Well, here we are at the final letter of the alphabet! The letter Z, which is called “ceta”, is pronounced the same as the letter C when it is found before an E or an I, that is as a soft, unvoiced “th” sound. The Z is always spoken in this way in standard European Spanish, although in South American Spanish it is pronounced as an S, as it is in some areas of Spain, notably Andalucía.
There do not seem to be too many related words between English and Spanish beginning with Z, one of the few being “zoo” from “zoológico”, so rather than pursue that line I have decided to look at a succession of Z words which create a rather mixed bag of vocabulary of general, cultural and linguistic interest!
Let’s start with one all film-goers will be familiar with, the word “zorro” (fox) which is of course the name of the mythical character played in the film by the gorgeous Antonio Banderas. The female of “zorro”, namely “zorra”, therefore means “vixen”, but is actually used in the same way as we use “bitch”, that is to mean a not very nice lady. If you hear the words “¡Qué zorra!” (What a bitch!), walk away quickly and hope it is referring to someone else! Many of us will have heard of the word “zoco” as it is the name given to one or two open street markets along the Costas. In fact “zoco” means an Arab style market. “Zarzuela” is a lovely word. It means a type of Spanish light opera or operetta, which emerged as an alternative to classical opera in Madrid in the 17th century. It still has a big following in Spain. “Zarzuela” is also the name of the palace where the king of Spain lives. There is a type of fish stew called “zarzuela”, although I prefer to think that the king lives in the “operetta palace” rather than the “fish stew” palace!
You might be interested to know that the Shetland Islands are spelt with a Z in Spanish: “Las Islas de Zetlandia”. A curious word for “left-handed” is “zurdo” and equally curious is the word “zueco” which means “clog” as in wooden shoe. You may not be aware that the “zueco” is worn quite commonly in northern Spain. It is a wooden shoe with a heel and two front stilts on the bottom about three centimetres in height. Many of the small villages in Asturias have cobbled paths which get muddy from rain and cattle. There the villagers leave their “zuecos” (which they call “madreñas”) along with their large black umbrella in the front porch of the house and enter wearing the slippers that they also wear inside the “zueco”. There is a whole art to making these items by hand as well which you can still see today.
A brand new Z word introduced into the Spanish language in recent years is “zapear”. This means to “zap”, yes, what you do with those remote controls whilst laying supine on the sofa. The word has obviously been imported for English and the “-ear” ending has turned it into a standard Spanish verb, although I don’t think you’ll find it in any traditional dictionaries with this meaning just yet.
A Z word that appears in the Spanish news quite regularly is “zulo”, which means an “arms cache”. These get discovered from time to time, usually by the Guardia Civil in their operations against the terrorist organization ETA. When they announce the discovery of another “zulo” this is always good news. A word which I think sounds similar, although you may not agree, is “zurrón”. This is means a bag and always conjures up the picture to me of one of those “swag bags” that thieves are supposed to carry. I think this is because many years ago my children had a cautionary story book about a travelling man who put a little girl into a “zurrón” and took her away from her village. I think the story traumatized me much more than it did them.
Another Z word associated with fairy stories, in my mind at least is “zampar”. This means to “gobble up” and is what wolves do to grandmothers and the like.
Still in the world of children, but also with other connotations, is the word “zancadillla”. “Hacer la zancadilla” literally means to “trip someone up” by deliberately putting your foot in their way and making them fall over. Incidentally, if you look up the word in Google images you will see lots of pictures of naughty footballers tripping each other up and one lovely picture of a couple of penguins appearing to do the same thing!
Now for that last Z word which you never wanted or needed to know, “zanja” meaning “ditch”. You never know, you might be grateful for that information one day.
Jane Cronin, Spanish Classes and Talks.
Tel 968 183 258