Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


¡Y viva España! I’m off to sunny Spain. ¡Eviva España! What does it mean? Where is it from?


Go on, admit it! Even if you loathe(d) this 1970s anthem, I bet you can a) at least hum (tararear), whistle (silbar), or even sing (cantar) at least a line of the chorus  (at home, en casa, natch) and b), now that I’ve mentioned it, the tune (la melodía) will run up and down your brain like Speedy Gonzales on amphetamine.

If you want to blame someone for creating this song (esta canción) that is light years beyond cheesy (cursi), look no further than “poor little Belgium”, for it was there, in the fateful – for pop history, at any rate – year of 1971 that the music and lyrics (la letra) were written.1 yviva_map

Despite widespread success in covers on the Continent, where, for instance, there were 56 different versions available in Germany, it wasn’t until 1974 that it reared its goofy head in English, sung by the Swedish singer Sylvia (surname: Vrethammar, since you’re asking). It reached number four in the singles charts and stuck there – like an irritating bit of seaside rock lodged unbudgingly between your teeth – for several months.

The original title (título) was Eviva España. Unfortunately for its Belgian lyricist, eviva is not even a genuine Spanish word (though Evviva! in Italian means “hurrah”.) The name by which English speakers know (and love/hate) it was given it by the song’s Spanish translators.

Y Viva España has at least the merit of making sense: “Hurrah for Spain”, or, literally, “Long live Spain”.

(That “Viva” is a special form of the verb vivir (“to live”).2)

The English lyrics by Edward Seago read as if written by a non-English speaker (¿¿“Valentino … had a beano”??), much in the way that Abba lyrics do, but without their redeeming creativity.


Rudi, looking less camp and made-up than usual.

Stuffing in as many stereotypes as possible – matadors, flamenco, castanets –, the song promises the sun, “romance” (i.e. sex), and excitement that lemminged millions of sun-starved northern tourists onto planes (aviones) heading south. (I’ll spare you their full awfulness here, but the full text is at the end of this blog for those who, like me, love doggerel.3)

Perplexingly, Rudolph Valentino makes a cameo appearance as the epitome of Spanish lovers (er, no…, he was Italian).

This careless mixture (mezcla) of nationalities hints at how, in the Northern imagination, Spain was more an idea than a country (un país), merely part of a hazily defined Mediterranean that dissolved national boundaries: it didn’t really matter which country you were in (Spain, Italy, Greece, etc.), as long as there was sun, sea, beaches, drink, and…

…those ellipses mean that there was always the hope, too, that there’d be more how’s your father than your meagre rations at home, but that was undoubtedly more honoured in the breeches than the observance.

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While Swedish Sylvia sang the lines with faux, eyelash-fluttering innocence, British lovers of Carry On-style double-entendres must have relished:

Each time I kissed him behind the castanet
He rattled his maracas close to me,
In no time I was trembling at the knee.


Those lines seem to have amused even Kenneth Williams.

The song was also a hit in Spain, but it wasn’t translated word for word. Given that the original was a paean to a romanticized Spain, one can understand why the Spanish lyricist Manuel de Gómez’s chest swelled with patriotic pride as he penned lines such as:

Sólo Dios pudiera hacer tanta belleza,
y es imposible que puedan haber dos.
Y todo el mundo sabe que es verdad
y lloran
 cuando tienen que marchar

Only God could make so much beauty,
And it’s impossible that there can be two.
And everyone knows that it’s true,
And they cry when they have to leave.

If the Spanish lyrics sound a mite triumphalist, bear in mind that de Gómez was working at the Spanish embassy (embajada) in Brussels at the time and that Franco was still in power.

The chorus (el estribillo) runs as follows:

Por eso se oye este refrán:
¡Qué viva España!
Y siempre la recordarán.
¡Qué viva España!
La gente canta con ardor:
¡Qué viva España!
La vida tiene otro sabor
y España es la mejor.

That’s why you hear this saying:
Hurrah for Spain!
And they’ll always remember her.
Hurrah for Spain!
People sing with passion:
Hurrah for Spain!
Life has a different taste,
And Spain is the best.

So, to round off this extravaganza, I can do no better than treat you to this colourful, life-enhancing version by the late Manolo Escobar.

1 By Leo Caerts and Leo Rozenstraten.

2 Spanish verbs may at first feel daunting. But actually, the basic endings number a mere handful. “Viva” is the subjunctive of the –ir verb vivir. The subjunctive of such verbs uses the ordinary present tense endings of any –ar verb. So, vivir goes viva, vivas, viva, viv…, viv…, viv…. Can you complete the last three shown?

Here go the lyrics:

All the ladies fell for Rudolph Valentino
He had a beano back in those balmy days.
He knew every time you meet an icy creature,
You’ve got to teach her hot-blooded Latin ways
But even Rudy would have felt the strain,
Of making smooth advances in the rain.

(Chorus) Oh, this year I’m off to Sunny Spain, Y Viva España!
I’m taking the Costa Brava ‘plane, Y Viva España!
If you’d like to chat a matador, in some cool cabaña
And meet senoritas by the score, España, por favor!

Quite by chance to hot romance I found the answer,
Flamenco dancers are far the finest bet.
There was one who whispered ‘Whoo, hasta la vista!’
Each time I kissed him behind the castanet.
He rattled his maracas close to me,
In no time I was trembling at the knee.

Chorus repeats

When they first arrive, the girls are pink and pasty
But, oh, so tasty, as soon as they go brown.
I guess they know ev’ry fellow will be queuing
To do the wooing his girlfriend won’t allow.
But every dog must have his lucky day,
That’s why I’ve learnt the way to shout ‘Olé!’
Oh, this year I’m off to Sunny Spain, Y Viva España!
I’m taking the Costa Brava ‘plane, Y Viva España!
If you’d like to chat a matador, in some cool cabaña
And meet señoritas by the score, España, por favor!
España, por favor! Olé!


Spanish colour words: meaning and grammar (3/4): “Red and yellow and pink and green…”

Pretty in pink

In English, the colour word pink comes ultimately from the flower (la flor) of the same name, i.e. the genus Dianthus (it’s too long a story to go into here). arcoirispinks-126351177-resized

In Spanish, that same colour is rosa and also has an obvious flowery origin (origen, el), namely, the rose.

Some of the associations of pink/rosa are very similar. For example, although the use is now rather dated, rosa was at one stage used to refer to the gay community, just as pink is used in English for the pink pound, the pink economy, and so on.

In verlo todo del color de rosa (literally “to see everything coloured pink”), meaning “to see everything through rose-tinted or coloured spectacles/glasses ”, the idea is paralleled in each language (idioma, el); Spanish speakers just don’t need to wear the gigs to be optimists.


que yo no soy la típica soñadora romántica que ve el mundo color de rosa, yo creo más en la existencia de Shrek que de la historia de Cenicienta…

“I am not your typical romantic dreamer who sees the world through rose-tinted spectacles; I believe in the existence of Shrek more than I do in the story of Cinderella…”

 …las personas que se tienen que sentir optimistas a toda costa o el optimista necio que ve todo color de rosa y da una explicación simplista e1 inmediata.

“People who have to feel optimistic whatever happens or the stupid optimist who sees everything through rose-tinted spectacles and gives off-the-cuff, simplistic explanations.”

Taking that rosy view further still is the phrase una novela rosa, which would be the kind (género) of book a Hispanic Barbara Cartland would write. In fact, so I’m told, there is a sort of Hispanic Barbara Cartland, and her name is Corín Tellado. She published so much that in 1962 UNESCO named her the most widely read writer in Spanish after Cervantes. Unlike (a diferencia de) Babs C, however, her books are set in the present (el presente), and because many of them were written when Francoist censorship still applied, there is no explicit eroticism.

La prensa rosa is the kind of tittle-tattle2 press that concentrates on the love lives of celebrities. Fittingly, its most famous exponent, “Hello” magazine (revista), was founded (se fundó) in Spain as “Hola” over 70 years ago (1944), and was originally less concerned with tawdry, meretricious, sleb glamour than it is now.


This blogger clearly detests that kind of press:

El pueblo español dormita entre el opio de la prensa rosa y el estupidizante espectáculo de millonarios en calzoncillos dando patadas a una pelota.

“The Spanish populace is in a slumber, drugged by celebrity journalism and the stultifying spectacle of millionaires in briefs kicking a football around.” (My very free translation.)

Another idiom that brings in rosa and associates it with positive events and emotions is color de rosa, which suggests that things are going well — often, but not always, in the phrase ser todo color de rosa:

En poco tiempo se conocieron, noviaron y se casaron. Todo era color de rosa, más o menos, hasta que llegó el tercer miembro de la familia.

“In a short space of time they met, started dating, and married. Everything was going swimmingly, more or less, until the third member of the family arrived.”

Actually, life being what it is, this phrase is more often used in the negative, as in the following extract from an anguished blog post:

Tenemos ya casi 3 años y siento que ya no quiero más nada con él. Cuando comenzamos era todo color de rosa…pero ahora todo se ha vuelto un infierno

“We’ve been together almost 3 years and I feel I don’t want to have anything more to do with him. When we started it was all perfect, but now it’s turned to hell…”

How to translate no ser todo color de rosa exactly will vary according to the individual context, but sometimes the English idiom “a bed of roses” could come into it, as in this extract in which a professional baseball player in the Dominican Republic laments how hard life can be:

Muchos ignoran, las infinitas prácticas que hay que tomar para mejorar, la paciencia que hay que tener durante semanas que las cosas no te salen bien … No todo es color de rosa, en ese mundo donde todo es béisbol, desde que te levantas hasta que te acuestas.

“Lots of people aren’t aware of the endless practising that you have to do to improve, or the patience you have to have week after week when things aren’t going right for you. It’s not all a bed of roses, in this world where everything is baseball, from the time you get up till you go to bed.”

As with other adjectives ending in –a, as discussed here, you don’t change the shape of rosa, no matter what kind of noun you associate it with: un vestido rosa, unos vestidos rosa. And, as with those other adjectives, you can also say de color rosa, e.g. un vestido de color rosa.

Finally, in a very literal use of rosa, salsa rosa (“pink sauce”) describes the blend of mayonnaise (mahonesa), tomato sauce and other ingredients, according to taste – a bit of brandy really peps it up, I find – that goes with seafood (los mariscos). In Britain, where it was once traditional to obliterate the flavour of the prawns (gambas) with a sickly gloop, it is called Marie Rose sauce, and in the US, Thousand Island dressing.



La Casa Rosada, Buenos Aires.

Some “pink” things are not rosa, but rosado. Vino rosado is “rosé wine” and the Casa Rosada in Argentina is the pinkish-painted presidential palace, immortalized by Madonna, I mean Eva Perón.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English, and Spanish, usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

So, now we’ve done “red and yellow and pink and green, purple and…”

Stop! We haven’t done “purple”.

Some people say it goes “…purple and orange and blue” and others that “orange” comes before “purple.” The first, “I can confirm”, is the canonical order (orden). (I just loathe that journalistic tic “The BBC/Telegraph/etc. can confirm…”)

Purple. Morado. A word that comes from mora, “blackberry.” So, perhaps it ought to translate as “Deep Purple.” (Oh, no! I’ve just put mental earplugs in, but my brain is still being bombarded by memories of heaveee met-uhl riffs. The only way out (salida) is death.)

I digress. Something that is typically morado is…well, things that are typically morado are repollo (“cabbage”) and cebolla (“onion”), which is, chromatically speaking, a more accurate description, let’s face it, than English “red” cabbage and onion.

However, these images (imágenes) suggest that it is a rather sombre shade of purple:



Other idioms that make use of this colour are:

un ojo morado – a black eye – it’s purple before it goes black, so Spanish speakers are obviously used to catching and describing them fresh.

pasarlas moradas – to be having a really tough time

Las estoy pasando moradas pero soy incapaz de dejar de aportar las mensualidades pactadas con algunas ONG’ s.

“Things are really tough at the moment but I just cannot bring myself to cancel the monthly payments I’ve signed up for with some NGOs.”

"The Young Lady with the Shiner", Norman Rockwell, 1953.

“The Young Lady with the Shiner”, Norman Rockwell, 1953.

The normal word y for “and” changes to e before a word beginning with another /i/ sound; if it didn’t, it would be awkward or imperceptible.

There doesn’t seem to be a single, all-purpose translation for prensa rosa. “Tabloids” seems too broad; I’ve opted for “celebrity journalism” above. I’ve seen “gossip press”, which certainly conveys the idea well, but “celebrity journalism” is more frequent in the corpora consulted.

Orden is one of that small group of hermaphroditic Spanish words. As el orden, it means “order” in the sense of “arrangement”, as in orden alfabético “alphabetical order”. As la orden, it means “order” in the sense of “command”. In Latin America in particular, someone providing a service might say ¡a sus órdenes! “at your service, sir/madam.” Note how you have to add an accent to the letter o- in the plural, to keep the word stress where it belongs. The same basic rule (words ending in -s or –n have stress on the penultimate syllable) inserts the accent in imágenes.


  1. ¿Verdadero o falso?

a. The colour pink and the flower “pink” are completely unrelated. V/F.
b. Una novela rosa is a detective story. V/F.
c. Rosé wine is vino rosado. V/F.
d. The word ¡Hola! means “goodbye”. V/F.
e. The word orden is masculine. V/F.
f.  You stress the last syllable of the Spanish word la crisis. V/F.

2. Prácticas

a. Which version has the accent in the correct place? El orígen/origen de las especies de Darwin es considerado una obra maestra de la literatura científica.
b. Where does the accent go in the plural of the following words? el origen; la orden; el orden; una imagen.
c. Complete the words: La casa rosa__ es la sede del Poder Ejecutiv_ de la República Argentin_.
d. Can you find the words in this blog for the following: language; eye; explanation; more or less; magazine; prawn; sauce; onion; way out (=exit).


Museo CarmenThyssen / CarmenThyssen Museum, Málaga. Mis seis cuadros preferidos / My six favourite paintings (1/3)

I’ve been blogging recently —  a bit in the abstract — about colour words in Spanish.

I’m just back from almost two weeks in Málaga and surroundings, where I experienced Spanish colours (and “Spanish colour”) less abstractly.

One of the highlights (puntos culminantes) for me was  a visit to the  CarmenThyssen Museum.


Housed in a completely remodelled sixteenth-century palacio1, the collection it contains consists chiefly of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spanish paintings (pinturas), particularly those painted by Andalusian artists or depicting Andalusian themes.

A personal eye-opener


A typically “Impressionist” Sorolla painting.

Previously, Sorolla was the only nineteenth-century Spanish painter I had been even vaguely familiar with, so the collection was a complete revelation to me. (OK, OK, I know, Goya [1746–1828]  lived well into the century, but it’s hard to think of him as “nineteenth-century”, other than in his visionary last period.) Even though (a pesar de que) many of the artists were active well into the twentieth century, all were born in the previous one.

The thematic and extremely educative way  in which the collection is arranged according to subject matter, from “Romantic landscape and ‘Costumbrismo‘” to “Fin-de-siècle“, makes it possible, on the one hand, to see how many of the stereotypes and clichés (tópicos)1 about Spain that for many people are still, in some sense, real and representative were created by visual artists who often had an eye on the incipient “tourist” market (mercado turístico); on the other hand, it also illustrates how artistic developments abroad — principally in France — often influenced Spanish artists, who, nevertheless, remain somehow unmistakably Spanish.

Many of the works displayed (obras expuestas1) struck me as being of exceptional quality, but the point of this blog — for I am hardly an Andrew Graham-Dixon or a Waldemar Januszczak — is purely to express my delight (deleite, el) in these gorgeous visual objects while adding my own two ha’p’orth. All six paintings are oil on canvas (óleo sobre lienzo).

The museum website (website, el, or sitio web) is very well laid out indeed: you can get an overview of the collection by going on different tours (recorridos), you can look at highlights (here obras destacadas, “highlighted works”), and you can search by artist. Moreover (además), each painting shown is presented with a detailed explanation (explicación detallada) or description, in Spanish and English.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

The Alamo (but not THAT U.S. Alamo)

Invierno en Andalucía (Bosque de álamos con rebaño en Alcalá de Guadaíra). [Winter in Andalusia; poplar wood with flock of sheep in…]

This painting is by Emilio Sánchez Perrier, who, so the catalogue (catálogo) tells me, lived (vivió)2 from 1855 to 1907, and was born (nació)2 in Seville but died (se murió)2, 3 in Granada — places which make him about as Andalusian as you can get.

However, he spent some time in Paris, where he studied under various French painters (pintores), and exhibited regularly. Although quite small in scale (45 x 31.9 cm, or 17.7″ x 12.6″), it has to my mind an almost jewel-like attention to detail that reminds me of (me recuerda) certain pre-Raphaelite works, while being arguably less dutifully literalistic. At the same time, when you see it in the flesh, as it were, it also has the feel of a watercolour (acuarela).

Perhaps it’s the wintry mutedness of the scene that appeals to me as a North European; certainly, its restricted palette, with those infinitesimal gradations of grey, silver and white tones (tonalidades grises, plateadas y blancas), is something anyone living in Scotland must perforce learn to understand and appreciate (valorar).

While trying to find an artistic parallel, Corot sprang to mind, for the quality of light; I therefore gave myself a smug little pat on the back when this biography, which is the most complete I can find on the “Interweb”, cited him as an influence.

“Typically” Spanish

There could hardly be a greater contrast between the nature idyll of the previous painting and the ur-Spanishness of this one, combining as it does so many stereotypical themes: a supposedly typical genre scene, Spanish light, white-painted buildings, grilles at windows, and Andalusian costume, horsemen, and dark-haired women. Yet it avoids banality through its great delicacy and detail of treatment and its daring and vigorous composition.

Cortejo español [Courting, Spanish style], 1883; José García Ramos, Seville, 1852–1912.

It’s worth lingering (detenerse) over such seemingly insignificant details such as the flower pots on the grille, the rider’s sash and his horse’s trappings, or the surface beneath his mount’s hooves, all of which work together to create a convincing realism that is utterly pictorial rather than photographic.

Compositionally, the dramatic diagonals of the roof (techo) and the path create depth (profundidad, la) while being immensely pleasing geometrically. Other key elements divide the surface (la superficie) of the canvas harmoniously and reinforce the illusion of space without being crassly obtrusive or dully academic. For example, at first sight, the boss on top of the street lamp appears to be equidistant from the edges of the canvas, but it isn’t; what occupies that exact position is the point where the left-hand bar of the lamp, sloping outwards, joins the lamp’s lid or roof. The exact midpoint of the painting’s vertical plane is occupied by … the barely perceived stretch of wall directly behind the three female passers-by. And so forth.

(Well, there I go, pontificating [sentando cátedra] as if I were an art critic. It makes a change from language, anyway!)

In short, the picture is ¡una delicia! I love it.

Learning points about the Spanish shown

1 Three examples of what are known as “false friends” (falsos amigos) between languages: words that look the same and are related in origin but mean different things, or have “additional” different meanings in one language that they don’t have in the other.

palacio – can translate a “palace”, such as Buck House, or Versailles (Versalles). However, it can also refer to a nobleman’s mansion, as in the case of  the Palacio de Villalón which houses the CarmenThyssen collection. Thus, el palacio de la duquesa de Alba en Sevilla is “the Duchess of Alba’s house in Seville” (which is, certainly, pretty bloody palatial).

un tópico – is not generally “a topic”, but “a cliché”. The most frequent words for “topic” are probably el tema or el asunto, but, as with all translation, only a complete context will suggest the most appropriate one, and there are several others.

exponer – can “mean” “to expose”, but in its transitive (rather than reflexive) use it more often translates as “to exhibit”; the derived noun una exposición is “an exhibition”.

2 nació, vivió, murió – these are all the él/ella form (“third person singular”) of the past tense of the  respective verbs, nacer, vivir, and morir.  They highlight the fact that the endings for the past tense of -er and -ir verbs are identical.

While the “stem” of nacer and vivir stays the same for all the past tense, morir is one of those awkward ones, like sentir (“to feel”) that changes its stem in the third person singular/plural of the past tense: morí, moriste, morimos, moristeis, but murió and murieron.

3 Both morir and morirse (i.e. “reflexive” in form) are widely used to talk about literal, physical dying, and it is very hard to define any difference. However, metaphorical and exaggerated meanings always use the “reflexive” form:
Por poco me muero cuando me lo contaron I nearly died when they told me.
Si me descubren me muero I’ll die if they find me out .
¡No se va a morir por llamar por teléfono alguna vez! It wouldn’t kill him to ring me some time!
¡Que me muera si miento! Cross my heart and hope to die!
Me muero de frío I’m freezing.
¡Me muero de hambre! I’m starving!
¡Me muero de sed! I’m dying of thirst!









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Museo Carmen Thyssen / Carmen Thyssen Museum, Málaga; my favourite paintings / mis cuadros predilectos (2/3)

I’ve been blogging recently —  a bit in the abstract — about colour words in Spanish.

Then I thought, “Hey, what about some real Spanish colour?”

I have to rely on the CarmenThyssen Museum in Málaga to provide that. As I said earlier, it gave me a sort of epiphany — a word and en experience not to be sneezed at.


The collection consists chiefly of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spanish paintings (pinturas), particularly those painted by Andalusian artists or depicting Andalusian themes. There were dozens I could have wittered on about, but I’ve reduced my list to six. Here are/is the second pair.

But before we look at those, let’s at least acknowledge the woman who collected these extraordinary works: to give her her full title, María del Carmen Rosario Soledad Cervera y Fernández de la Guerra, Dowager Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon et Impérfalva. Her Christian names (I use the term advisedly) go up to Soledad; after that, in accordance with Spanish naming practice, Cervera is her father’s surname and Fernández de la Guerra her mother’s. She is the widow (viuda) of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza, whose fabulous art collection was ceded to the Spanish state (el estado1 español) as the Thyssen Bornemisza collection in Madrid, and a major collector (coleccionista) in her own right.

An atypical (?) Sorolla


Vendiendo melones – Selling melons, 1890. Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1927).

This reproduction really can’t do the picture justice. For a start, the colours aren’t as distinct and glowing as they are in the original. Seeing the original (el original), what really stood out for me was the vibrant  red (rojo), animating an otherwise understated palette, and leading the eye from the waistcoat (chaleco) of the man perching tautly on the wall on the left across the basket of melons — the ostensible subject of the painting — through the red of the shawl draped across the seller’s knees and the red of the shawl of the standing figure behind him.

There’s a lot of detail – such as the ducks (patos) in the pond on the left, or the tiles (azulejos) beneath the grille in front of the window, but they don’t detract from the elegant sinuousness of the overall composition.

This was painted in 1890, shortly after Sorolla’s return (regreso) from Italy and before his style developed that particular kind of luminous impressionism with which he is more normally associated.

Five years earlier, but light years away…



Salida del baile de máscaras – Leaving the masked ball, c. 1885; Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta (1841-1920)

What links this painting and the Sorolla is light (luz, la), which is what also distinguishes them, namely, in the contrast (el contraste) between the warm daylight of the Sorolla and the brilliantly realised harsh gaslight of this night scene.

Silhouetted against the garishly lit vestibule of the dance hall, a couple of figures suggest a narrative: the gentleman is asking the girl to join him in the carriage he is pointing to. Where are they going? Do they know each other well, or have they only just met?

Despite this potential narrative interest, the main subject of the painting really seems to be its virtuosic handling of the dark shades of night: most of the canvas is in gradations of brown (marrón), grey (gris), and black (negro).

Here we are in Paris, the urban society par excellence, in marked contrast to Sorolla’s evocation of a “typically” Spanish country scene. The son and grandson of renowned Spanish painters, Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta achieved great succes (éxito) in France, where he lived for much of his life.


Learn more

1 Several Spanish words starting with est– are cognates of English words starting with the letters st-; estado (“state”) is one of those. Others are estructura, estable, estación. Being aware of this will help you “decode” from Spanish into English.

The same often holds true of esp– words, e.g. especular, especial, and esc– ones, e.g. escultura.

However, those correspondences do not mean that all sc/t/p– words in English convert automatically into Spanish versions with an e- added, nor vice versa.




Guerrilla or gorilla? What is “guerrilla marketing”? And where does “guerrilla” come from?

Do you puzzle over whether it is “guerrilla marketing” or “gorilla marketing”?

And if you write guerrilla, do you have to check how many r’s it has? (If you don’t, you’re a better speller than me.)

Warhol’s icon of Che Guevara, a legendary guerrilla.

In English it can be either guerrilla or guerilla, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — mind you, the spelling with two r‘s is much more usual.

It’s not just English speakers who can’t decide how many r’s; some Spanish speakers have the same problem, even though it is a current Spanish word, and clearly must have two r’s for reasons we’ll go into in a minute.

And that uncertainty can get right under some people’s skin.


This hideous tattoo should read “Dios bendice mi familia” “God blesses my family”: b and v sound identical in Spanish.

In 2016, the official language body in Colombia launched a hashtag campaign offering the services – gratis — of professional tattooists to retattoo (makes my flesh crawl) misspellings shown on photos of their own tattoos that people were invited to submit. One of the orthographically challenged tattoos bore the misspelling – in Spanish, that is – guerilla, with a solitary letter r. 

Why “guerrila marketing”, etc.?

Like so many loanwords in English, guerrilla has taken on a life all of its own.

In warfare, guerrillas use unconventional tactics, fight alone or in small groups, do not recognize authority, and can pop up anywhere without warning. Since the late 20th century, the word has been freely used to apply those very characteristics to actions in peaceful spheres that flout established social norms.

Take guerrilla marketing or advertising, that is, marketing/advertising aimed at achieving maximum exposure at minimum cost, using innovative techniques and avoiding traditional media.

(The first citation for guerrilla advertising, in 1888, is a lot older than you might expect, but then the word seems to have gone quiet for nearly 80 years.)

I don’t see how you can get much more guerilla than this…

Guerrilla marketing…involving the dispatch of streakers or nearly-nude nutcases to high profile events with the company’s web address tattooed on bare skin.

Independent, 7 June 2005

New to me is guerrilla gardening:

Landless residents…decided to plant trees and other food crops on public land. Fortunately, the council did not object to this growing trend that is known as guerrilla gardening.

BBC ‘Countryfile’, Feb. 12, 2010

And if I could knit, I might be tempted by guerrilla knitting:

The woolly displays are part of the wider trend of guerrilla knitting, a type of benign vandalism in which enthusiasts leave knitted creations on lampposts, railings and road signs.

“Benign vandalism” is such a lovely oxymoron, don’t you think?

Also known as "yarn bombing." Very pretty, but does it harm the trees?

Also known as “yarn bombing.” Very pretty, but does it harm the trees?

Of course, thanks to that tricksy old sound the schwa, guerilla sounds exactly like…gorilla. If you don’t believe me, in phonetic notation they are both /ɡəˈrɪlə/. (That letter e doing a Yogic headstand is the schwa, and stands for the unstressed “uh” sound.)

Because they sound the same, people sometimes mistakenly write gorilla marketing. As a British online wag quipped: “Is that when you have King Kong promote your product?”

A Manchester-based (UK) SEO company punningly has the misspelling as its name, a gorilla as its logo, and the strapline “It’s a jungle out there.”

Koko, the "talking" gorilla, with her pet kitten.

Koko, the “talking” gorilla, with her pet kitten.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

Guerrilla: the word’s backstory

The word guer(r)illa has become so “English” that it is easy to overlook its Iberian origins, which date to the time of the Peninsular War (1808–1814) against Napoleon.

In 1808, Napoleon turned on Spain, previously his ally, an event which ushered in a prolonged period of violent and prolonged national and nationalist struggle against the French. In some ways, that period can be viewed as the first modern war of national liberation.

The central administration of the Spanish State was in complete disarray, and local juntas (another Spanish word) took it upon themselves to help organize resistance. That resistance was largely in the hands of civilians, loosely organized in militias, who avoided pitched battles and either harassed French troops on the march or fiercely defended cities under siege.

“The Defence of Saragossa”, Sir David Wilkie, 1828, The Royal Collection.

Those militias were known as guerrillas. Their heroic defence of their homeland (la patria), notably in the legendary siege of Saragossa, really captured the British public’s imagination.1

At the request of three of the juntas, the British sent troops under the command of the then Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley,

Wellesley bedecked with medals, painted by Goya, and looking hesitant and untriumphal (1812-1814, National Gallery, London).

better known to us as the Duke of Wellington . It is in his dispatches of 1809, according to the OED (which gives only the year, not the month or day) that the word makes its first appearance in English.

I have recommended to the Junta to set…the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.

The meaning here as defined by the Oxford Dictionary Online is “A member of a small independent group taking part in irregular fighting, typically against larger regular forces.”

“little war”

The word for “war” in Spanish is guerra (ignore the u, and pronounce the vowels as in guess). Adding –illo or –illa, classed as a “diminutive suffix”, to a word often implies smallness or littleness, so guerrilla is in very literal terms a “little war.”

According to the Spanish Royal Academy’s historical corpus, the word first appears in the classic account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas’ History of the Indies meaning precisely, and somewhat disparagingly, a “little war”, for example:

They had some little wars about the borders and boundaries of their lands and dominions, but all of them were like children’s games and were easily calmed.”2

A traditional Spanish dish makes use of the same suffix: gambas al ajillo, succulent prawns in a tangy garlicky sauce. Ajo is the word for “garlic”, and ajillo refers to chopped garlic and the sauce made from it. And of course, just about any British tapas restaurant is bound to offer Spanish omelette, tortilla, which adds –illa to the word torta.

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

1The Scottish Sir David Wilkie, who was the “Royal Limner” (i.e. painter) in Scotland, was one of the first professional artists to visit Spain after the War of Independence, and was deeply influenced by seeing the paintings of Velázquez and Murillo. 
2Algunas guerrillas tenían sobre los límites y términos de sus tierras y señoríos, pero todas ellas eran como juegos de niños y fácilmente se aplacaban.

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Spanish colour words: meaning and grammar (2/4) “Red and yellow and pink and green…”


This it the second part of an overview of basic colour words in Spanish, illustrating what they mean, their grammar, and how they relate — or don’t — to English.


celeste. “sky-blue, pale blue”. “Blue eyes” can be ojos celestes or ojos azules, depending, presumably, on the depth and intensity of the blue. In parts of Mexico and Central America, masks (máscaras) play a central part in elaborate dances and rituals, some of which re-enact la conquista, the conquest by Spain of those countries. The masks for the conquistadores often have piercing blue eyes and blond (rubio) hair and beards, as in the image above. Those features hardly match the northern European stereotype of a Spaniard, but the original inhabitants (habitantes) were clearly struck by the relative lightness of the Spaniards’ complexion (la tez) and hair (pelo) compared to their own.

Azul and celeste don’t seem to be rigidly demarcated. For example, the blue of the Argentine flag is often referred to as azul celeste, which, if translated literally – “sky-blue blue” – sounds like what linguists call a tautology, or saying the same thing twice. It  puts me in mind of that delightful phrase sky-blue pink to describe a non-existent or fanciful colour; I first heard it from my parents as a child, and it is the kind of paradox or linguistic riddle that children tend to find fascinating.

La bandera argentina.

La bandera argentina.

There is a Spanish proverb or saying (un refrán) based on celeste: El que quiera azul celeste, que le cueste. Literally, “Whoever wants sky-blue, let it cost him”, meaning that it takes hard work to achieve your ambitions.1

If you want a mental link with English, think celestial meaning “relating to the sky or heavens”. Both the English and Spanish words derive ultimately from the Latin word for “heaven”, caelum.

violeta. My route home from school used to take me past a confectioner’s, the window of which often enticed me in, with its elegantly tiered displays of delicately perfumed violet creams, their crystallized flowers sitting voluptuously atop a seductive chocolate crescent.

My mistake: that’s purple, not violet, prose. Which illustrates the fact that I’m personally somewhat hazy about the boundaries of this colour, yet sceptical about some of the online illustrations for it: they seem far too garish and too close to fuchsia (fucsia) to resemble even remotely the colour of the sweets or the flowers. “Roses are red and violets are blue”, after all.

I digress.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

Spanish speakers (hispanohablantes) may not agree (estar de acuerdo) on what they classify as violeta. Linguistically, however, they agree that slapping on a la violeta after a word that describes someone’s views or profession is a bit of a put-down: un socialista a la violeta is a “would-be“, “pseudo-” or even “armchair socialist.”

Like naranja, mentioned in an earlier blog, violeta never changes to match the noun it goes with.

marrón. “brown”. Grammatically, marrón is a bit odd: unlike other adjectives ending in -ón, such as mandón/-ona (“bossy”), it has no feminine form, but it does have the plural marrones (notice how the written accent falls off in the plural).

Rather more Spaniards have ojos marrones than have ojos azules, and Northern Europeans would probably stereotype all Spaniards as having ojos marrones. It seems, however, that in fact more than half the population (más de la mitad de la población) have eyes in the spectrum verdeavellana (“green-hazel”).

In Spain, marrón as a noun means a difficult or embarrassing situation that you put yourself in or that someone else puts you in.

¡Vaya marrón en que me ha metido mi prima! “What a fix my cousin has got me into!”

Lush castañas glaseadas topped with what looks like a violeta glaseada.

Lush castañas glaseadas topped with what looks like a violeta glaseada.

Like English maroon, marrón comes from the French word for “chestnut”, as in those moreish marrons glacés (castañas glaseadas) that are popular at Christmas. But linguistic history has determined that the two words denote different colours.


For which colour adjectives from this and the previous blog are these the anagrams? (The forms shown might be singular/plural, masculine/feminine.)

  1. luesaz
  2. deerv
  3. smoalrali
  4. osajr
  5. aaajrnn
  6. nmraór
  7. teviola

1El que quiera azul celeste, que le cueste. Both quiera and cueste are subjunctive verb forms (from querer and costar). It is standard to use such forms after words or phrases indicating “indefiniteness”, such as el que (“Whoever”, literally “the one who”), which is why it is quiera.  The form cueste is subjunctive because it is effectively part of an order, preceded by the conjunction que.


“Red and yellow and pink and green…” Spanish colour words, meaning & grammar (1/4)

An overview of some basic colour words in Spanish, showing what they mean and how they work.

(Skip to after the first picture, if you’re in a hurry. If you’re into “slow reading”, please read on…)

The last Plantagenet English monarch, Richard III, suffered multiple indignities after being slain at the Battle of Bosworth: stripped of its armour, his naked body (cuerpo desnudo) was slung unceremoniously across the back of a horse, and then some peasant stabbed him in the bum (culo) with a dagger (un puñal) as a final insult. (The Age of Chivalry, ¡Un jamón!)

Worse still, when they got him to Leicester, he was buried in an anonymous car park, before being cartoon-villained by Shakespeare, who at least spared him the indignity of mentioning his rather downmarket and very unregal municipal last resting place.


Pedro Pablo Rubens, Paisaje con arco iris (h. 1636, Wallace Collection, Londres).

However, Ricardo found posthumous redemption of a sort by being immortalized centuries later (siglos después) in a schoolboy mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow (el arco iris):

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain
red orange yellow green blue indigo violet

There is no analogous mnemonic in Spanish, and in any case “indigo” is not a colour (un color) much in use. But the corresponding colours that are more or less useful go like this:

red orange yellow green blue violet
rojo naranja amarillo verde azul violeta

It’s an obvious fact of language that colours do not necessarily have the same symbolic meaning (significado) or connotations in every language: for English speakers red means danger (peligro), for Chinese speakers it means good fortune (la suerte). What follows highlights some of the similarities and differences between Spanish and English when it comes to the most common colour words. And there’s an ever so easy self-test at the end.

Rojo shares the consonant r and many associations with English red. For example, Spanish_Prince_Hsomeone with pelo rojo has red hair, and the two words combine to make un pelirrojo / una pelirroja, “a redhead.” If you’re finding it hard to visualize a pelirrojo, think of that famous royal bachelor (soltero) Prince Harry (el príncipe Henrique).




During the Cold War (la Guerra Fría), Soviets, communists, and sympathizers might be referred to colloquially as rojos, which was also the term Francoists used during the Civil War to demonize Republicans.

Someone who is extremely embarrassed turns red “as a tomato”, not a beetroot:

Basta1 mirarle2 para que3 se le ponga4 la cara5 como6 un tomate7. “You’ve only got to look at him and he goes as red as a beetroot”.1

And beware: for wine you use a different word: red wine is vino tinto.

Naranja. As in English, you use the same word for the citrus fruit orange and the colour, but a fruit is una naranja whereas the colour is el naranja, because all colours are masculine. Both the English and Spanish words ultimately come from Arabic nāranj , but the n at the beginning dropped off somewhere on the way to English, while Spanish kept it.

Certain colours adjectives like naranja never change to match the noun they go with: un pantalón naranja, una blusa naranja, dos blusas naranja. Such “invariable” adjectives can be used on their own, but are just as often preceded by color or de coloruna camisa color naranja/beige, una camisa de color naranja/beige.

Amarillo. Unlike the previous two, there seems nothing to connect this word and English yellow. Perhaps the double ll in both might help you to make the connection. In Spanish, you talk about the  la prensa amarilla, literally the “yellow press”, meaning “the gutter press.” Amarillo also has a negative meaning – just like English yellow = “cowardly” – when talking about “yellow unions” that represent employers’ rather than workers’ interests, los sindicatos amarillos.

To say the word, put the song “Is this the Way to Amarillo” right out of your mind. You pronounce that double ll as a sort of y, to give a-ma-ree-yo.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

Verde. Apart from being the title of a famous Lorca poem, “Verde que te quiero verde”, startlingly, for English speakers, you use the word for green in the phrase un viejo verde, “a dirty old man” and un chiste verde, “a dirty joke”. The association of verde / green with ecology is the same in both languages, as is the link with jealousy: estar verde de invidia “to be green with envy”. If you want a connection with English, think verdant. 

Verde ends with an –e. Adjectives ending in any vowel other than –o have no feminine form, but they do have a plural, i.e. verdes. There is a famous flamenco song or copla about a woman who spends a night of passion with a man with green eyes:

Ojos verdes, verdes como la albahaca.                                  Green eyes, green like basil.
Verdes como el trigo verde                                                        Green like unripe corn
y el verde, verde limón.                                                               And green, green lemons.
Ojos verdes, verdes, con brillo de faca                                    Green green eyes, that gleam like a knife
que estan clavaito en mi corazón.                                            And have stuck in my heart.

And here’s the renowned flamenco singer the late Rocío Jurado giving a wonderfully over-the-top theatrical (teatral) rendition. Not for nothing was she nicknamed La más grande (“The Greatest”).

El Greco, La Trinidad (detalle), 1577-1579, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

El Greco, La Trinidad (detalle), 1577-1579, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. I don’t think you can get much more “azul” than that.

Azul. Just as in English, aristocrats are supposed to have blue blood: veinte familias de sangre azul “twenty aristocratic families” (literally “families of blue blood”). Presumably in the same vein, someone’s príncipe azul is their “Prince Charming” or “knight in shining armour,” or even “Mr Right.”

As a cynic blogged: Las mujeres se pasan la mitad de su vida buscando a su príncipe azul, para terminar casándose con un amable fontanero.

“Women spend half their lives looking for Mr Right only to end up marrying a nice plumber.”

Just like verde, azul is one of those unreconstructed chauvinist adjectives that have no feminine, but do change for the plural, e.g. Scandinavians stereotypically have ojos azules.

This rule about adjectives not having a feminine but having a plural applies to almost all adjectives ending, like azul, in a consonant, e.g. un chico/una chica joven, un trabajo/una pregunta fácil, “a young boy/girl”, “an easy job/question”.

1The word-for-word translation is: “It is enough1 to look at him2 so that3 it to him becomes4 the face5 like6 a tomato7”.

1. Match the Spanish phrase to the English.

a.       The Red Planet los Verdes
b.      A red alert de sangre azul
c.       blue-blooded el Planeta Rojo
d.      an orange shirt El Ángel Azul
e.      the Greens una camisa naranja
f.        The Blue Angel una alerta roja

2. ¿Verdadero o falso?

a. The English word orange is from Dutch.
b. All adjectives in Spanish change to match the noun they go with.
c. “Red wine” is vino tinto.
d. “Amarillo” as sung in “Is this the way to Amarillo” is the correct Spanish pronunciation.
e. All Spanish colour words are masculine.
f. The feminine of verde is verda.