Language is a rabbit hole. Dozens of words are not what they appear to mean. That’s why people who take the literal meaning of a word end up confused. Take this case. Carlos, my Salvadorean friend, once told me about his bewilderment that one time he attended a Peruvian party in New York.
Carlos assured me that his Peruvian friend (Jessica) used a “natural” language. Her Spanish was “pretty cool.” He “communicated with her without a problem.” As they became closer, Jessica invited him to a party at her place, in Yonkers, New York. Carlos was friendly and wanted to join Jessica’s “social circle.” He was romantically interested in her. But that night, he made a fool of himself.
WHAT IS”PATA”?: A DUCK OR A PAW?
Coming late was his first mistake. Jessica told him to show up at her house at seven P.M. But due to his shifting schedule, he could only leave work at nine. So, by the time he knocked on Jessica’s door, at 10:30, the place was crowded. Jessica opened the door and blurted something he could not understand. Many guests were drinking heavily.
“I could not understand 30% of the words Peruvians spoke,” Carlos told me. He was not exaggerating. It is a common phenomenon for immigrants abroad. Whenever we Peruvians, or any other foreign national, meet people from our nation, we automatically switch to our local dialect. Often, we do it unconsciously. That feeling of “being at home” makes us change our behavior.
‘She does not have any paws, only human feet. I thought that she had a duck farm on her roof, and that she was going to show me her ducks..’
“You guys have quite a language,” Carlos said. He felt inhibited surrounded by the rowdy crowd. Later on, Jessica noticed his reluctance to socialize. Then, all of a sudden, she said something that confused him.
“Ven, te voy a presentar a mis patas,” she said. (Trans: Come here, let me introduce you to my ducks…(or paws?)
“She does not have any paws, only human feet. I thought that she had a duck farm on her roof, and that she was going to show me her ducks,” Carlos told me. “I am not kidding….What exactly is a paw? Why do you guys call “friends” that way?
His question left me speechless. I grew up in Peru but I didn’t know the etymology of the word “pata.” I always used it, but I ignored how the expression came to be. Nonetheless, Carlos thought that word was hilarious. Later on, he also got drunk. Drinking nonstop till midnight, both girls and guys kept saying pata…
“Yo tengo un buen pata” (I had a great paw), Me enamoré de ese pata (I fell in love with that paw), Yo tengo bastantes patas (I have far too many paws), Tu pata se está pasando de vivo (Your paw is getting too sneaky), Tu pata es bien simpático (Your paw is pretty handsome), Me hice su pata (I became his paw), Lo mandé al diablo a tu patita (I told your little paw to go to hell)…”
“Every time I heard pata, the image of a hairy dog paw came to my mind,” Carlos said. He could not help it. Already intoxicated, Carlos imagined hairy paws talking, walking and even kissing each other. Before leaving, Carlos cracked a silly joke about “the paws” that Jessica’s crew did not receive well.
It is interesting how dialects can confuse and distance speakers of the same language. Peru, Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, and other countries have words of their own because they have worlds of their own.
And in the Peruvian world, pata is how we call our very close friends.𝔖