Word: the smallest element that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content (with literal or practical meaning).
Words are like slithery, slippery creatures. And their power multiplies exponentially when we introduce other languages.
You might be familiar with the embarrassed/embarazada dichotomy. Yep, obvious similarities aside, to be embarrassed is not to be embarazada--which means pregnant. It doesn't help that embarrassed doesn't translate easily into Spanish.
If you want to say I'm so embarrassed in Spanish, you'd say something like Qué pena, or Qué verguenza, which would translate into English as what an embarrassment. In short, embarrassed isn't an adjective in Spanish.
Then there's last. The last example translates into último--but último is also used for latest, as in the latest news, or the latest fashion. Small thing, but think of the confusion: the last news we heard implies there will never again be more news, or at least, none that you'll hear.
For nearly 30 years, I thought that was it--Spain Spanish vs. the rest of us. Then I came to Curaçao, and made friends from Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Cuba... And I realized every single country that speaks Spanish speaks it differently.
It's not just the accent, although that doesn't help, either. When Dominicans, for example, substitute the R for an L, or when Venezuelans plain skip over the S... Well, it makes for a lot of confusion.
Cola also means glue in Spain and some other places--which made for a crazy translation of Crazy Glue--Cola Loca, or Crazy Tail. In South America, Cola is also Coke, so I hear people asking for tail at restaurants all the time.
There's also the confusion with meal times. In Mexico, you have desayuno in the morning, comida at midday, and cena at night. But in Venezuela and Colombia, comida is the evening meal, and the Mexican comida becomes almuerzo--which in Mexico is used more for brunch. Very confusing when you're trying to make plans to meet for lunch. It's not any wonder most of us have resorted to using English.
"It's the green stuff that grows in gardens--lawns," I said, feeling half-frustrated, half-stupid.
"What color are the flowers?" he asked.
"No, no flowers. Just--" I gestured with my hands, "long blades. Green blades." Then I spotted a lawn across the street. "THAT is what I need. Pasto."
He threw his head back and laughed. "You want grama. For a lawn."
Grama? I'd never even heard the word before. Without the visual aid, I'd have been forced to stealing a chunk of grama from someone's yard.
And yet most of us are like Phaeton: harnessing a chariot whose power is beyond our comprehension, and which can--and will, if we don't curb our enthusiasm and pig-headedness--destroy us.