Tonto y re-tonto

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By Monica Barnkow

If you come to me and tell me that your sole reason to learn Spanish is being able to read don Quixote in its original language, I would find your grounds more than justifiable.

Considered by many to be the greatest literary piece to ever exist on the face of Earth, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was published in two parts; the first one saw the light in 1605, and the second one ten years later, in 1615. Repeatedly labeled as “the first modern novel,” El Quijote set the bases on which future novels were going to erect upon. Over four centuries later, the adventures of don Quijote and his loyal squire Sancho Panza don’t cease to amuse, proving that Cervantes’ masterpiece is resilient to the test of time. It’s that good!

Last year, I was fortunate to afford myself the luxury of reading El Quijote in its entirety, and would like to share some fun bits of it with you. Most specifically, I want to highlight for you some of the insulting terms that the so-called Caballero de la Triste Figura uses to vituperate poor good old Sancho Panza, to remind him, at every step of the way, how stupid he is.

But, before immersing ourselves in this juicy topic, a little bit of background -in case you are not familiar with the story- is in order. Briefly, the story begins as follows:

After reading countless books about caballería andante (walking cavalry), which was at the time a very popular literary genre that narrated the epic stories of young, brave and flawless heroes, Alonso Quijano, an impoverished nobleman from La Mancha, goes awkwardly crazy, and decides that he too can live the life of a walking knight. He becomes convinced that his own adventures would achieve as much fame as those of the best of them, like Amadís de Gaula. But Quijano -don Quijote hereafter- didn’t take off alone; lured by the promise of the governorship of his own island, a peasant from a nearby neighborhood, Sancho Panza, left his wife and children in order to serve as don Quijote’s side kick.

And this is how these two characters became the most famous odd couple in the history of great literature. And, like every couple, don Quijote and Sancho have their ups and downs. And when the former gets mad at the latter, oh my, oh my…Don Quijote is merciless, and extremely creative when it comes to uttering insults to Sancho, but even the harshest tirades of slurs are nothing more than his expression of tough love, or constructive criticism. As a matter of fact, Sancho’s loyalty seems to be directly proportional to the amount of verbal abuse he’s being made target of.

When it comes to the actual harsh terms don Quijote uses to address Sancho, we can distinguish between single terms and compound phrases. Among the most frequent ones in the first category are:

Mentecato: This one appears a lot in the novel. I believe the term is not very common in current Spanish. It’s actually my favorite-sounding one, and it translates as “fool,” “idiot,” or “moron.”

Bellaco: This one has more of an evil side to it than the previous word. It translates as “wicked” or “unscrupulous.” It basically refers to a person who necessarily has to have enough astuteness to deceive or trick others.

Simple: When this word is used to describe a person, it translates as “foolish” or “naive,” someone who is so simple-minded that lacks sufficient depth to have full understanding of things or situations, and can be therefore easily fooled. Don Quijote usually dedicates this word to Sancho when the good squire fails to comprehend things that are obvious to the knight; for example, the ludicrous notion that windmills are giants or that a flock of sheep is a dangerous army of men.

Socarrón: This term is usually used as an epithet for Sansón Carrasco, one of the least sympathetic characters in the novel. “Socarrón” translates as “sarcastic” or “ironic”, and Sancho is being called “socarrón” mostly in the second part, as he evolves from his original simplicity into a more complex character, and develops the ability to make fun of others.

Hereje: It translates as “heretic,” someone who questions others’ faith or beliefs. Don Quijote calls Sancho “hereje” when he dares questioning the beauty of Dulcinea del Toboso. Those who read the book must have noticed that there’s nothing that gets don Quijote more out of his mind than disbelieving Dulcinea’s greatness and unparalleled beauty!

Interesting and unusual as these words may sound, they lose some of their impressiveness when contrasted with the compound insults, which are capable of triggering laugh-out-loud pure bliss. Here are some of my favorites:

Monstruo de naturaleza: This expression can be translated as “freak of nature”, a monster, an anomaly. No idea if the insult has any connection to the famously grotesque physique of Sancho, or if it refers to more intrinsic aspects of the squire’s personality. It’s good no matter the interpretation.

Depositario de mentiras: This is a very fancy way to call somebody a liar. Literally “depositario” means “keeper” or “custodian,” and “mentiras” translates as “lies.” So, I guess, if you are a custodian of lies, it means that you have plenty of those on your repertoire, which you zealously protect.

Publicador de sandeces: Literally, publisher of nonsense. So someone who is accused of publishing nonsense, and who’s not -like Sancho- in the publishing industry, must be a person who propagates, disseminates nonsensical information or thoughts. In other words, a huge liar!

Pan mal empleado: You gotta love this one! Literally, wrongfully-utilized bread. Wait, what? I think it refers to being a waste of some sort, but I wouldn’t bet on the meaning of this phrase. Just take it as the beauty it is.

Animo de ratón casero: This last one is pure gold. It means, the spirit or mood of a household mouse. Excuse me? Well, considering that a household mouse is invasive, opportunistic and sneaky, having the spirit of a household mouse cannot be a good thing.

Well, it’s all I have for now! I hope the terminology and phraseology of don Quijote inspires you to reevaluate your own insulting ability or, at the very least, put a wide smile on your face. Hasta pronto.

Monica is a translator at the New York County District Attorney’s Office, copy editor at Spanish in Context, adjunct lecturer at CCNY, and former Spanish Instructor at Berges Institute

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