Out of Context

Sometimes we forget how important context is when reading or writing a text. A phrase taken out of context can result in great confusion.

Thus, phrases or words that are commonly used in one country in a certain context, can be taken as an insult in another country. For example, in Spain coger means to take or to grab but in many Latin American countries it means to have sex with. However, there can be misunderstandings even within the same country, simply because sometimes words or situations can be ambiguous or because we misinterpret the context.

In Costa Rica, for example, the colloquial word for hangover is goma, but its standard meaning is rubber, and in some other countries they use it to refer to condoms. Context is also essential for general verbs with multiple meanings, for instance: poner, tener, jugar, pegar. Depending on the region and the words surrounding them, these verbs can have a gazillion meanings.

The verb pegar is a classic example, depending on the context it can mean:

• to adhere, to join: Pega los recortes en el papel.
• to infect with: Me pegó la gripe.
• to hit, to strike: Me pegué y me quedó un moretón.
• to give: Pegaba saltos de alegría.
• to match, to harmonize: Esa falda no pega con ese pantalón.
• to bump, to collide, to rub: La carrocería pega con la rueda.
• to affect emotionally: Me pega que se haya olvidado de mi cumpleaños.

And these are only the standard meanings found in dictionaries, if I had taken into account colloquial and regional meanings the list will be endless.

In some countries there are also very general verbs (and very colloquial) used as a kind of wildcard because they mean everything and nothing at the same time. In Venezuela there is the verb bichear/bichar, it comes from the noun bicho which means officially bug or animal but colloquially means thing or stuff. So, bichear can be all those verbs you simply can’t remember: bichear la radio could mean turn on the radio, turn off the radio, move the radio, take the radio and whatever you can possibly do with a radio. It can be very useful and very confusing at the same time if the context is not crystal clear.

However, those vague contexts that give situations and words a different meaning are very much appreciated by comedians to arouse laughter from the audience. I’ll leave you with an example of that:

-Sam: Mrs. Smith, would you punish me for something I didn’t do?
-Teacher: No, of course not.
-Sam: Good, because I didn’t do my homework.


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