Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Meaning of Words

For those of you who've read history, you'll know the name of this Spaniard who "discovered" (read CONQUERED) Mexico was named Hernando Cortés (sometimes spelled Cortez). As Conquistadores (conquerors) go, he shared the usual personality traits: bloodthirsty, violent, double-dealing, ruthless. Perhaps it comes as a surprise, then, that the exact translation of his family name "Cortés" is........"courteous" or "polite." Given that he and his armies killed hundreds of thousands of Indians...and introduced epidemic diseases that killed just as many.....I doubt many Mexican Indians would think of him as Mr. "Courteous."
Another word of note here in Mexico is the word for "handcuffs." In Spanish, the translation is "esposas." This shows both the macho spirit and the wry sense of humor in Latin America since "esposa" is also the word for "wife."
Many Latin American (non-Mexican) commentators have remarked on the use of the phrase "Mande?" here in Mexico. The phrase is only used in Mexico, not in any other Latin American country. And it's used to mean, "Pardon me? What did you say? Please repeat that." But the literal translation is "Order me."

It's used universally and to most non-Mexican ears, it's a bit jarring. Cultural linguistic scholars have written volumes on this strange usage. Some believe that it comes from 500 years of servitude (to the Spanish king, the viceroy, the big landowners, the political boss). It's certainly a self-effacing phrase. I'll leave it to the academic types to draw inferences from this use of "Order me" and what it reflects about the culture as a whole.