27 December 2011

Picturesque Speech

When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, the bathroom was where I learned to write because the bathroom is where my father kept his latest copy of Reader's Digest Magazine. While I was sitting there and "concentrating" I would simultaneously peruse Reader's Digest and my favorite section was called "Towards More Picturesque Speech". I just love poetic and colloquial expressions and the turn of a good phrase. I would pick out the best examples and try to emulate them in my speech and writing. No doubt as a twelve year old I sounded a bit strange saying things at the dinner table like "Hey Pops, Spring is coming around the bend like a speed skater rounding the turn on smooth ice". My father would sometime pause with fork in mid-air and glance at me quizzically as if suddenly startled. Nevertheless I never got over my fondness for words.

Now that I live in Mexico I have the double pleasure of savoring the intricacies of language in another tongue. I am never fully dressed without a pen and some three by five cards in my pocket and my ear is always cocked to hear something new. Hardly a day goes by without an interesting scribble or two. I thought I might share a recent example with my fellow students of Spanish.

My mother-in-law, Carmelita, is the Director of a state sanctioned preschool and kindergarten. Just before Christmas she was holding a "kermes" at the "kinder". For those of you that might not know, a kermes is a type of fair held by churches and schools to raise funds. The word "kermess" in English originally derived from the Middle Dutch word "kercmisse", a combination of the words "kerc" (meaning church) and "misse" (meaning mass) and the word was adopted by the English, French, and others and it denoted the mass that was celebrated annually in honor of the local patron saint. The Spanish spelling "kermes" uses only one letter "s".

While Carmelita was preparing for the kermes her good friend Angeles stopped by to give her a hand with the "tómbola". This is another interesting word. It comes from the Italian word "tombolare" meaning "to tumble". In several countries a "tombola" is a raffle where the winning ticket is chosen from a rotating drum that is "tumbled" by means of a hand crank. In Italy, the Italian version of Bingo is called "Tombola". Here in Central Mexico a "tómbola" or "tómbola de beneficiencia" is a charitable raffle in which you win a prize if the ticket you have bought is chosen and the number on it matches the number on the prize. There is generally some kind of a prize for every ticket so nobody leaves unhappy and often people swap their prizes. When the tómbola was almost ready Carmelita said to Angeles,

Estoy in punto de abrir la puerta y hacer la cruz. Elige usted el primero premio.
I am just about to open the door a make the cross. You choose the first prize.

In actuality Carmelita rewarded her friend for helping her by letting her have one of the prizes. Angeles chose a Pyrex casserole dish and was very content. The interesting phase in this instance is "hacer la cruz". If you have ever gone to the market in Mexico early in the morning and happened to be the first customer you may have noticed that when you gave the little old lady your money she kissed the crossed thumb and finger of the hand that held the money. She was thanking God for the first sale of the day. Carmelita used the phrase "hacer la cruz" in a colloquial manner to mean that she was about to sell the first ticket.

"Hacer la cruz" should not be confused with the regular words for "making the sign of the cross" which are "persignarse" and "santiguarse". "Persignarse" is to cross oneself with small crosses on the forehead, lips, and chest and "Santiguarse" is to make a full head and torso sign of the cross. Santiguarse means to bless yourself. Persignarse means to sign yourself. I go into this in detail in my blog post: Persignarse versus Santiguarse

There is another use for "hacer la cruz", by the way, that you have to watch out for. It means to cross someone off your list or to dump someone and in this case the cruz that is referred to is the "X" that you make over their name. And now here's a bonus for you if you have followed me thus far. Sometimes when people are bantering words instead of saying "igualmente" meaning "you too" or "the same to you" to be playful they will say "iguanas y ranas" or "iguanas-ranas" which means "iguanas and frogs" as a kind of play on words. Yesterday my doctor said to me "Iguanas-ranas dijo el sapo" meaning "Iguanas and frogs said the toad". Try it out. You will make someone smile.


heath said...

Hi there, I'm Heath from England, enjoyed the descriptions of your observations regarding signs of the cross, tombola etc.
Here's one for you, if you change just one word it can alter the entire theme of the conversation :
"I bumped into an old friend the other day"


"I bumped off an old friend the other day"

See how people react to that one.

Bob Mrotek said...

Thanks Heath I hope we bump into each other some day...but not too hard, eh :)

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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.