The parents returned from their cruise today, so Child and I hied over there to see them and ask how things went. (The verdict: cruises bore them. “I never took so many naps in my life,” my father reported.) Of course, after the debriefing, my mother said to Child, “I brought you a sopresita (“little surprise”). It’s over there in the blue bag.”
“What is it?” she asks.
“What is it?” I ask, quieter.
“It’s un oso perezoso,” my mother replies.
“A… what? A what kind of bear?” I say, bemused.
“Perezoso,” my mother repeats. “‘Lazy.’ You’ll see.”
Daughter brings out the stuffed animal, triumphant. It is… (drumroll)… a sloth! I start laughing. “Oh, I see. A lazy bear.”
It doesn’t occur to me until later that the English name for the same creature also comes from a word for laziness. I wonder if the two languages came up with the idea independently, or if one of them borrowed it from the other? But then, sloths kind of do name themselves.
Later, we are talking about hairdressers, and my mother tells me she has to do something about her pasas, and this one puzzles me completely. “Your what?” I say, trying to guess from context. “Antenna?”
“No,” she says, dry. “Antenna is antena.” (Fancy that.) “Pasa is… well, it’s two things. First it’s…” She makes little picking motions with her hands as I stare, mystified. “You know, grapes when they dry up—”
“Raisins,” I say. And then lift my brows. “Really? The word for raisins is pasa?”
“Yes,” she says. “They are wrinkly. So, these hairs on your head that are like this—” She makes a corkscrew motion with her finger.
“Oh!” I say. “They’re twisty. Like the wrinkles on a raisin.”
“Yes,” she says. “We call them pasas. People in Spain, they say they need to straighten their pasas.”
“Ohhh,” I say, well-pleased. Then pause. “How can I never have heard the name for raisins?”
“We called them uvas,” she said.
“Uvas are grapes,” I tell her, eyeing her.
“Well, yes,” she says. “But we never ate raisins in our house, so that’s the closest we got.”
So there you go. Sloths and raisins, which are also those annoying hairs that you can’t get to lie flat. And I wonder how I grew up fascinated by languages! So much you learn from the way people extrapolate words to include other meanings. Real languages are like the people who speak them: complex and informed by histories they don’t even often remember, beautiful and silly and unexpected.