Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

No problemo! What kind of Spanish is that?

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gender_bender_troy&selmaSelma:

Is this a sham marriage?

Troy:

Sure, baby. Is that a problemo?

Troy from The Simpsons uses problemo on its own, as a noun, but it’s usually part of “no problemo” – famously used in the Terminator movies by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Where does it come from?

Where does this little phrase come from? It’s been around since 1985 and I had thought it was now rather passé, but Google Ngrams and the Oxford Twitter corpus suggest it is still going strong.

Originally a creation of US English, it is now used in British English and elsewhere. It features in several dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

People use it broadly in two ways: to show that they are willing to do or can do what someone asks (“I can pick you up, no problemo.”), and, when being thanked for doing something, to say that it was “no trouble.”

But it also has other, often sarcastic, overtones.

Sometimes, it’s an exclamation: “Well of course ignorance of the law is no excuse but this is Hillary Clinton – so, no problemo!” gender_bender_hillary

At other times, it’s a kind of adverbial, as in this online restaurant review: “We had a lot of leftovers (SO not normal with Thai. I am a Thai addict and can polish off 6 entrees no problemo).”

Sometimes, it’s a noun: “In arguments on Arizona voting law, Scalia sees “’no problemo’ for state requirements“.

Is it Italian, Spanish, Esperanto, or what?

It’s a sort of spoof Spanish translation of the earlier (1955) English “no problem”, which has been Spanglishized by having an-o tacked on, to create a (reassuring or irritating, according to taste) little jingle.

Adding that little -o is part of a long tradition of creating cod Spanish nouns such as el creepo for a creep and El Smoggo or El Stinko as nicknames for El Paso, Texas.

To say that something was no trouble, i.e. “you’re welcome”, the traditional Spanish phrases are ¡De nada! (literally “of nothing”) and, rather more formally, ¡No hay de qué! (literally “there is not that for which [to thank me]”). People might also say ¡Un placer! or Es un placer. 

gender_bender_taqueria

A very masculine problem

Now, if a Spanish noun ends in –o, it’s a reasonable assumption that it refers to something or someone “masculine”. A cynic might say that, since men create most of the world’s problems, it seems appropriate that the Spanish word for “problem” should be masculine. And in fact it is.

But there’s a problem: the real Spanish word is el problemA. The el shows you unambiguously that it’s got cojones, yet it ends in an –a. How come?

It is true that most Spanish nouns ending in –a are feminine. But not all of them. Common exceptions include:

    • el clima = the climate
    • un cura = a priest
    • un día = a day
    • el idioma (inglés) = the (English) language
    • el mapa = the map
    • un problema = a problem (and many other scientific or technical words ending in -ma, e.g. el plasma, el programa, el sistema)
    • el tema = the topic

There’s a kind of commonsensical yet false assumption that in Romance languages that have the –o /-a alternation (Portuguese, Italian, Spanish) any noun ending in –a must be feminine. It’s an easy mistake to make, and one I’ve made myself.

Recently arrived in Argentina, and with only embryonic Spanish, I earned extra money by giving private English lessons, mostly to ladies who lunched – and lunched rather splendidly, at that. A prospective student asked me over the phone how I was going to find my way to her house, I caused great amusement by saying that I would use *la mapa. It then became a kind of catchphrase that she could tease me with whenever I made a mistake in Spanish. Of course, I never made that particular blunder again.

English speakers, assuming that all nouns ending in –a are feminine, often sex-change the correct ¡BuenOs días! to *¡Buenas días!

Conversely, they sometimes say *¡Buenos tardes! and *¡Buenos noches! instead of ¡Buenas—.

Both la tarde and la noche are feminine.

Artists, athletes, and astronauts

gender_bender_picasso

Some other “masculine” nouns ending in –a denote a rather select group of professions: el artista, el atleta, el astronauta, el espía, el guía. Actually, these nouns are androgynous. You use exactly the same form for men and women, changing the “article” and other words relating to the noun as appropriate:

El famoso artista español Pablo Picasso / La famosa artista mexicana Frida Kahlo

Mata Hari es una de las espías más famosas de la historia.

In a quote that includes two of our masculine –a words, el artista Picasso wrote

“Todo niño es un artista. El problema es cómo seguir siendo artista cuando uno crece.”

(“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to carry on being an artist when you grow up.”)

Self-test 1

There is a mistake in the Spanish of this quotation from Selina Scott’s book about her life in Majorca, A Walk in the High Hills. Can you spot it?

“A woman is telling him how the greenery will enhance the village, but Sancho is having none of it. ‘Problemas, muchas problemas,’ he says, shaking his head.”

Self-test 2

Can you supply the correct missing ending in these phrases that use the words discussed above?

El artista antes conocid_ como Prince.

El clima económic_ actual no es muy favorable para la gente joven.

Hombres armados dispararon el miércoles a un cur_ italian_ , hiriéndolo de gravedad.

Era un día espléndid_ de fiesta y de luz.

Vocabulario
actual = current
dispararon = shot
hiriéndolo = wounding him
la luz = light

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

2 thoughts on “No problemo! What kind of Spanish is that?

  1. Spanish has rather a lot of Greek words ending in “ma”. They were masculine in (ancient) Greek and that’s why they are masculine in Spanish.
    There are feminine words ending in “o” too; the first that springs to mind are “mano” (and of course “manito”). That’s feminine in Italian too, and so is its French cognate “main”.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Tom. For the sake of exactitude, I have to point out that those Greek words were neuter, not masculine, but in any case that’s still the reason why they are masculine in Spanish. And, yes, there are several frequent words ending in -o that are feminine. One of those quirks that makes learning languages interesting.

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