May 19, 2008

Word of the Week: Zafacón

So we just happened to start talking about this and I thought posting it was imperative, since it's a real useful word.

Zafacón is the word for trash can. See, I told you it'd be useful. Supposedly it comes from the English "safety can", which is, as far as I can tell, a name for trash cans in labs. We theorized that, since there are so many pharmaceuticals on the island, and they probably had special "safety cans" for the chemicals, they changed the English name into Spanish. Maybe.

There you go.

34 comments:

HEALTH NUT WANNABEE MOM said...

I am so fascinated with language and this is a great word. It is interesting to me how each language can be so similar yet different.

Lapa said...

maybe!

Alegra :) said...

Woww
I'm from Argentina and this is the first time I heard of the word ZAFACON!
It has got no meaning in my country. I guess it just means something in Puerto Rico, doesn't it?

zihn said...

Zafacon does originate from the English term saftey can. Yet from what I have always been told it has nothing to do with the pharmeceutical buisness.

Zafacon can trace its roots back to the early 20th century. When the US cam eto the caribeean and central america they feared malaria with good reason. Spraying liberal amounts of toxic chemicals and basic hygine were seen as the best way to combat the disease. As a result, trash cans in the canal zone in Panama, all over Puerto Rico, and I imangine Cuba were labeled saftey can. These trash cans had locking or latching lids to keep mosquitos out. The word was spanglicized and zafacon was born. It stuck in Puerto Rico, and I believe Panama. Cubans may even use it as may Nicaraguans, but that is about it. It is a word of empire building. Argentinos etc would never use the word. It is a tropical word born from the confluence of malaria, english, and spanish.

Ahora vete, y usa un q-tip pa' lavarte los oidos, y mientras tanto yo voy y le cambio los espares y los shock absorbers al carro antes de ir a darnos un sandwich de pavo en subway--so bago.

An example of how english words are made boricua.

I've always wondered why los boricuas de verdad to add emphasis to a negative trait add the word so--, so cabron, so estupido, so huele bicho, etc. Is this from english too, or some old castillian structure?

Speaking Boricua said...

That is a fascinating story, Zihn! Thanks for sharing; I would have never guessed.

As for "so", I am going to bet it's from English, just because. Unfortunately tracing the etymology of Puerto Rican speech is really difficult, since there's not much interest. I think it's safe to say that "so" is from English, though.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Zihn about zafacón. It has been documented by many.
Manuel Alvarez Nazario wrote a massive book called "Historia de la Lengua Español in Puerto Rico" where he discusses vocabulary, structure and pronounciation. he also wrote books concerning the influence of african languages in puerto rico; another book concering the canary island's linguistic influence and other stuff. There are sources out there, you just have to go to Border's and begin to dig around.
The Spanish word "so" is not derived from english. According to the Real Academica Española it is ultimately derived from the word "Señor". As you said it is used as an intensifier before adjectives. It is only used before derogatory adjectives. It's meaning can therefore be roughly translated as "Mister LazyBones!"
There is a cool advertizing campaign on the television concerning a local paper, "La Primera Hora" in which the paper projects itself as speaking our (Puerto Rican)language. The ad campaign shows non-Puerto Rican Spanish speakers trying to decipher a word that is essentially Puerto Rican, but they can't. The point of the ad is that the paper speaks our language. cool

Speaking Boricua said...

Hey, thanks for the comment, it's very useful. I'm especially excited about the book recommendation; that sounds like something I'll have to pick up once I stop by the island soon. So thank you.

Janine Libbey said...

This is one of my favorites words. I'd love to see you do a post on "party" as in "vamos a un party". I'm curious as to the origin of this usage.

Neffers said...

The origin of zafacon is one of my favorite puerto rican slang stories!


I agree that so, asi in so cabron, must come from the English Language.
Remember you say in English "you're so stupid", so it would make lots of sense

Anonymous said...

What about the word "chequealo", it's like check some thing or examine it.

Saúl said...

Breve aclaración de la palabra Zafacón: Cuando a Puerto Rico llegaron los españoles, con ellos llegaron un gran numero de árabes de forma clandestina justo después de la derrota del dominio árabe en la península ibérica. Con esto quiero decir que a nuestras tierras llegaron no solo los españoles pero también los árabes que inevitablemente influenciaron enormemente nuestro idioma, costumbres y tradiciones. La palabra Zafacón proviene de un pequeño envase de barro que los árabes tenían en la cocina para echar los desperdicios que se les daba a los cerdos. Este envase en árabe se llama Zafaca y el puertorriqueño la convierte en Zafacón. Recuerden, que después del latín el árabe ha sido la lengua que mas ha contribuido a nuestro idioma.
La palabra Zafacón la pueden encontrar por supuesto en el diccionario de la real academia española.

JRamm said...

We use this same word in the Dominican Republic. Must be our close geographical ties. Also "party" and all of the others you've said are used here in this country's Spanish as well.

I've heard the "safety can" story from everyone I've talked to but the story of the Arab word Zafaca seems more legitimate to me. Cool discussion.

Anonymous said...

The arab provenace explanation is suspect. I do not believe they would be raising pigs as it is not permitted in their diet and religion. It is a weak link. Safety can theory is more plausible.

Luis said...

One of the most widespread misconceptions about Puerto Rican Spanish is that everything that sounds kind of weird in it comes from the English language. This is simply not true (not that if it were, there would be something wrong with it). And the case of the word 'zafacón' is a very interesting one. The 'safety can' "hypothesis" is extremely implausible for a set of reasons. First, the word is not exclusive of Puerto Ricans; 'zafacón' is also the term of choice in the Dominican Republic for a trash can. So it is very dubious that the word ORIGINATED in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, the etymology is question assumes that, before the U.S. made its presence felt there, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans were UNABLE to name or to refer to such a basic and daily object as a trash bin or trash can. Somehow, they are supposed to not have had a name for that kind of thing and then they ran to adjust and embrace 'safety can'. (The person who writes about malaria and so on is mistaking the word 'zafacón' with the word Puerto Rican word 'dron' ---'un dron de basura'. This word probably stems form English). A most important detail is the spelling of 'zafacón'. The word begins with a 'z', not with an 's'. If 'safety can' were indeed the origin of 'zafacón', we would also be assuming that both Puerto Ricans and Dominicans misspelled the term they were copying. Please bear in mind that in all of Latin America there is no distinction between the sound for 's' and that for 'z', as there is in Spain; also, the 's' sound is the dominant one. So, it makes no sense that the word begins with 'z' if it comes from English. WHY? WHY would TWO peoples --PRicans and Dominicans make that mistake? It simply makes no sense. It is more likely that the word 'zafacón' originates WITHIN Spanish: see, for instance, the word 'zafarrancho' in the dictionary. I would say that 'zafacón' relates to 'zafarrancho'.

Anonymous said...

Zafacon does not comes from "safety can" it comes from the "Save a can" campaign. Remember the rabbit dressed in a basketball uniform? People started to pronounce Save a can in spanish and it became "seivacan", "savacan" and then safacan and somehow it ended in safacon. Now we know it as zafacon. (by the way it is recognized by the Real Academia de Espanol.)

Anonymous said...

The Arabians that came to PR were christian converts. Zafacon comes from the word zafaca.

ejude83 said...

Estoy de acuerdo con lo que explica Saúl sobre la palabra Zafacón. La explicación alrededor de la falta de distinción entre las s y la z para mí es lo que mas me ha convencido. Pero lo del "so" ¿procedente de la palabra señor? ...mmmm... habrá mas discurso para convencerme a mí.

Anonymous said...

'zafaca' seems like indeed like a winner, if it's the case that such a word exists in Arabic (with that meaning). The 'save a can' pèrson at the end is a beautiful picture of linguistic prejudice: impervious to arguments.

the amazing kabuki said...

On the issue of 'so', e.g. so pendejo, so cabrón, etc., that peculiar usage of 'so' that seems to be exclusive of Puerto Ricans, and which we use ONLY with negative/insulting terms: I must marvel at the fact that nobody here has pointed out that 'so' is one of the prepositions in the Spanish language. It means 'bajo', as in 'so pena de' (under penalty of).It is also built into some verbs, such as 'socavar', 'soterrar', etc. Therefore, these Puerto Rican expressions, 'so pendango', 'so pendejo', and so on, could be considered as being simply a regional twist of the SPANISH PREPOSITION 'so'. Specially, since it is the intensification of a negative (something like saying sub-stupid or, as Spaniards currently say, 'subnormal').
Admittedly, the preposition 'so' has almost vanished from widespread usage, except in the phrase 'so pena de' (legalese).

the amazing kabuki said...

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the amazing kabuki said...

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Anonymous said...

Los moros estuvieron en la Peninsula Iberica por 800 anos +/-, pero no en Asturias, mucho se quedo de estos en "Espana", (que conste, son mini paises), incluyendo el DNA de estos, vean el contraste de la gente, comida, idioma, etc. entre las regiones. En un pueblito llamado CEE, costa noroeste de Espana, tuve el privilegio de conversar con mucha gente y desde ese viaje, el que diga que el boricua habla mal, es un ignorante, diferencia grande entre el lenguaje castellano y el "espanol". Zafacon es utilizado alli, muchas palabras nuestras como Mai, Pai refiriendose a Mama y Papa, y no es que uno se coma las palabras. Segun la historia, unos de los puntos de desembarque en la invasion de los Moros fue por la bahia de Cee.

Tony D said...

I enjoyed all of the "explanations" concerning Zafacon; I would favor the safety can because that is the way my Boricua elders explained it.
I also enjoyed the "so" before the adjective theory. I wonder if the word "canto" as in "so canto de mamao" has the same or similar meaning. Anyone care to elaborate?

Tony D said...

I enjoyed all of the "explanations" concerning Zafacon; I would favor the safety can because that is the way my Boricua elders explained it.
I also enjoyed the "so" before the adjective theory. I wonder if the word "canto" as in "so canto de mamao" has the same or similar meaning. Anyone care to elaborate?

rododendro said...

And how is it, then, that those geniuses who keep insisting in the 'save a can' etimology, will explain the ensuing contradiction; namely, that when you save a can (or anything) what you do is, exactly, not discarding it, not throwing it in the garbage, but placing it somewhere else??

I can't wait for the explanation, which is sure to be mind-blowing, as some people here remain unmoved by arguments.

Tony D said...

Cans were discarded in a special bin so that the metal was used during the war; sort've what we do now in recycling. When PR's saw the words 'save-a-can', they pronounced it as safacon. The point is that that's where cans were discarded. I'm surprised that a seemingly learned person as you think yourself to be did not think this out.
Surely one can agree as well as comprehend the fact that most immigrants have their own accents when trying to pronounce English words. Puerto Ricans living in alphabet city in New York would pronounce the 'lower east side' as Loisaida, so much so that a street marker depicting the word Loisaida has replaced Avenue C.
I'm not a genius like you, but I trust that this explanation hasn't been too argumentative or mind-blowing for you.

Tony D said...

Cans were discarded in a special bin so that the metal was used during the war; sort've what we do now in recycling. When PR's saw the words 'save-a-can', they pronounced it as safacon. The point is that that's where cans were discarded. I'm surprised that a seemingly learned person as you think yourself to be did not think this out.
Surely one can agree as well as comprehend the fact that most immigrants have their own accents when trying to pronounce English words. Puerto Ricans living in alphabet city in New York would pronounce the 'lower east side' as Loisaida, so much so that a street marker depicting the word Loisaida has replaced Avenue C.
I'm not a genius like you, but I trust that this explanation hasn't been too argumentative or mind-blowing for you.

Tony D said...

Cans were discarded in a special bin so that the metal was used during the war; sort've what we do now in recycling. When PR's saw the words 'save-a-can', they pronounced it as safacon. The point is that that's where cans were discarded. I'm surprised that a seemingly learned person as you think yourself to be did not think this out.
Surely one can agree as well as comprehend the fact that most immigrants have their own accents when trying to pronounce English words. Puerto Ricans living in alphabet city in New York would pronounce the 'lower east side' as Loisaida, so much so that a street marker depicting the word Loisaida has replaced Avenue C.
I'm not a genius like you, but I trust that this explanation hasn't been too argumentative or mind-blowing for you.

Tony D said...

Cans were discarded in a special bin so that the metal was used during the war; sort've what we do now in recycling. When PR's saw the words 'save-a-can', they pronounced it as safacon. The point is that that's where cans were discarded. I'm surprised that a seemingly learned person as you think yourself to be did not think this out.
Surely one can agree as well as comprehend the fact that most immigrants have their own accents when trying to pronounce English words. Puerto Ricans living in alphabet city in New York would pronounce the 'lower east side' as Loisaida, so much so that a street marker depicting the word Loisaida has replaced Avenue C.
I'm not a genius like you, but I trust that this explanation hasn't been too argumentative or mind-blowing for you.

Anonymous said...

Safety can lol

A la verdad que cualquiera puede escribir lo que quiera no importa lo loco e irreal que sea. BTW también se me olvida que el lenguaje espa~ol en espa~a no tuvo influencias arabes. No es como si hubiera habido varias invasiones arabes y ciudades controladas por los arabes por decadas y decadas en espa~a...

Anonymous said...

tengo entendido que no viene de los arabes, es africano. La palabra es zafacan lo cal era un envase de barro utilized para echar las sobras de comida para alimentar a los puercos.

Anonymous said...

The correct source of "Safety Can" reference dates back to 1898-99 and the Spanish-American War, when the U.S. Navy established its first base there. Military bases always used safety cans as trash cans -- the metal lid kept all of the contents in, whatever the reason might have been. Thus, the boricua-ized word "zafacon" or "safacon."

Guillaume Doucet said...

The artificial removal of african words in latin american spanish is one of the most common sources of ethyomological confusion in those parts. There is ample proof that zafacon is based on an arabic word, but spaniards of the turn of the 20th century tended to make alternative explanations for some of the most obvious arabic words introduced into their language, like alcova of even alacran, for which you can find ridiculous latinist explanations in 1900s linguistic papers.
A good caribbean example - apart from zafacon - is mangù, a dominican plantain dish. The bantu word mangusi designates the same dish, but local folklore attributes it instead to the 1916 american occupation. The occupying marines are said to have exclaimed "man good" when served the dish, which tranformed into mangu over time. Not likely.
The tendency on the part of post colonial caribbeans to identify with the modern victors, instead of with their arabic or african roots is an ongoing problem, and should be approach with absolute respect for the complex identities of the speakers. If your grandpa told you zafacon is for safety can, the white american dude with a linguistics degree had better be careful on how he postulates that your grandpa is anti-arabic.

Anonymous said...

Yo tenía una maestra de español, la señora Bofill, que siempre nos decía: "Es un receptáculo de basura. Zafacón es árabe y en esta clase hablamos español". De esto hacen unos 25 años.