steelyard scales because they are in the shape of a pylon. Well, yes, perhaps, but they are also often pear shaped or tear shaped or shaped like a closed pine cone, etcetera.
Now, here is where it gets really interesting...and a bit complicated. In French a “pilon” is a “column” or “pestle” as in “mortar and pestle” and in Cuba and Puerto Rico a mortar and pestle are together referred to as a “pilón”. They come in all sizes and are used in making everything from “mofongo” to grinding coffee beans to crushing sugar cane. In Spanish a “martillo pilón” is a drop hammer or pile driver The word “pilón” is also used for big stone troughs into which water runs from a pipe as in horse troughs or the bases of fountains. It is related to the word “pila” which means “font” as in “baptismal font”. This is not to be confused with the other “pila” which means a “battery cell” of the type you put in your flashlight or camera as opposed to the battery in your car which is called an “acumulador” or “storage battery”. Confused yet? Well, that makes two of us. Isn't Spanish fun? Hey, wait, we aren't quite done yet. In Central America and the Caribbean there is a tree called Suradan Pilon (Hyeronima laxiflora) which is a hardwood tree with wood of a reddish chocolate color that grows very straight and tall like a column. It is commonly referred to much of the time as simply, "pilón". In the French language, the bottom end of your tibia or "shin bone" is called a pilon and carries the meaning of "ram" as in "ramrod". Not only that but in some Spanish speaking countries, Ecuador for example, a freebie is called a "yapa" of "llapa". In Spain and other countries it is sometimes called called a "ñapa". This comes from the French word "lagniappe" which means "a little something extra" and it is my understanding that the French speaking people of Louisiana still use the word lagniappe.
Well, there you have it folks. That's probably more than you ever want to or need to know about the possible origins of the word "pilón". However, you are now in the "in crowd". The next time that you go to the market and buys some beans and tomatoes or onions from one of the little old ladies and as she is just about to close the bag you say with a smile, "¿Y mi pilón?...Quiero mi pilón" and I´ll bet that she tosses in another little something and gives you a quick smile. From then on she will know that you are an "insider" and you two will be buddies. Good luck and have fun.
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