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Jan 31, 2008

Five-Dollar Words and the Foreign Currency Exchange

Pleasant surprise: all my big words are once again useful.

On the advice of some good teachers, I've spent the last decade trying to use smaller words instead of bigger ones.  Anglo-Saxon instead of Latinate.

The results have been good, I think.  I don't get lost as much as I used to.  Nor do the people I'm talking with.  And fewer people notice when I'm being a snobby ass.

That said, my time in Mexico -- learning to speak Spanish, or speaking in English with people whose native language is Spanish, Italian or French -- has been a great chance to bring back the Latinate.

After talking with dozens of travelers, I've come to realize that a Romance-language speaker with limited English can understand me more quickly when I say say "accelerate" or "melancholy" instead of "speed up" or "sad". 

And if I have to guess what the Spanish word is for "light," I do well when I go long and guess "iluminaci√≥n".  Looking for someone's "home"?  Get it right with "residencia".  Same for "snobby" when I try "pretencioso".  See how easy it is? :-)

Just don't try it with the Germans, Austrians, and Swiss.  Ist nicht gut, this metodolog√≠a.


As for the Australians and the English, skip the words and give them a beer.

12:49 AM in Mexico, Words | Permalink


You are SO right. From the opposite end, there are some words that I used to only know in Spanish, and when I came back to the US I'd be struggling to figure out how to say things. My favorite--dissimular. In Spanish it means something along the lines of "to be hiding something" in the sense of someone not telling the whole story. So I'd use "dissimulate" in English, tongue in cheek at first, until I learned that it kind of already was an English word. :-)

Posted by: stew | Jan 31, 2008 7:19:19 AM

Speaking of $5 words - I found a coin on the plane the other day that was from the United States of Mexico, but it had "$5" as the denomination. Is that 5 pesos? It looked a lot like a two euro coin, but I doubt it is worth as much.

Posted by: Tarus | Jan 31, 2008 10:15:59 PM

Yep, Tarus, that's 5 Mexican pesos. Exchangeable for about 45 US cents (or one public bus ride anywhere in Merida). I was once told that the peso symbol is like the US dollar sign with one vertical slash, while the US dollar symbol has two vertical slashes. But I don't trust that system.

BTW, Last week I paid a ~$4.00 international bank surcharge for withdrawing ~$27 from an ATM. I hit the button that said "$300" just before going "D'oh!" For of course that was 300 pesos, not dollars.

Related story: Katy from Slovenia told me that her mother had an interesting experience just after the switch to Euros. When they were using their old currency, the tolar, her mother (a baker) her customers would demand exact change. Give someone 500 tolar for a 450 tolar loaf of bread, and you want your 50 tolars back. Because 50 is a big number. But when they switched to the euro (exchange rate ~240 tolars to the euro) the remmainder in an exchange like that would be a tenth of a euro, which seemed smaller. But when they switched to the Euro (whose exchange rate was set at ~230 to the euro), the change in euros seemed such a pittance (gosh, just two-tenths of a euro? keep the change). Two-tenths is a small number.

Of course, later exchange rate issues made everything worse in Slovenia. But for a few months, Katy's mom had it good.

Posted by: Phil | Jan 31, 2008 10:33:40 PM

Richard Feynman reported the same epiphany in one of his memoirs. It's come in handy when I attempt a Romance language.

No dice for Arabic, Japanese or Korean, however.

Apparently, though, I can use some Arabic cognates for Wolof. So I've got that going for me. Maybe.

Posted by: Chap | Feb 3, 2008 7:07:53 PM

That must have been harder though -- thinking of your natural big word, then having to think of its simpler synonyms. I suggest, go ahead and use the natural big word, but put ". . . and shit." at the end of the sentence. This makes people forget you used a big word.

Posted by: Elrond Hubbard | Feb 12, 2008 11:53:32 AM