“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?