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Why mother is a four-letter word in Spanish | Madre, a book review

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When Liza got in touch with us to review ‘Madre’, we were more than happy to comply. After over 9 months in Latin America last year we fell head over heels for Latin culture and couldn’t wait to follow along on Liza’s own journey. Enjoy!

Ranging from ‘b*itch’ to ‘untalented’ to ‘I don’t give a sh*t, the word Madre (Mother) is used in everyday Spanish in hundreds, if not thousands, of negative expressions. From her days living in Mexico and after her return to the U.S.,  author and linguistic anthropologist Liza Bakewell, held countless conversations over the years with a truly eclectic set of friends and academics in attempt to uncover how the word mother became a four letter word.  Witnessing Bakewell’s passion to understand specific aspects of the Spanish language woven in with stories of her time spent in Mexico create an entertaining travelogue, as well as creating a blueprint for anyone who is serious about successfully learning a language. She creates a window into Latino, specifically Mexican, culture by posing questions to various friends and acquaintances that result in heated cultural debate, sharp intellectual discourse and rowdy laughter.

As Bakewell begins a spell in Mexico City, she notes graffiti on a wall which shouts ‘A toda madre o un desmadre’. Although she felt she was fairly fluent, she can only decode the phrase literally as ‘to everything mother or an un-mother,’ which makes no sense. As she spends more time in Mexico,  she discovers that these sayings using the word ‘madre’ make less and less sense to her. Why does ‘des-madre’ (un-mother) describe someone who is a waste of space, and why does ‘me vale madre’ (literally: it is worth mother to me) translate to ‘I don’t give a damn’?

Madre by Liza Bakewell

Bakewell is further incensed when she discovers that the use of ‘padre’, meaning father, is as positive as mother is negative in Mexican slang. Whereas ‘madre’ is used in countless shades of derogatory expressions, the use of Padre is simple: ‘Qué padre’ means ‘how cool’, ‘padre, no?’ means ‘good, right?’, and the superlative ‘padrisimo’ means fabulous.

Readers follow ready and willing along on this journey, which, for such an intellectual travelogue, is jam-packed with a spicy mix of four-letter words as we learn the translations for the plethora of disrespectful terms. The writing is entertaining, the tone is cheeky and yet her anthropological and linguistic research is clearly very serious and logical.

While Madre delves in a very specific aspect of the Spanish language, even non Spanish speakers can be entertained. However one, perhaps unintentional, benefit of reading Madre is that this book holds the key to successful language learning within its pages. There is not one lesson, and that is not the book’s intent. With Madre, Bakewell subtly yet effectively highlights key learning habits for anyone serious about learning a foreign language. Becoming both bilingual and bicultural is made possible not from parroting back words or phrases from the teacher, but from taking an active part in understanding the culture in which each language is spoken. As a (former) English teacher, one of the most difficult hurdles was that while language learners may eagerly come to class with their dictionaries and sharpened pencils at the ready, the key to success is that tenacious mindset to understand the interwoven intricacies of language and culture. Only when you accept that you must learn both can you ever truly master a language.

As we fly off to Thailand next week, I will be taking my own advice to do the best I can to pick up as much Thai as possible from the locals. As Liza Bakewell puts it, language learning truly takes place in ethnographic laboratories – kitchen tables, bars, real life conversations and the subtitle of Madre says it all: You must dive in and take a journey with the language if you truly want to master it.

Pick up your copy of Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun
on Amazon as a hardback copy or the Kindle version of Madre
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Tags : book reviewMadrePerilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun

5 Comments

    1. Thanks Rease! You were right, the links didn’t work but we fixed them now. I think you’d enjoy the book, and you already know so much when it comes to Spanish slang, so it would be right down your alley 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Claire! I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of it either before reading the book… despite studying Spanish for several years! Which shows, there’s always something new you can pick up when learning a foreign language, no matter how fluent you are 🙂

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