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30 Discoveries About Family History in Spanish Surnames

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If your family name represents an occupation, you know something about how one—or likely more—of your ancestors made a living. In English, occupational names, like Smith and Miller, are among the most common. In Spanish, though, patronymics (names derived from a father’s name) like Rodríguez (son of Rodrigo) and Martínez (son of Martín) are far more common. In a Spanish government ranking of surname frequency, you have to scan down to #30 (Molina) before you find a name definitely related to a trade. There are plenty of occupational surnames in Spanish, though. Some, like Barbero and Carpintero, are transparent. Here are a few that are a bit less obvious.

1. ABAD, ABATO, ABADE, ADAT, BADAL, BADIOLA, BADÍAS

These surnames all derive from Latin abbas, which in turn comes from Aramaic abba, “father”; all refer to an abbot.

2. BALLESTA, BALLESTER, BALLESTERO, BALLESTEROS

These names referred to someone who used a crossbow (ballesta), a bowman. A ballestero came to mean a royal armorer and later someone who assisted with shotguns on royal hunts.

3. BATANERO

Batanero, like the English word fuller, referred to someone who beat or agitated cloth (especially wool) in water to remove oil and dirt, making it thicker.

4. BERMEJO

Bermejo (vermilion) comes from Latin vermiculus, diminutive of vermis, “worm” and referred to those who made a red dye from an insect Kermes vermilio.

5. BOTERO

The Colombian artist Fernando Botero is known for painting and sculpting rotund figures who look as if they might enjoy guzzling wine from a bulging bota. A botero is a maker of wineskins or bottles. Botero can also relate to bote or “rowboat,” however, and some people with this name may have had ancestors who were ferrymen rather than bottle makers.

6. BOYERO

A boyero is an ox driver.

7. CABALLERO

Although caballero now means “gentleman,” it comes from late Latin caballarius, from Latin caballus, “horse,” and originally meant “knight.”

8. CABRERA, CABRERO, CABRA, CABRAL

These names derive from Latin caprarius and mean goatherd. A variant, Cabrisas, is an archaic term for goat pen.

9. CALDERÓN

This surname, which is shared by a recent president of Mexico and a poet and playwright of the Golden Age of Spanish literature, means caldron and was given to a maker of cooking pots.

10. CANTERO

A cantero is a stonemason.

11. CARRILLO, CARRO, CARRERA, CARRERO, CARRETA, CARRIL

These surnames come from Spanish carro, from Latin carrus, “cart,” and refer to cart or wagon makers. Carrillo also means “cheek” and one source says the name was given to those with unusual cheeks.

12. CUBERO

Cuba means “cask”; a cubero is a cooper, or barrel maker.

13. ESCRIBANO

An escribano was a scrivener—a clerk, scribe or notary who certified documents.

14. ESCUDERO(S), ESCUDILLO

From Latin scutarius, escudero means “shield bearer or squire.”

15. FUSTER, FUSTÉ

These names relate to fustero, meaning “carpenter,” or more specifically, “turner, lathe operator.”

16. FERRER, FERRERO, FERREIRO, FERREIRA, FERRUFINO, FERRÓN, HERRERA, DE HERRERA, HERRERO, HIERRO, HERRADA

These are all historical and regional variants of a word meaning “iron.” The name was applied to blacksmiths, but in some cases may have arisen from a place name.

17. GUERRA , GUERRERO

The Spanish word guerra, “war,” comes from Germanic werra. Guerrero means warrior.

18. HIDALGO, FIDALGO

From Latin filius aliquid, “son of something [i.e. wealth],” the name was applied to noblemen.

19. JURADO

Jurado means “sworn.” The present meaning is “juror,” but earlier on it referred to sworn officials with a variety of duties.

20. LABRADOR

From Latin laborātor, “laborer,” labrador refers to someone who works the earth, a plowman or farmer.

21. MARÍN, MARINO, MARINA, MARES, DELMAR

From the Latin word marinus, meaning “man of the sea,” these are variants of the word for sailor.

22. MERINO, MERÍN, MERINA, MERINERO

From (you guessed it) Latin maiorinus, “something greater,” a merino was a judge appointed by the king to preside over a broad jurisdiction.

23. MELERO

From Latin (yet again) mellarĭus, “honey collector, beekeeper,” melero means a seller of honey.

24. MOLINA, MOLINO, MOLINERO, MOLINER, MOLNER, MUELAS, MOLA, MOLERO

These variants of terms for “mill” or “miller” come from Latin molinum, which is derived from molere, “to grind” (as your molars do).

25. OBREGÓN, OBRERO, OBRADOR

Although these names ultimately derive from Latin opus, “work,” and the current meaning of both obrador and obrero is “worker,” the surname Obregón came from the Asturian dialect of Spanish where it had developed a more specific meaning: butcher.

26. ROMERO, ROMER, ROMEO, BORROMEO, ROMÁN, ROMANO

This surname and its variants have two sources: Latin romanus, “inhabitant or native of Rome,” and late Latin romaeus, “pilgrim.”

27. TEJERO, TEIJEIRO, TEJERINA, TEXEIRA, TEJADA

These are some of the variants of tejero, a maker of roofing tiles or bricks.

28. VAQUERO

From vaca, “cow” + - ero (agentive suffix), vaquero, as many Western fans know, is a cowboy.

29. VERDUGO

If this is your surname, you may be glad you’re not in the family business. A verdugo was an executioner.

30. ZAPATERO, SABATER

Spanish speakers know that the name Zapatero means shoemaker, but they may not recognize that Sabater is the Catalán equivalent.

Sources: Elián, Gran libro de los apellidos y la heráldica; Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la lengua española; Robb, Encyclopedia of American Family Names; Wikipedia: la encyclopedia libre, Apellido; Williams, Diccionario ingles y español

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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