Guatemala is funny if you’re Bulgarian, but maybe not otherwise

Arrived in Guatemala Saturday morning after two flights spent obsessively studying medical vocabulary and reading about health care interpreting.  I almost made it out of the airport without having to check a dictionary, but Zipf’s Law humbled me in baggage claim, i.e. before I even made it out of the airport.  Oh, well.

Getting to Antigua involves about an hour and a half drive.  Much of it is through Guatemala City and its suburbs.  The road is pretty much solidly lined with small businesses, many of them with hand-painted signs–Guatemala City has some very, very low-income, rough areas.  (In general, travellers are advised by guidebooks to just stay out of Guatemala City and go somewhere else.)  I amused myself on the drive by taking pictures of words that I don’t know—there were far more such words than I could capture on my cell phone camera.  Probably the most linguistically interesting was a huge advertisement for vaginal suppositories that was notable for the fact that it used a vosotros verbal form, which you don’t often see north of here (I don’t, anyways).

  • faja: This was the word for the thing that your baggage comes in on–more specifically, faja de retiro de equipage (baggage claim carrousel).  Faja has a variety of meanings in my dictionary, none of which is “carrousel.”  They mostly have to do with things that go around something–sash, girdle, bandage, newspaper wrapper. 2014-08-09 13.50.10
  • cuota: I think this was meant (see photo) in its sense of a fee or dues.  It can also mean a quota or share of something, as well as a tuition fee.2014-08-09 14.31.01
  • capilla: An interesting word, and I don’t know how to interpret it in this case (see photo).  One meaning is a chapel.  However, my dictionary says that another is a “death house”—I’m not sure what that actually means, but I think it has something to do with people who have been condemned to death.  There are additional, quite different meanings, and each of these has related words and expressions:
    • hood, cape: a related word is capillo, meaning a baby cap, a baptismal cap, a hood, a cocoon, or a cigarette filter.  Note that this is an example of two words that differ only in gender and have different meanings.
    • death house: an expression related to this meaning is estar en capilla, which can mean “to be in the death house,” but also “to be on pins and needles.”
    • chapel: a related word is el capiller, a churchwarden or sexton.
    • proof sheet: not sure where this one comes from, and I don’t know of any related words.2014-08-09 14.31.47
  • almacén: I knew this word in its sense of “warehouse,” but it turns out that it can also mean store or department store, which was probably the intended sense here (see photo).2014-08-09 14.36.10
  • ladrillo: a brick or tile. 2014-08-09 14.46.46Why Guatemala is funny if you’re Bulgarian: Guatemala is a mountainous country with lots of curvy roads.  Curvy roads are marked with the word curvas (curves).  It will immediately be obvious to you why this is funny if you’re Bulgarian, or, indeed, from any Eastern European country that I’m aware of, Slavic-speaking or not.  If you’re not Bulgarian: it’s not blog-appropriate, so write to me if you want the joke explained.


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