Friday, April 21, 2006


Why is the word for pregnant in Spanish so much like the English for embarrassed? I always wondered. Schoolboyish, I know.

Embarazar was first recorded in Spanish in 1460. The root of the word is in the meaning to bar, block, impede, hinder. I couldn't think how that connects with being pregnant. What is impeded? - the womb. Or, more likely, it could derive from sex being barred during pregnancy in those days. The Church proclaimed: 'Sex is forbidden when a woman is menstruating, pregnant, nursing, during lent,...' So, when pregnant, she was 'barred'.

If the above derivation is correct, then the Spanish usage of the word is understandable. English adopted the word via the French embarrasser. It was not used to mean 'feeling ashamed or awkward' until the 1800s, and this meaning likely developed from the feelings (some would say, particularly English feelings) associated with being impeded or held back.

A Spanish word trail:

1. Impedir, estorbar, retardar algo - block, hold back
2. Dejar encinta a una mujer - make pregnant

adj. Dicho de una mujer - preñada, pregnant

adj. Dicho de una mujer, o de una hembra de cualquier especie que ha concebido y tiene el feto o la criatura en el vientre (baby in the belly).

1. to conceive, to understand
2. v.intr. to become pregnant, conceive (mujer)

The danger of mistaking embarazada for embarrassed makes it a 'false friend' (not a false cognate; they are cognates = they share the same root).

For those so tempted, you should know:
When an obscene meaning is produced in making a pun on a false friend, it is called cacemphaton (κακεμφάτον), Greek for 'bad-looking'. The prime pun on embarrass/embarazar seems to be this (Google returned 825 of these):
When Parker Pen marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you." However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word "embarazar" meant embarrass. Instead the ads said: "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant."

Yet, be cautious still, for embarazoso means exactly the same as 'embarrassing'.

Image: Font of Life © 2006 S Carlos


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