23 August 2008


The other day I was wandering around the shop doing some random quality assurance checks and I came across a worker who was struggling because the space that he was working in was very small. I asked him if he needed anything and he told me that he needed a "pitufo" (pee-TOO-foh). I had never heard that word before and I asked him what a pitufo is and he told me that it is "un tipo de duende" or "a type of dwarf". I jotted the word down in the little notebook that I always carry so that I could check it out before I ever use it myself because the guys think it is great fun to play word games with this poor gringo. In Mexico, and probably just about everywhere else, you really shouldn't use any word that you aren't completely sure about. It could get you in a lot of trouble. One time, not long after arriving in Mexico, I was riding in a Volkswagen with another man and it started to rain. He reached for the dashboard and as soon as he touched it the little knob for the windhield wipers fell off and he groaned and said "Ayyyyy, se cayó la chingadera para las limpiaparabrisas" or "Oh, no, the knob for the windhield wipers fell
off". After we found it and got the windshield wipers working I asked him if the word "chingadera" meant "knob". He told me "No, Señor Bob, una chingadera puede ser cualquier cosa" or "No, Mr. Bob a "chingadera" can be just about anything". "Great", I thought, "I have just learned a another new very useful word". Later that day I was having dinner with the two Catholic priests with whom I was staying and for practice I said, "Padre, ¿me pasas la chingadera para la sal, por favor?" or "Padre, would you pass me the thing for the salt please?". Padre Humberto, the elder of the two priests, got very red in the face and I could see that he was quite agitated. He asked me to call the "thing" for the salt a "salero" and asked me to never use that other word again. He said that it was a word that people in polite society never use. I felt very embarrassed and the next day I felt even more embarrassed when I found out that anything with "ching" in it is very inappropriate in Spanish because of its vulgar association.

From then on I always made sure that I vetted a word thoroughly before I ever attempted to use it. As it turned out it is about 95 percent okay to use "pitufo". In most cases it simply means "Smurf" like those little blue peole in television cartoons. The Smurfs are a fictional group of small sky blue creatures created in 1958 by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo (Pierre Culliford). In French the Smurfs are called "Les Schtroumpfs". Now get this...Peyo said the word came to him when he asked a friend for salt during lunch and, struggling for the word in French, just blurted out, "passe-moi le schtroumpf" or "pass me the schtroumpf." Wow! If he had been eating lunch with my friend Padre Humberto at the time "Les Schtroumpfs" may have never been born. The cartoon series was eventually translated into 30 languages and in some of those languages, "schtroumpf" became "smurf". In Spanish the name "schtroumpf" became "Pitufo". The name derives from "Patufet", a slightly similar looking character of Catalonian folklore. A word of caution...the word "Pitufo" can also be used as a derogatory slang word to refer to a policeman wearing a blue uniform. Just remember not to use it around policemen and I think you will be okay.


YayaOrchid said...

I had to laugh at your remark in front of the priests. I can imagine how they looked, LOL!

It's been years since I watched a Smurf cartoon- in fact since my little ones were well...little!

GlorV1 said...

How good that you always carry a little notebook to jot things down. I think word games are pretty much the thing when it comes to languages. I don't know what the word that starts with "C" means. but I think it is a bad word. No wonder those two priests were red in the face. I'm going to look that word up. I'm glad you have your notebook and keep tabs on words like that, so that next time you go out to lunch with the priests.the redness in their faces won't transfer over to you. (smile)

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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.