Language · Notes from West London

Veiculo Longo

Earlier this week while driving down the A40 to collect my son from school, through the tunnel under the Hanger Lane Gyratory and past the Hoover Factory, I spent five minutes or more behind a Portuguese truck. It had a sign on the back that read “Veiculo Longo”. It’s a phrase I have seen before, and assume that it’s the Portuguese for “Long Vehicle”. It always brings a smile to my face. It looks like the kind of made-up phrase “The Fast Show” might have included in their Euro-TV spoofs about Channel 9. It could have featured alongside “Bono estente”, “Scorchio” and “Hethethethetheth Pethethethetheth”.

It also reminded me of my father’s view of Spanish as a language: you can stick an “o” at the end of most English words to make the Spanish equivalent. He travelled to Spain twice in the 1980s, once for my brother’s wedding (15 or more of us travelled from the UK and Ireland for that one) and again for my niece’s baptism (just him and me that time). While he was putting his theory into practice I was struck by how few words can be translated from English to Spanish simply by putting an “o” at the end. Breado, beero and cheeso are not the Spanish words for bread, beer and cheese. The usual words are pan, cerveza and queso. Buttero does not mean butter and nor does burro. As we learnt from “Fawlty Towers” back in the 1970s burro is Spanish for donkey. Their word for butter is mantequilla.

I discussed all this again with my brother while visiting Spain in August, partly prompted by the handful of words my son learnt while we were there. He learnt one key Spanish phrase this year: “Quiero un helado”, which means “I want an ice cream”. It’s not “Wanto ice-creamo”, it’s “Quiero un helado”, and if you want to include the word “please” you add “por favor” (not “pleaso”).

Offhand I’m struggling to think of any words that can be converted into Spanish by the addition of an “o”. The Spanish word for “problem” is “problema”, not “problemo”, so if you say “no problemo” in Spain you will probably be corrected. Just to confuse things further for those of us who see no good reason for nouns to have gender, “problema” is masculine, even though most Spanish nouns with “a” at the end are feminine. I have been corrected on this one more than once, beginning a sentence with “La problema …” only to be told that it’s “El problema”. Yes, of course it is. And the word for car is masculine in Spain (el coche), feminine in France (la voiture) and neuter in German (das Auto).

“Golfo” in Spanish is not the word for golf, it means gulf or can also mean the kind of person who was described as a “Jack the lad” when my brother was reading Spanish at university. The Carlos Saura movie “Los Golfos” goes by the English title “The Delinquents” according to its IMDB page, here.

“Vehiculo” comes close to conforming to my father’s theory about sticking an “o” at the end of English words to make them Spanish. It’s almost vehiclo. “Veiculo”, on the other hand, is Portuguese, as is the word “longo” (long with an “o” at the end). The Spanish expression for a long vehicle is “vehiculo largo”, so once again the theory falls down. If I discover a hitherto unknown collection of common Spanish words that can been formed by sticking an “o” at the end of their English equivalent I’ll update this piece with them but it seems unlikely.


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