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Why Words Matter

Several years ago I was sitting down at a cafe in Los Angeles on sweltering hot July day. The sun was blazing, the service unbearably slow, and the only thing on my mind besides a pounding headache was the desperate need for a tall cool drink of water.


After being ignored the umpteenth time by a waiter far too engaged in the screen of his cellphone than doing his job, I huffed out of my seat and saddled up to the counter to place my order inside.


Behind the tall refrigerated counter, standing like two paternal nesting dolls in matching red vests, were a man and woman of Mexican descent. Eager to practice my freshly taught Spanish, I leaned over the counter and in my perfected Castellaño accent I asked, “Perdona me, puedo cojer una botella de agua por favor?”  English translation: Excuse me, can I get a bottle of water please?

Oh, how proud I was of myself.

Instead of responding, the pair stared back at me. Their eyes motionless as if we had entered a blinking contest. After what seemed to be a painfully long silence, the pair peeled their eyes off of me and onto each other. Their mouths twitched until their lips couldn’t take it any longer. Together their bodies heaved in a mountain of muffled laughter.

Across the counter, I too, was overcome with the eruption building inside me. My face flushed, my heart began thumping louder, and my head groaned as I became painfully aware something was seriously lost in my translation.  Never one to shy away from playing the a blubbering fool while practicing another language, I dug in my heels, loosened my lips and tried again. This time I enunciated each word just in case my Spanish accent wasn’t as great as I remembered.


“Puedo COJER una BOTELLA de AGUA, por FAVOR?”


Their response? Four arched eyebrows, two cocked smiles, followed by another round of infectious giggling.

What was going on here? Was I not speaking their language? My patience was waning. As I open my mouth,  prepared to ask one last time in my surefire native English, the woman reached into the glass case and handed over a freezing cold bottle of water.


I thanked her and took a long hard swig. Victory. The water was so cold it numbed three quarters of my brain.

When I returned to my seat, the bottle of water down to the last sip, I explained to my husband what just happened. He was from Spain, surely he’d shed some light on this frustrating linguistic mystery.


“You used the verb cojer,” he said shaking his head. “That was your problem.”


“But cojer means to take,” I countered.


“Not in Mexico it doesn’t.”


“So then what exactly did I say?”


He paused momentarily, leaned across the table, and quietly revealed, “Cojer means to fuck in Mexico.”


That certainly explained a lot.


Just goes to show, no matter what language–it’s crucial to select your words wisely. Wars and laws have been hinged on words and their definitions. So the next time you sit down to write that email, craft a cover letter, or practice Spanish on an unsuspecting waitstaff, take a pause first and consider what you want to say. Otherwise, instead of asking for a water you could be mistaken for wanting a bottled water for a whole lot more than just its content.

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