09 January 2009

Quiero mi pilón.

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.


American Mommy in Mexico said...

Interesting indeed. I love these insights to Mexico!

Steve Cotton said...

Now if I could just retain all you have taught me.

Anonymous said...

my employees from mexico, (zamora,SLP,& DF) complain that English language reuses the same word with varying meanings. They hate that! and claim that Spanish language doesn't do this.
I'll have to protest with this example of "pila" which can be font or battery (i.e. pila seca")
thanks for the lesson.
Houston, TX

Billie said...

Bob, In SMA some of the vendors in the mercado will add something to my bolsa, smile and say regalo. They may also use pilon with Mexicans but I have heard them use regalo with them as well. I'll try to remember next time to thank them for the pilon and see how they respond.

When the vendor gives me an extra tomato or something, I feel so "accepted." It is very nice and I do go back to those vendors and we have a small conversation when I walk up to the tienda. It is still called a tienda when it is a stall in the big mercado?

glorv1 said...

My step-mom always talked about piloncillo. She was from Guadalajara. I have bought that in the Spanish stores around here. Thanks for the info on piloncillo.

Alfredo said...

Bob, I learned not to use that word here in the United States. Back in Chicago, long time ago at a flea market on Division and kedzie I think. We visited it and bought something. We innocently ask the vendor for a pilón, we explained what we meant. The dude told us with such an attitude, "nothing is free in America". What a jerk! We ended up in a discution about what América really is and how ignorant he was. A lot of people here in the United States think they are the only americanos offending over four hundred million of americans south and north of the border. In any case, very nice post about pilones and piloncillos.


Bob Mrotek said...

AM - Stay tuned...more coming :)

Steve - Rage, rage against the fading of the light :)

Anonymous, I have another example for you. There was a Cuban dance in the 50's called the "Pilón". It mimicked the movements made by sugar cane workers operating what else?...a "pilón" :)

Billie, I have also heard "regalo" (gift) when the vendor initiates the dialog. I think that is because it is simple Spanish and a tourist might not understand "pilón". Try "pilón" and see if that works for you.

I'll bet that your mother was very sweet...just like you!

I have finally learned how to deal with what people do in the states. I just don't go there anymore :)

Catherine said...

Hi Bob... I used the word pilon in the flower market today when they gave me an extra bird of paradise...which made all the stallholders laugh...so thanks that is a new word added to my spanish vocab!!

Paul and Robyn said...

Very interesting. But then again everything in Mexico is very interesting. I really like your blog and learn a lot of new stuff.
you can check out my blog at www.casalagarto.blogspot.com

glorv1 said...

Hi Bob, thx for that nice comment above.:) And....thanks for the mananitas. I know I heard someone outside this morning singing, but I thought I was dreaming. Thx Bob for the very nice birthday wish, truly appreciated. Take care.

glorv1 said...

I came to your property to let you know that yaya's computer got zapped again and is in the repair shop. So she is down for a little while. Have a great Tuesday Bob. Take care.

Amanda said...

This is one of my favorite things about shoping in Mexico. Even the brand name items sometimes have an extra treat in the packaging. We had some visitors recently and they were so excited about those things. Also like you said about finding the bread samples. At our stores here you can even get a free shot of Tequilla at times.

YayaOrchid said...

This was such a nice post Bob. I'd forgotten about the pilon, the little extra merchants will give you. It's another word for good customer service!

Pablo Julián Davis said...

Muchas felicitaciones, Mexico Bob, por sus escritos tan amenos, que demuestran tanta curiosidad y amor a la gente, la lengua y la cultura. Very nicely done.

Only just ran across your post re four years late, but thought I'd add two comments:

First, a propos of the Caribbean meaning of "pilón", there is a tremendous song by the great Puerto Rican sonero Lalo Rodríguez, "Yo no soy pilón de machacar" which can be heard here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S52TmD7xG4

Second, a very short essay por un servidor, on the word "yapa" and its English translatione: http://tinyurl.com/theyapa

Un saludo muy cordial!

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.