by María L. Trigos-Gilbert

When we think about a verbal crime, we reject the thought because indeed it doesn’t seem a bit realistic. It is as when you look at a person with eyes like bullets. If looks could kill, the world’s amount of people would be near to the number zero. Yet the question is still pending: What’s a verbal crime? It’s when one uses the wrong word to describe or to define someone or something. Of course, I’m not talking about those times when we forget the exact word that our mind searches. I’m talking about when we intentionally ill-use adjectives, nouns, and even verbs to approach any given subject, person, or situation.

The Other Side of the Coin
To be politically correct doesn’t always help. When a crime takes place the defender or the prosecutor tries to find the right answer for the case in matter. Little would lawyers worry about being politically correct. A person’s life, whether the death penalty or time in jail, hangs on the most so-called insignificant details. After one looks at the big picture, one studies the parts that make the whole issue. As I said, lawyers go into all that trouble because most crimes threaten one’s freedom or life. Yet do we always analyze every given subject with such pulchritude? If your answer is yes, I congratulate you since you are one of those rare persons found on this earth. For the most part, we don’t act at all times like investigators in a crime.

How Masculine or Feminine Is a Language?
Visualize this: A lady enters an office at her work place; she sees that the group in that room is made up of females and males. She asks herself if she should say, “hi guys,” or “hey girls and guys.” For the moment, she thinks that to say, “hi guys,” is clear enough for both sexes. It is beside the point that it seems the quickest way to salute all of them. So she is willing to sacrifice a little misunderstanding she may encounter and addresses the group with the word “guys.” But the more likely scenario is that she may offend some of the women. After all, how would the males react if she said, “hi girls,” to all of them? Would a guy get a bit upset or very upset?

Different Tastes for Different Peoples
There is a saying in the Spanish world that says, “Among colors and flavors, authors seem unidentified.” It’s difficult to please everybody, even though one could try with a lot of enthusiasm and great disposition to make all peoples happy. This is so because in this world there are many types of tastes, desires, and needs. What you may consider a must, I may consider it like a perhaps. It isn’t that your desire or need is less important than mine. The fact tells us that we are alike, but not the same. What may offend you, may satisfy me. So, how should we act? How should we talk without offending people or getting the wrong idea about what is being said? The answers are numerous, but the surest thought guarantees me that we shouldn’t be so sensitive, but sensible.

I’m aware it’s easier to talk than to act. This is why it is so important to think first than to talk without any previous thought. If we could think as fast as our mouths speak, we could save ourselves from many headaches and misunderstandings. Yet I have always thought that misunderstandings are like grass. It, grass, grows everywhere in spite of care or weather’s factors. Confusion gets out of hand most of the time unintentionally. The contrary is being arrogant or morbid. The trick is, if there is one, in realizing when one offends another person, and doing something to remedy the embarrassing or sad event. There have been many opportunities when I am trying to say one thing in English using an inappropriate word, puzzling my audience. When I get a funny look, I ask to please repeat what I just said. If the person repeats a completely different concept, I excuse myself and give it another try.

Certainly my case’s certitude is due to English is my second language, and Spanish my first. At times people laugh with me and at me. I rejoice in my mistakes if and only if I learn to correct them. Otherwise, I feel awkward, but I always keep in mind that my English acquisition has taken me a good while which will still last until the very day I die. When someone says something new to me in English, I know that I am like a pineapple under one’s arm, painful and uncomfortable. Yet I ask the person to explain and spell the word for me, besides giving me another example that will help me to catch on with the correct use of this new word in my vocabulary. Nevertheless, I have found myself a bit tired and careless in the English language when I have had a difficult or busy day. That’s normal; we aren’t so eager learners all the times.

Conflicting Translations
Go Inside Magazine publisher David Boles sent me a Wired News article about the Spanish government requesting Microsoft change the Spanish entries in Microsoft’s new Spanish dictionary program. The dictionary diminishes women. For instance, when you look up the word Jefa, you will get an amusing translation of the word. In a normal Spanish dictionary Jefa means a female boss, no more no less. Yet the Microsoft Spanish dictionary gives it another very different connotation. Let me give you the exact words which the Microsoft Spanish dictionary uses:

“Ansiosa” is used in such a dictionary like a nymphomaniac, lecherous, and sexually avid female. Ansiosa or ansioso (the first one being female and the second one being male) means anxious.

You may be nervous, and this may be causing you some anxiety. It may be good, or it may be bad, depending on the case. No wonder, women in Spain complained as much as the Spanish government did. Now, let me specify here something pretty important. The Spanish government means Spain’s government. It isn’t that the whole Spanish world, or all Spanish speakers gathered to talk it over or complain about it.

Wired mentioned three more examples of the Microsoft Spanish dictionary translations of the following words:

Ansiosa, a female anxious (the one just mentioned above in this article).
Ligera, a female who is frivolous, vain, conceited, coquettish, dissolute, unfaithful, deceitful, or seductress.
Jefa, a female boss who is owner, mistress, or patron.
(Note: The real meaning of ligera, which is in this case a Spanish female adjective, means light, easy, trivial, and even nice. For a certain amount of years, in English and in Spanish, people have linked the word with easy women, almost like prostitutes. That’s the only foundation that I am able to conceive from Microsoft’s concept of the word light in Spanish.)

Languages and Dictionaries
What do I have to say about all these? Hum, wow, those are my astonished sounds, almost speechless and unwritten-but not quite. Before I go on, I will put it as simple as I am able to do so. There are two kinds of dictionaries:

A). The one that we buy in bookstores, with the so-called right meanings.
B). The one that we hear in the street, at work, or at home, besides school.

Type A is necessary for everyday life. We all have word codes. When I say, “hello,” you don’t have to wonder about the meaning. You know that I am saying hi, hey, or something in between those lines. If someone says, “Wow,” we know that it’s a sound of astonishment, surprise, confusion, or excitement for good or for bad. There we need a bit of elaboration. We understand the sound, but now we are hoping to hear something that will make sense to match the sound. The point is that you don’t have to break your head in order to understand what is being said most of the time because you and everybody else know the meaning of those words.

Type B complicates things because now it isn’t what any given dictionary says, but what people believe and practice in their everyday life. Here you may encounter that cool is not icy, but fun or great. Another interesting example is the word bull. If you say to a friend, “Oh come on, that’s bull,” we all know that you don’t mean that there is a bull in the house, in the car, or wherever you and your friend may be. You mean something like this, “Oh come on, that’s nonsense.” Yet, if you look up the word bull in a dictionary, you will find that it is a male animal, a Taurus, and so on. Languages change with time. That’s okay; we shouldn’t be so concerned in how a language gets corrupted. Languages don’t get corrupted. Languages are born, change, and then die. The best example is Latin. Yes, you may find it important to understand the roots of the English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish languages, or even more. Now the truth of the matter is that you won’t find a single person speaking Latin to another person in the normal and pragmatic world.

Life’s Span of Languages
When I was growing up, my Spaniard and Venezuelan aunts got a bit concerned that the Catholic church was leaving out so much of the remaining Latin in their services and Bibles. They had to learn a lot of Latin in the past. When I was a teenager, it was unthinkable to mention to anyone that you decided to become a Latin teacher. People started sensing that Latin was agonizing. Nowadays, the Latin language is dead. Certainly I will find it very amusing if I get an e-mail telling me that so isn’t true. Well, if you know about any country that speaks Latin as their main language, let me know. That will be a giant news to my knowledge. I have been an advocate that languages need to adapt to peoples’ times. Think about the King James Bible version. Who uses it? Scholars, elderly citizens, and Bible fan lovers. Am I on the right track? I think so as far as I am concerned. Look around in your church if you attend one. Teenagers have NIV versions and from then on youth types of Bible versions. Why does it happen? It happens because languages change, meanings increase or decrease. So people try to find something that will adapt to their vocabulary. Because whatever is written, must have a meaning to its reader. Otherwise, let’s call it a waste of time and effort.

Languages for People and Not People for the Languages
I am not so opposed to changes in languages because they reflect a society’s values, desires, and are aligned in tenses-past, present, and future. The best way to find out how our society in this USA is changing its way of talking, is to hang around young people. When these young people become women and men, you will find out that some of their slang is dead or a bit forgotten. Yet there is always a new generation setting the standards. We may fight against those changes as much as we wish. Yet they impose themselves in one way or another without any notice. The same deal happens in the Spanish world. Changes come and go. What was important or cool today, isn’t cool years later. I remember that in Venezuela there was a very liked novelette which the Venezuelans loved because it had a lot of slang in it. So they started the fad expression of saying, “¿Qué tapa sopa?” Literally it means, “What covers the soup?” Its meaning was, “so what’s up?” This English expression may not have made any sense years ago, but for a good while people all over the USA get the point. People respond, “I’m doing pretty good. What about yourself?” They won’t be so perplexed if someone asks, “What’s up?” rather than, “How are you doing?”

Who are Microsoft Translators? Any ID?
Now as far as the Microsoft Spanish dictionary, the question is the following: Where do they get that idea or those ideas about describing females or defining them in such terms? It’s simple; they may not just be giving the facts, but the feelings. For example, if you have a female boss who is bossy, you will find that many people describe her like a bitching boss. The word bitch isn’t nice besides the point that you will hardly, if not never, find a worker describing his male bossy boss like a bitching boss. The other matter of the concept that’s within the word female boss, is what a husband expresses. If you invite a husband to a dinner with his family, he may tell you to ask the boss in order to get an okay. At times people picture the word this man is referring to his wife like a bossy word rather than just the simple connotation that it implies, being in charge of something or someone.

Type Vs. Stereotype
Some people live stereotyping rather than getting the facts. Dear reader this brings inevitable disasters. Let me explain this with an example. Around six years ago, I met a North American in Venezuela, (I am not talking about my husband, by the way). So this North American, my friend, asked my husband and me to help him find a Venezuelan wife. Then in my car he told me, “Do you know why I want a Venezuelan wife?” I looked at him very puzzled and told him, “I don’t have a single clue. Care to explain?” He said, “Yes…Well, aren’t you Venezuelan women passionate, extroverted, beautiful, faithful…? Know what I mean?” I said, “Oh yes, I know what you mean, but what in the heck has given you those foolish ideas?” He said, “Do what?” His question wasn’t with a tone of surprise, but with a tone of panic. He felt that if those adjectives didn’t describe Venezuelan women, he was in trouble or at the wrong place.

I laughed very much at the whole conversation. Yet I told him, “Oh my friend, there is a lot to talk before we start this Venezuelan woman hunt for you.” I explained to him that yes, Venezuelan women seem very eager and energetic in our truthful talk. I also told him that people weren’t robots, and that he knew it. Some Venezuelan women are all what he described and a lot more. Some Venezuelan women are close to what he said. Yet there are some Venezuelan women who wouldn’t fit his picture. They may be passionate, but not that kind of tropical passionate. They may be extroverted, but not super extroverted. They may be beautiful, but not the kind of beauty that he was seeking. They may be faithful if they have the right guy and engaged or married for love, not money or sexual desires. Ultimately what a person describes as beauty, I or you may find it ugly. What a person describes as smart, you or I may find it absurd. Why would this happen? It happens because we have different tastes, goals, needs, and desires.

Microsoft’s Unintentional Harm, Perhaps
I have come to the conclusion that the Microsoft Spanish dictionary didn’t mean to offend Latin women. They were supposed to gather a lot of information before writing the Spanish program dictionary, but ultimately as S. I. Hayakawa wrote in the short essay How Dictionaries Are Made, “A writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver.” I couldn’t have said it better or shorter or sweeter. This essay should be read by all of us because it helps us to understand how a writer of a dictionary comes to certain conclusions about so many words the jargon that we use as well as the one we don’t. This is why we start using some words and leave out some other words. What we want is to be understood, we don’t want to offend someone because of the misuse of a word.

Latin Women’s Position
Certainly it makes me wonder if women in the Latin world are viewed less than men just because they are women. Therefore, is to be a female boss something less than being a male boss? I don’t think so. If it happened in the past, at this end of the twentieth century, Latin women aren’t given lower status in society. Whether they are in Latin America, Spain, or any other Latin country, they are standing for their rights. At times I am very surprised to hear the things while attending college courses. I remember a man in one of my English classes. He literally said, “No way that we would ever have a female for president of the USA.” To be honest, I never argue when I know that my possible rival has made up his or her mind. I dislike pretty much to waste my time, saliva, and energy for a unworthy individual. This is besides the point that when people ask me or affirm to me that Latin men are the macho-men type. I am most of the time a little amused because in my house my parents were the boss. My mother has had an excellent position at home, and so has my father during all these years. Even more my mother wouldn’t stand for less, and my father wouldn’t give less.

Latin American Women Submissive?
I don’t have a clue of what people talk about when they ask, “Aren’t you guys supposed to be submissive?” I usually respond to that question with the following, “Are you a rebel?” Needless to say, this makes them nuts. Submissive is to be agreeable, tractable, tame, and so on. If you are a rebel, you are a person whose faith is lacking, having a pale faith in life and in people. Am I a submissive American Spaniard woman? Well, if one is kind toward me, of course, I am going to be submissive, though I won’t tolerate crazy commands. There is something that women and men have, brains. Thus one’s superiority isn’t determined by a dictionary’s definition as it is also true that our inferiority isn’t a matter of a person’s role in society. Superiority lays in the fact that one must carry out his or her role with determination, enthusiasm, imagination, and last but not the least with truthfulness.

Let’s Call for the Union
This shouldn’t be a war between men and women, but a cause between human beings who shouldn’t attempt the thought of living without either gender, male or female. Many have been taught to associate all life’s beauty with women, and all life’s strength with men. I don’t see a problem in that as long as we recognize there are exceptions to the rule. I encourage you to read Alleen Pace Nilsen’s essay, Sexism and Language. This author gives a clean report and insight of English language development. There you will find that degrading terms for females aren’t a today’s news, but indeed a long journey over a prolonged period of time. The author notices how women in our society are associated with animals in the most unpleasant connotations. For instance, one of the essays examples makes allusion to the expression, “Son of a bitch.” The author tells us that this in reality doesn’t apply to the individual who is being addressed, but to the mother of the one addressed. It’s sad when I ponder about that expression, associating it with a mother who doesn’t have a clue about her son’s wrong doing at the very moment when it’s taking place.

Cursing One’s Mother
I remember that I quite well understood the meaning of that awful expression when I just came to North America. I once said to a friend, “If a person gets called that in Venezuela or Spain, the one saying it will certainly be very hurt by the receiver.” She laughed and said, “Why? That isn’t so important here.” I said, “Well, in Venezuela and Spain to say so to a person is to be looking for serious troubles. We give our mothers’ names the highest honor. We respect our parents dearly. We wouldn’t allow anyone to curse us with such words. Mothers in Latin countries are very meaningful. I don’t understand how would a person here say so to another without being hurt or being cursed back.” My friend and I came to the conclusion that what is important in one part of the world, doesn’t matter somewhere else.

This isn’t to say that I’m not aware that this isn’t always the case since I have found people here in the USA who have gotten pretty aggravated just by hearing those words.

More Thoughts about Microsoft Spanish Dictionary
I find the Microsoft Spanish dictionary to be a global image toward women, rather than a matter of how Latin women are believed to be in their Latin countries by men or by women. One thing I have observed: Women are viewed many times like convenient objects: Either sweethearts, or old ladies. A friend told me recently that a survey of men in the South discovered they love to call their spouses “my old lady.” My friend is a preacher, and he was disgusted to read that kind of survey. I asked him, “So talking about old lady, how is your old lady?” We laughed quite a bit, and ended with a truism, “Women are human beings and should be treated with a lot of respect.” We didn’t say it, but the same applies to men. They too, need to be treated with respect. Women shouldn’t read between the lines of what’s being said, but get the point. Women shouldn’t become paranoid about certain adjectives, but instead respond with positive thoughts. I think that past generations as well as this generation are full of great women who have contributed a lot to their societies.

Native Foreign Language Teachers in the Classrooms
It is so important to have a native speaker of each language in foreign languages departments in the schools of this country. Native people don’t just give grammar lessons, but the real senses of the words. They contribute with practical examples rather than giving boring facts that no one swallows. Don’t take me wrong: I’m not saying that formal education isn’t necessary. I’m saying that formal education combined with everyday life is the best knowledge that one can hold. You just don’t learn how to say, “hola, ¿cómo estás?” but “¿Qué me cuentas?” “¿Qué tal está tu vida?” All those are different ways of saying in Spanish, “Hello, how are you? What’s up? How’s life?”

We Are the Product of our Values
Traits aren’t luck’s results. We act in a certain way because we have been practicing what we believe to be the most important values in our lives. If at home mom gets good treatment, she will feel that the world should treat her with respect. The world isn’t a crazy puzzle with lost parts. If we could realize that what happens in North America makes a difference in other countries, we will be a bit more careful with our words and actions. It’s also important to understand that other cultures’ failures and triumphs affect North America as much as North America affects, for good or bad, other cultures.

One little giant detail we must never forget is this: Actions speak louder than words, but there are some words that we can’t take back if they speak vivid examples. With this thought in mind, I expect Microsoft to revise a bit closer those adjectives and nouns in question given to women in their Spanish dictionary. This is a humble request; it shouldn’t be too much to ask.