"Do you have any lenguado?" my wife asked the waiter, as we sat at the outdoor fish restaurant on the beach at Vila Joyosa in Spain. Vila Joyosa is a seaside town a bit south of Benidorm which has been semi-Benidormised - the northern half has been turned into blocks of flats and hotels, and the southern half is still the wonderful old town, great beach and higgledy-piggledy sea front. Go while stocks last.
"No, we have no lenguado," said the restaurant manager, called to adjudicate. "No sole today. But! But we do have some lovely gallo, which is like sole and even better!"
My wife tends to think that nothing is better than sole (Dover sole, that is, not lemon sole, which she doesn't rate highly unless it's very, very fresh) so she was tempted to try gallo, even when the waiter said, "As long as it's no longer singing, eh!"
"What's he on about?" she asked.
"I've no idea," I said, looking at my Spanish phrase book furtively and futilely under the table. It gave lots of fish names, but not gallo.
But then, isn't that always the way? The local fish and fruit and puddings have names that don't translate, because... well, because there isn't an English name. Same the other way round. What is the Spanish for "kipper"? Or "spotted dick"? Well, then. There isn't a Spanish word for "kipper", any more than there's one for "haggis". And there's no English word for the fruit called a chato.
I had never seen a chato, till we stopped at the fruit stall on the road down to Altea. We had really only stopped to get oranges for squeezing, but the nice old couple who ran the stall made us try this funny-looking fruit, shaped a bit like a ring doughnut, or an apple on which a very heavy man had sat. It was sensational. Like the very best peach. We bought a bag full.
"Como se llama, esta fruta?"
"It's called a chato, the old man told me.
"Is it an old fruit or a new fruit?"
"No idea," said the man, "though I don't remember it from when I was young."
When we got back to the village, we went to the biggest dictionary we could find and looked up gallo. It meant a cockerel. Well, that certainly explained why the waiter said he hoped it had stopped singing, but it didn't explain much else. We looked up chato. It meant "flat, snub-nosed", which wasn't much help either. Isn't that always the way? You look a thing up, and still you don't know what it is in English.
The other way round, too. We looked up "clothes pegs" one day, to buy some in the village shop, and found that they were las pinzas in Spanish. Fair enough. But then my wife asked me, when going to town, to buy her a pair of tweezers from the pharmacy. I looked up "tweezers" in the dictionary and found two words: pinzas and bruselas. Well, pinzas I now knew meant "clothes pegs" so when I got to the chemist I asked her for bruselas.
"What??" she said.
"Bruselas," I said, less confidently. "Isn't there such a word?"
Yes, there was. She described what bruselas looked like. They were clearly Brussels sprouts. I tried pinzas instead. She produced a pair of tweezers immediately. So the Spanish have the same word for "tweezers" and "clothes pegs". There must be some confused conversations in Spanish households.
"Darling, fetch the pinzas, would you?"
"Right... What are you going to do with them?"
"What do you think I'm going to do with them? What does anyone do with pinzas?"
"OK. Here you are..."
"Oh, thanks a million. How the bloody hell am I going to get a splinter out with a clothes peg...?"
When I got home I went out and bought a brand-new Oxford Spanish Dictionary and looked up bruselas and gallo and chato. It's a nice dictionary for lots of other words, but it remained tight-lipped about the connection between Brussels and tweezers, and said "cockerel" for gallo and "snub" for chato. Nothing about fruit or fish. Isn't it always the way ?
Stop press: I have finally run gallo to earth in Alan Davidson's invaluable Mediterranean Seafood and discovered that - despite not being nicer than sole - it is likewise a member of the flatfish family, called a "megrim" or "sailfish" or "fluke", which I think proves one other thing. Even when you do know the English for a word, it's not a lot of help...
Tomorrow: Exclusive to this Column: How to Learn Spanish from the Back of Sugar Packets!Reuse content