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Ombligo - The Spanish Word for Despair

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 27 October 2008 10:19
"How do you say the word slowly in Spanish?" was the question that started it all. We were out to dinner and the speed of the waiter's Spanish became a topic for discussion. "I don't know a whole lot of Spanish, see " a visiting friend pointed out, "but if I knew the word for slowly, I could at least have a chance at understanding people a little better." "Ombligo," Keenan said. "The word you want to use is ombligo."

Of course, ombligo was not the word for slowly but rather the word for bellybutton. Armed with more Spanish than his victim, Keenan takes any chance he gets to throw friends under the proverbial Spanish bus in Panama, hoping, in this instance, that the victim would one day request someone "speak a little more bellybutton." It didn't matter if Keenan was actually there to enjoy the fruits of his labor: it was more the prospect that mattered. A small pleasurable prospect that Keenan enjoys in a Panamanian world where he's mocked for his poor Spanish several times a day, and one which I recently found has several other implications.

It was a Sunday afternoon visiting a local Panamanian friend when I came across her son's textbook, 3rd Grade English for Stars I think it was called: the title meant to encourage its readers that, no matter what anyone tells you, your kid is not an idiot. The friend I was visiting was fairly wealthy and her child, no doubt, was being raised in Panama's private school system, taught the words for caviar and vacation home as part of their first class. I opened to a page in which the book asked the student to read a sentence aloud, then choose from one of two options to fill in the blank. It was an exercise in double negatives that went something like this.

Exercise: Choose the word that best applies.
Meredith doesn't want (no/any) birthday presents this year.

I immediately found the nearest pencil and circled the word "no", giggling about the fact that I had just created a ghetto phrase. I envisioned a thug on some street corner in the Bronx shouting the phrase to a team of opposing hoodlums, as if the topic of Meredith's birthday was about to start a turf war. "Meredith don't want no presents, ya'll!" he said. "And if Meredith do get a present, we gonna put a cap in yo' ass!"

Putting a cap in one's ass was not something I figured the book would include, but it humored me to think so. And as it would turn out, the entire section was dedicated to this lesson so I went on, the diligent student that I am, choosing the words that, in my opinion, sounded the coolest.

I haven't never had no luck.
My friend Henry don't have nothing to do.

While it was certainly a serious disservice to the child who'd some day look at the book and automatically assume a native English speaker had chosen the correct terms for him, I was lost envisioning the possibility of the same preppy child developing a hardcore gangster-speak. I liked to think of him beside all his preppy friends, saying things like "I ain't never done nothing to no fools!" and "I'm not completing none of my homework never, biotch!"

Why I worked through the entire section, marking up his book like it was a bad resume, I have no idea. The double negative is simply not a mistake that native English speakers make which is why I think the premise of learning it incorrectly was so entertaining. Similar to Keenan's devious support, the book opportunity was a nice chance to be offered the power seat in an ongoing lingual duel of good and bad, the atmosphere in Panama one of very distinct differences in which those on the bottom should be ridiculed until someone below them arrives to take the heat.

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Last Updated on Monday, 27 October 2008 10:24