thermostatIs it getting super hot where you live, too? Ugh. Today and yesterday I went on walks that were more than an hour, and I got home absolutely drenched in sweat. It doesn’t help matters that I’m in a new house (which I adore!) and can’t figure out the thermostat, meanwhile my roommate’s out of town for the week. Suffice it to say, I’m seriously thinking of sleeping in the kitchen tonight– the only room in the house with a fan. Pajamas completely optional.

As it happens, today the word thermostat came up at work and I drew a total blank. The doctor was talking about the thyroid gland, and at one point he said that he likes to think of the thyroid as our body’s thermostat. Hmm. Didn’t know that one, so I just explained it. Can’t say I ever touched or even saw a thermostat in Colombia. Nor do thermostats come up often in books or music. ♫ Oh, it was first love by the thermostat, baby, ooh ooh ooh 

I remembered it later in the day, and the Honduran guy I was talking to didn’t know how to say it either. Then someone looked it up: termostato 

Termostato? Sometimes Spanish is just way TOO EASY, as if we couldn’t handle a real word. Is Spanish mocking me? Nah, I prefer to think of it as Spanish doing me another one of her favors. Isn’t she sweet?

While I had my tail between my legs for not knowing how to say thermostat in Spanish, my Honduran friend made me feel better by reminding me that you don’t see thermostats in Latin America because hardly anyone has central heating or air. Excellent point! How had it not occurred to me earlier? The same thing happens when someone peskily insists on a translation for something like a driveway or water fountain. Sure, words exist, but it’s not quite as easy as you might think it should be because these things just aren’t very common in that part of the world (at least in my experience). Can you think of other examples of household words that aren’t culturally relevant in Latin America? (Can’t be food) What about the other way around? I think of the celadores and their little casetas in the neighborhoods of Bogotá. An easy, elegant translation escapes me, but kudos to you if you could translate these ideas at the drop of a hat.

Sometimes it can even be kind of satisfying to be able to say that you can’t really capture something with a translation. To be able to say, well, if you want to experience the ineffable richness of our world, you’re just going to have to learn our language. Your language just won’t do. Not that a thermostat is some deep cultural experience, but I will say that tonight I am valuing it much more than usual now that it’s being all wonky on me. Maybe I will need to write a song to the termostato to thaw him out and get him to warm up to me (and cool down my house!). At least I know how to address him now, and so do you.

19 responses to “Thermostat

  1. As a general rule, words that have latin or ancient greek origins (like thermostat, coming from ancient greek thermόs, which means “hot”) generally translate quite directly into Spanish.
    Just like thermometer -> termómetro; or schizophrenia -> esquizofrenia
    There is, of course, a lot of medical terms with ancient greek roots (Hippocrates legacy!).


    • Thanks very much for the explanation! I see that I would have been wise (or perhaps lucky) if I’d ventured a guess, but I generally avoid doing that for obvious reasons, especially at my job.


  2. I know, sometimes Spanish seems deceptively easy– (what?? so many words are the same!?) and then sometimes I feel like I’m not getting any better! But after ~6 weeks in Ecuador I definitely have improved. Write that song!


    • Yes, it does seem crazy to me sometimes how similar they are when I stop and think about it. I am definitely all about focusing on the positive! (As opposed to all the people who love to moan about how hard Spanish is) Keep up the good attitude and hard work :)


  3. Rosa de los Vientos

    Aquí en España se usa mucho.


  4. This is an excellent observation on the difference between languages. I can’t think of any right now, but I have definitely been in this situation, finding words that are difficult to translate without a bit of explanation. Sometimes people ask me, “How do you say this in French?” And when I give a much longer phrase for the very short expression that they asked for…that’s bound to raise some eyebrows.


    • Thank you– I’m not so sure it’s excellent, but it is an observation :) I definitely could have put much more thought and analysis into the topic. Yes, I love it when a simple request for a translation turns into a mini cultural lesson, but sometimes people just need something short and quick.


  5. On the same note, translating “weather forecast” or “snow day” for Colombian students. Or from the other end, “molinillo” in English. I find this kind of word so fascinating and there are dozens that I can’t think of off the top of my head…


    • Totally! And you went from Bogotá to the coast, so I bet you’ve really run the gamut as far as weather vocab is related. Hmm, for weather forecast I’d say pronóstico and snow day, vacaciones de nieve? Haha, probably all kinds of wrong, but that’s just the first thing I think of. Molinillo? It’s ringing too faint a bell. I first thought whirlwind (but I think that’s remolino) and then windmill, but with no certainty at all. Teach me, what does that mean???

      Also, do people have AC on the coast?


      • Forecast was never so much the literal word as the meaning…explaining that it doesn’t snow EVERY day in winter, for example, and that we can actually predict if it’s going to rain for a few days straight (rather than just looking at the clouds over the mountains that is.)
        Molinillo is the wooden tool used for blending delicious Colombian hot chocolate!
        As far as AC, yes, a lot of offices and schools have it, and nicer hotels of course. Higher strata homes will have it although many people will only turn it on at night. It’s usually just called “aire.”


  6. I tried to come up with a translation for thermostat before continuing and seeing your answer…but I also drew a blank. I guess I only heard my parents say calentador for heating and aire acondicionado for air conditioning….but didn’t actually know the name of the device!


  7. I see that I have a lot of catching up to do, RE: your blogs :)

    The most common situation for using “termostáto” that I can think of is when talking about the engine of a car. Also, when adjusting the temperature of a refrigerator (something had to be wrong with it, I guess).

    When thinking of words that I could not translate easily, I remember trying to translate “idle speed.” Had to look it up: “velocidad de ralentí.” Which, of course, brings up “idling.” I would have to say, “estacionado y con el motor encendido.” Pretty complicated. I see that “ralentí” is the right word but I have never heard anyone saying it.

    For food stuff, even though you said “no food,” I find it funny when asked, how do you say cookie? Galleta. How about cracker? Galleta. You mean a cookie and a cracker is the same thing? I say, of course. One is sweet, the other salty :) How do you say plate? Plato. How about bowl (and in a soup bowl)? Plato hondo. You don’t have a word for bowl?


    • Hey! I know, it’s that dang Google Reader’s fault. I think the comments lately have suffered, and I’ve definitely missed you. Glad to have you back. You were always one of my favorite batlings :)

      Ralentí? Ha. Never heard it (which, of course, means jack squat). Sounds cool, though, so I wish it were common.

      Believe me, I’ve definitely wasted many a brain cell on the bowl question. In some countries it’s common to say cuenco, tazón or bol, but I think I just heard plato (hondo) in Colombia.


  8. Oh, I feel so welcome here! And almost immediately, I commit a blunder, writing termostato with a tilde. I then follow this act by making fun at somebody for writing “word” instead of “world.” Like you said in that post, un burro hablando de orejas. Good thing I seem to be in good terms with the head honcho here. El capo (I should say “La capa,” but I don’t remember seeing that term in the feminine form).


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