What's in a Name? Plenty!

Mar 05, 2010

I have always had a fascination with languages. I believe that one mark of an educated person is the ability to read, write and speak more than one language.


Why? Because it gives him the ability to look at reality from at least two points of view. The mere facility of knowing another language can naturally open you to insights about your own native tongue. As Goethe put it, “He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own.”

When you think about it, language is probably one of man’s earliest technologies. Writer Mark Amidon once remarked that “language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery.” The fact that we can exchange our takes on reality with words and sentences is mind-boggling.

There is this joke about two Filipinos riding in an elevator with a foreigner. One Filipino asked the other, “Bababa ba?” (Is this elevator going down?) and the other Filipino answered, “Bababa,” (Yes, going down.) much to the total bewilderment and puzzlement of the foreigner.

Cultures borrow from each other, to be sure. As Filipinos, we use so many English words that we have invented Taglish. Americans have also borrowed words from us. “Boondocks” is American for bundok, a word they adopted to describe where the rebels during the Philippine-American war were hiding.

The way we use the word “salvage” to mean “kill” is supposed to have come from the fact that the American military destroyed not a few villages in Vietnam supposedly to salvage or save them.

I would not be surprised if some of the most easily learned words in any language are cuss words. It’s because there is an “in your face” quality to them that can cut through the curtain of foreignness and get a person connected to the natives immediately, for better or worse. Cuss words are powerful and have their own other uses. Mark Twain wrote, “In certain… circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.”

When languages crisscross, it can become quite interesting. Meanings can change and words can take on new realities. Sometimes, this can have varied consequences ranging from the confusing to the hysterical.

A few years back, a niece of mine from the US got married here in Manila to an American of Mexican heritage. Jose came to the Philippines with family and best man in tow, and let me just say that the occasion of our meeting was quite an eye-opener for them and for us, language-wise. For starters, we both used many Spanish words and learned that the words palengke (market) and tiangge (flea market) have their roots in Mexican culture. There are, after all, many things we have in common due to our common Spanish colonial experience.

We were eager to give our visitors a good time and so we feted them with the usual Filipino hospitality — lunches, merienda (snack), dinners. We brought them to see the breathtaking sites like Taal Volcano from the Tagaytay ridge. We wanted them to have good memories of their visit.

But the “cultural moment” happened during a stop at a little store in Tagaytay where one of our Mexican guests asked the tindera (saleslady) about the breads and pastries she was selling. He pointed to some small round white-colored kakanin (rice cakes) and asked what they were. The lady said they were “puto.” Immediately, I heard a chuckle from him and when I asked why, he explained that “puto” meant “male prostitute” in Mexico.


puto, philippines rice muffins

Puto is a steamed rice cake in the Philippines. They can be eaten alone as dessert or served with dinuguan (pork blood stew).

Photo credit: Michelle Lyles

When he proceeded to ask about some other stuff, the woman responded and told him that the sweets he was pointing to was called “panutsa” which sounded alarm bells among the Mexican group. Politely, they tried to suppress their laughter but to no avail. Soon they were laughing openly. When we asked what was funny, they had to explain with great embarrassment that “panocha” was a crude word for vagina in Mexican.

But what pulled out all the stops was when they pointed to a type of bread that the tindera called “mamon.” This got them laughing to tears for a few minutes. Apparently, mamon is a slang word in Mexican which, politely put, pertains to someone who engages in oral sex with males. They were in an uncontrollable fit especially after I mentioned that we have a term called “pusong mamon” to describe someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.

Could it be that the colonizers had really been having great laughs at our expense, ridiculing us by introducing all these crude and vulgar words to our culture and pretending that they meant something else? They must have had quite a time laughing at us stupid indios for our supposed ignorance.

I was stunned at the cultural confusion as much as they were, even as we were both amused at the situation. My curious mind couldn’t help but suspect a conspiracy theory that left me chuckling more than feeling angry. Could it be that the colonizers had really been having great laughs at our expense, ridiculing us by introducing all these crude and vulgar words to our culture and pretending that they meant something else? They must have had quite a time laughing at us stupid indios for our supposed ignorance. But then, it could also have been the colonized Mexicans who surely were part of the crews of the galleons who brought their own vulgarities with them which eventually found their way into our language.

When you survey Filipino surnames with Spanish origins, you will discover that some of them are quite funny, or even downright derogatory in Spanish. The surname “Cagado” actually is a past-participle verb meaning “to take a sh*t.” Some other names will have you scratching your head when you look up their meaning. The surname “Achacoso,” for example, means “someone who coughs a lot.” There must be other names that the frailes (friar or monk) of old imposed upon us, much to their wicked delight.

I have been entertaining the idea (jokingly) about how we can get even. What if, feigning all the seriousness we can muster, we file a diplomatic protest against Spain? We would surely put ourselves and our ex-colonizers in an awkward situation that would be the talk of the diplomatic world. What a historically hysterical predicament! Spain would have to admit its malice and apologize. We would graciously accept the apology even if this issue would be counted as one more anomaly (albeit the strangest one) among the countless transgressions their colonialism has wrought upon our culture. We could even be awarded damages. Who knows?