Flirting with Frugal

“Frugal?” I’m thinking to myself, “Did he just call her frugal?”

Veo que eres muy frugal,” he said again. Yes, I heard it right; my husband was complimenting a young woman’s frugality. Well, that’s certainly not going to set off any kind of flirt-alert!

We were out for the day with a student here from Germany for a research project. A very charming young woman—intelligent, interesting and interested, thoughtful, cheery—in fact I could think of plenty of nice things to say about her, but I could not understand why in the world he would choose “frugal” as a compliment. And for that matter, how would he even know whether or not she was frugal?

Now, where I come from, being frugal is indeed considered a virtue, though not something that would generally be chosen for flattering a young woman unless you were her father, her investment counselor, or her future mother-in-law.

I question his usage and he says, “Pero oooobvio po… Just look at her! Of course she’s frugal!” and I’m thinking he’s digging himself in pretty deep and she’s going to be offended… I certainly can’t see anything that would tell me whether or not she was frugal. Her clothes were neither flashy nor frumpy; in fact, the clues to her frugality were, well, frankly frugal!

But he’s insisting he’s correct, and well, yeah… it IS his language we’re speaking… so here we go again, off to find a couple of dictionaries, because my motto is, when in doubt, look it up… in both languages!

My trusty American Heritage Dictionary confirms my own understanding of the word: 1. Avoiding unnecessary expenditure of money; thrifty. 2. Costing little, inexpensive, such as “a frugal lunch.”

So far, so good, but then I turned to the Spanish definition in the RAE dictionary and got: 1. Parco en comer y beber. 2. Aplicase también a las cosas en que esa parquedad se manifiesta, como “una comida frugal.” In other words: someone who doesn’t eat or drink much or something that is restricted in its quantity.

Yes, once again we’re up against one of those famous false cognates, those pesky words that seems for all intents and purposes to be one in the same, but in the end, it is most definitely not. The English FRU-gal and the Spanish fru-GAHL may be cousins of sorts, but they are certainly not twins.

OK, first things first. My husband is vindicated, as he is addressing the fact that this fit and slender young woman takes care of herself and doesn’t overeat, which is indeed obvious by looking at her, and he has made absolutely no reference whatsoever to her financial habits.

Once again language provides us with some interesting cultural insights. In both cases the word refers to prudence and moderation, but one with respect to the consumption of food and drink and the other in the financial sense. The former refers to the absence of gluttony, while the latter privileges the absence of consumerism.

It’s curious too that both definitions use the same example (a frugal lunch) to illustrate a very different point. One is in relation to the amount consumed (intake) and the other with the amount spent (outflow), one with volume (quantity) and the other with value (cost). One is careful with calories, the other with money.

OK, let’s push this a bit further—just for the sake of reflection.

If language can in fact give us clues about the way its native speakers think, what is this word telling us about its use and meaning in English-speaking vs. Spanish-speaking cultures?

Speaking (or thinking) in the broadest of generalizations, I wonder if this example is really capable of providing some insights as bold as why English speakers tend to have more weight issues and a greater tendency to save money (long-term, inward thinking, as in pack away the calories, stash away the dough?), while many Spanish speakers, who are often accused of short-term thinking and living in the moment may be more prone to outward thinking, as in share the food and spend the money today because we may not be here to enjoy it tomorrow?

I am truly curious to know what others might think about why two languages took the same word—frugal—from the same Latin root—frugalis (thrifty, temperate, frugal, provident, worthy, virtuous)—and derived from it very different meanings in its modern usage.

And please, don’t be frugal with your comments!

For more false cognates see: Cynical or Cínico?

20 responses to “Flirting with Frugal

  1. Pingback: Cynical or Cínico? « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  2. It’s hard to make those generalizations about English speakers being heavier, etc, without pointing out that English speaking countries tend to have more cash on hand than Spanish-speaking ones, right?

    And I’m sure your husband considered it the utmost compliment, but if someone said (in my presence), that person is so restrained with food and drink, I would think it meant he/she didn’t know how to enjoy life! And where that came from, I couldn’t tell you, but I wouldn’t see it as a compliment in any sense!

  3. Ok- true, people in English speaking countries do tend to have more money, but what can we make of that linguistically?
    And re the “compliment”… it sure seemed so strange to me–but restraint, conservatism, and refraining from excess is often seen as very virtuous, which would make it a compliment in that sense! But I’m with you, I prefer the enjoy life side of things!

  4. Ah yes… I spent some time in the dog house after suggesting that a pleasant but picky family member was “fastidioso,” assuming that it was the equivalent of “fastidious.” Not so: my pocket dictionary says it means “annoying, wearisome.” Boy, was I “embarazado.” 🙂

  5. Uh-oh! I just looked it up… and even in English it says it comes from the Latin fastidium, which means loathsome!
    To your credit, the 4th exception of the English dictionary says “having complicated nutritional requirements.” I hope you were able to play your gringo card to get out of the dog house!

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  7. So true. Nice point! This is a constant struggle in any language. So many false cognates creep up into everyday speech that you may be caught off-guard.
    Another one seems to be ‘complexion’… If used in English it refers to skin color, if used in Spanish it is ‘contextura’, body type, or body size.

  8. Thanks Anamaría- I had no idea! In fact, I’m trying to think whether I’ve ever heard ‘complexión’ used here in Chile– but it may also be one of those cases where I heard it, assumed I knew what it meant, and never gave it another thought! Next time I’ll be ready for it!

  9. Oops. I was explaining frugal vs. stingy to a class one day and they asked, “So it means frugal (in Spanish)?” And I said, “Well, I assume so!”

    Now I know!

  10. Yep! And I bet they were confused (unless you were talking about being stingy with food). But don’t worry, it took me 18 years to figure that one out!

  11. I’m Chilean and I’ve never heard the word “frugal” used in the way your husband did. I guess if he did, he learned it from somewhere, but I wouldn’t vouch for it being a common Chilean expression.

    I have heard the word used to describe a “frugal meal”, though, which might be related.

    When I use the word, I do it in the same way as an english-speaking person would.

  12. Interesting… His usage is correct and agrees with the RAE. On the other hand, your English is very good… did you study in an English school and/or live in an English speaking country? That could certainly affect how you use the word. In any case, the “frugal meal” example works in both languages!

  13. I sure can’t argue with the R.A.E.🙂

    Still, out of curiosity, I just conducted a mini-poll (of about 10 Chilean people) and all agreed (separately) on “frugal” being a synonym of “espartano” or “austero”. Some of them did relate it with food though.

    Anyways, thanks for the compliment. I learned my english from travelling, working abroad and having a couple of American girlfriends (best way to learn a language!).

    I now teach two course’s in English in Universidad del Desarrollo (Chilean Culture and Organizations % their Dilemmas), which keep me praticing.😉

    Have a nice blogging!

    Jorge A.

    P.S: I’m listening to your radio show right now. Interesting! (and also Lipe happens to be a firend of mine…small world!)

  14. Wow! It IS a small world! Glad you liked the show! I’ll let Felipe know that you stopped by!
    And glad to hear that this post got you thinking and polling! I do that too, and while I may question my husband ABOUT Spanish, I’ve learned not to question his use of it… the combination of a PhD in literature and RAE on his side make a pretty strong argument on his side!
    I also agree that having a partner who’s native language is the one you’re trying to learn is the best (though not always the most proper or practical) way… who else is going to have that level of patience with all the mistakes we make in the beginning!
    And BTW- your courses sound very interesting!

  15. For false cognates, here’s a good one:
    I’ll always remember the time I learned
    that exitado (sexually stimulated) does
    not mean emocionado (just plain excited).

  16. Oh Yeah…. that’s one to really watch out for… at least in Chile!

  17. Pingback: Cachando Chile: a Year in Review « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  18. Hola Margaret:

    Hace un tiempo que sigo tu blog, me encanta no solo por el contenido sino también por la forma que escribes. Después del post de hoy terminé leyendo toda tu serie acerca de los falsos cognados (aunque todavía estoy tratando de distinguir entre falsos amigos y falsos cognados). A propósito de frugal: efectivamente, lo primero que se me viene a la mente es una comida sencilla y liviana, o una persona que vive de una dieta así. Pero también lo aplico, como en inglés, a un modo de vida sencillo, sin grandes gastos o cosas superfluas.

  19. Hola Karen-Muchas gracias- me alegro que te gusta Cachando Chile!
    Con respecto a false cognates vs false amigos… toda la razón. Siempre pensé que eran basicamente lo mismo, pero a raíz de tu duda, empecé a averiguar y es cierto. Son diferentes. Pero aún no tengo tan clara la diferencia… Una vez que investigo más, volveré con más info!

  20. Pingback: Speaking Chilensis: beware the Fake False Cognates | Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

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