HOLA CABRON by David Arthur Walters
On the relevance of goats and cuckoos
Mexican friends of mine often call me “goat” in Spanish. I thought it was an affectionate term. Just last Sunday I overheard a Hispanic man answering his cell phone on South Miami Beach. He boomed, in friendly Spanish, “Hola, cabron!” (Hello, goat!)
However, my new friend Carlos, a Dominican-American from Manhattan, was angered because I strolled up and greeted him thus when his ex-wife was visiting him last week. After he calmed down. I explained that I thought ‘goat’ was a pet name. His wife was grinning from ear to ear.
“No, it is an insult to call a man a goat,” he vehemently said, and noted that some Dominicans would punch me out for using that dirty word. After his wife left, Carlos said cabron means a guy’s wife is running around on him and he doesn’t do anything about it. I profusely apologized and made myself scarce.
The more I thought about the affectionate way my Mexican friends called me a goat, and Carlos’s angry reaction to the word, the more curious I became – I am single, by the way – so I asked a Columbian friend of mine about the meaning of the word:
“Don’t say that. It’s a very dirty word.”
“Does it refer to a man whose wife is running around on him?” I asked.
“No,” she answered, “it is a dirty word. In English it means (expletives deleted). You use that, it will be big trouble for you.”
“But,” I insisted, “my Dominican friend told me it has something to do with goat behavior, the way goats run around on their wives.”
“No. It has nothing to do with that,” she insisted. “What is the English word for that?”
“The English word is ‘cuckold’. Now that I think of it, I’ve heard something about goats in English, about a husband being horned because his wife is cheating, meaning she made a goat out of him.”
“The word is about a kind of cuckoo bird that runs around on her mate, but he does nothing. So they say a man has been cuckolded or that his wife made a cuckoo out of him. ”
“Cuco. I understand.”
“If you call an American a cuckold he might be insulted, but it is not a fighting word like (expletives deleted).”
That made her laugh.
“We don’t use cabron that way. Here, I have a book in Spanish for you to read,” she said, handing me a paperback book by Julio Cortazar. Even if you don’t understand everything, keep reading and you will learn many things. I have a dictionary for you somewhere.”
Someday I will take a Spanish class, I thought as I trudged home. Just going around and asking people one word at a time is fun, but is not the best way to learn a language. Nevertheless, I went over to Kafka’s Kafe, an Internet cafe on Washington Avenue, later that evening and asked a friend from Argentina:
“Does cabron mean a man whose wife runs around on him and he does nothing?”
“No, that is a bad word – what do you say? curse word?”
“I think cabron originally meant a goat or a husband whose wife cheats, and later on it became a cuss word,” I expounded.
“Yes, cuss word, that is it. The word you want is cornudo. It means the horns have been put on somebody. ”
“Mira, mira, look at this!” I exclaimed – I had just ran a search on the word at Google. “This site about Puerto Rico says the first definition is, ‘A man who lets his girl cheat on him is a cabrón’. And it can be used to show affection for friends.”
“Hmmm. That is in Puerto Rico. It is bad word in Miami. We don’t use it.”
“I hear friends calling each other that.”
“They must be Puerto Ricans.”
“They use a lot of bad words. But their Spanish is good.”
I had heard just the reverse about Argentinians, from Cubans. I had to consult a dictionary at the main library the next day. Not that a dictionary is a reliable teacher, but at least it represents some sort of standard that people without certified professional teachers can refer to when in doubt. I looked up cabrón in Real Academia Espanola’s Diccionario de la Lengue Espanola (1984):
- Macho de la cabra. 2. fig. y vulg. El que consiente el adulterio de su mujer. 3. El casado con mujer adulteria. 4. El que agaunta corbardamente los agravios o impertinencias de que es objecto. 5. El que hace cabronadas o malas pasadas a otro.
That is a very dignified way, I thought, of defining a “vulgar” figure of speech. Number 4 is my favorite: Latins can be so macho! Okay, if one believes a goat has dirty habits, I supposed, then calling someone a goat might make the word a dirty word. But still it is hardly an obscene word, at least not in the sense of the various English expletives offered to me as synonyms. Perhaps I need a Spanish slang dictionary. In any case, I don’t think I will use “Hola, cabron!” as my answering message.
Note: The author begs the reader’s pardon for his impertinencias if he has omitted pertinent diacritical marks. There is too much to remember with Spanish! For instance, cinco años means “five years”, whereas cinco anos means “five asses”. Besides, the browsers often make muck of letters with diacritical marks.
Miami, July 2005