You should not borrow that!

Here is Sara Sánchez-Molina Santos’s second blog post:

Should we blame on language users the borrowing of words from other languages? Are speakers mistaken when they borrow words that are apparently already present in the language? Is this a new phenomenon?

Some time ago, I came across this opinion article about the borrowing of the word spoiler into Spanish with the meaning given in the online Oxford Dictionaries under entry 1.3: “A description of an important plot development in a television show, film, or book which if previously known may reduce surprise or suspense for a first-time viewer or reader”. The author of the article, Álex Grijelmo, argues against the use of this word for two reasons: there are words/expressions in Spanish that already cover this meaning and, secondly, the way it is used in Spanish is wrong.

Interestingly, Grijelmo is not against borrowing words that are needed. He praises the borrowing of the word fútbol ‘football’ since there was no lexical item covering that concept in Spanish (the word balompié [balón ‘ball’ + pie ‘foot’] is a calque from the English word and it was coined after the entrance of that term into the language (DLE 2016)). However, he does not feel the same way about the word spoiler. He mentions that Spanish has a wide range of terms and expressions to imply this meaning: no me estropees el final ‘don’t ruin the end of the film for me’ , no me cuentes cómo termina ‘don’t tell me how it ends’, or no me destripes la película lit.’don’t gut the film to me’ (destripar means “to gut” in Spanish). I personally believe that the use of the word spoiler is not threatening the use of any of these expressions. Moreover, I do not think that the way speakers use it is wrong. It normally occurs in sentences with the verb hacer ‘to do’ such as, “no me hagas un spoiler” (‘don’t do a spoiler to me’). However, Grijelmo points out that spoiler can only function in English both as a noun and as an adjective referring to the person that tells the end of the story (I did not find this definition neither in the Oxford dictionaries online, nor in the Cambridge dictionary). But he understands spoiler in the sentence above as referring to the person for whom the film is being ruined. In my opinion, that is not the way most people use this word either in English or in Spanish, but they use it in the same way as the definition given by Oxford (at least, that’s how I use it!).

So, are we facing a case of overproscription? I would say so. But, is this a new practice among language sticklers? Probably not. As pointed out in this other article from 2011, also from El País, about the adaptation of Anglicisms to the Spanish orthography (for instance, the author talks about the failed attempt to introduce güisky for ‘whisky’ or pirsín for ‘piercing’), lexical borrowings have always raised controversy among language purists. Thus, if today we see purists complaining about the introduction of unnecessary English words into Spanish, in the eighteenth century it was the  adoption of French words that caused the debate (and, these words are now very entrenched in the language, e.g. detalle ‘detail’, favorito ‘favourite’). Similar to the case of spoiler is the case of restaurante ‘restaurant’; there were already words referring to the place where food is served (words that are still used in Spanish as mesón ‘tavern, inn’, casa de comidas lit. ‘house of meals’), but, speakers borrowed this word anyway (according to Corominas 1980 :1099, the Academia already presented and entry in the dictionary for this word in 1817) . Probably, the reason behind this may be that French was considered a more sophisticated language at that time, as José Antonio Pascual explains in the article. And the same with spoiler nowadays, speakers may see English as a more modern language.

I think is a mistake to blame speakers for the borrowing of words. The history of language is probably full of examples like this and some words stayed and adapted to the language of adoption (phonetically and orthographically), but others did not stay long. In any case, lexical borrowing has not threatened the life of languages so far. So, why should borrowing be a matter of proscription?

A final question, are borrowings only a matter of concern among Spanish language purists or is there any particular loanword in English that especially worries or worried language guardians?


Corominas, Joan (1980) Diccionario Crítico Etimológico de la lengua Castellana. vol. 3 Madrid: Gredos.

British and world English Dictionary online. Oxford Dictionaries online. Oxford: Oxford          University Press

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One Response to You should not borrow that!

  1. Alon Lischinsky says:

    Minor nitpickery: the forms advocated by the RAE are güisqui (as ⟨k⟩ does not occur natively in Spanish) and pirsin (since the word has paroxytone accent).

    Otherwise, spot on.

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