Espantapájaros. Paracaídas. Paraguas. Abrelatas. Limpiabotas.
Have you ever heard these words?
There are different ways in which Spanish nouns are formed, one of which is to link a verb with a noun to describe a person or an object that acts on another object or person.
I recently wrote down many of these words during one of my lessons.
It all started with a student wanting to use the word parachute in Spanish. I told him the word for parachute is paracaídas. The student was surprised by the logic of the word: Paracaídas is formed by para (stop) and caídas (falls) and could be literally translated as “fall stopper”. Then another student reminded him of the words paraguas (umbrella) and parachoques (bumper), which are formed in the same way. I reminded them of words that contain verbs, like abrelatas (can opener) and limpiabotas (shoe cleaner), and then the whole class started listing all the words we know that are formed in this way.
These compound words are formed by a verb in the third person singular of the indicative present tense and a noun in its plural form.
This construction is like describing somebody or something through a relative clause:
Un paracaídas es algo que para caídas.
(Literally: A “fall stopper” is something that stops falls.)
Un limpiabotas es alguien que limpia botas.
(Literally: A “boot cleaner” is somebody that cleans boots.)
The gender of these compound nouns has no relation to the gender of the nouns used to form them.
When they refer to objects, their gender is normally masculine.
Necesito un cortauñas.
Déjame el paraguas.
When they refer to a person, their gender is masculine when referring to a man, and feminine when referring to a woman. In this case, the noun form doesn’t change, but adjectives and determiners must agree with the noun in gender.
Antonio es un cascarrabias.
María es una cascarrabias.
El portavoz del partido es Antonio.
La portavoz del partido es María.
There are a few exceptions to the above formation, as when the noun used to form the word is in its singular form, like matapolvo (very light rain), parasol (sunshade) or altavoz (loudspeaker).
In these cases, the plural form of the compound word is formed as usual, adding –s to words ending in a vowel and –es to words ending in a consonant.
Remember that if the singular form ends in a z, we use a c instead of z when adding –es.
un altavoz – dos altavoces)
In general, when the noun used to form the compound word is in its plural form, the compound word is invariable in plural.
un abrelatas – dos abrelatas)
It’s interesting to observe that paraguas is formed by para and aguas, the plural form of agua (water). Using this combination would result in paraaguas, but we would never write it that way. Words that contain the same vowel consecutively tend to be pronounced as if they only had one vowel, a fact which is, sooner or later, reflected in the spelling. Still, there are words that don’t have a definitive spelling and can be written either way (e.g. portaviones or portaaviones [aircraft carrier]).
INTERESTING EXAMPLE: Double Compound
An interesting example is limpiaparabrisas (windshield wiper), which is formed by adding a verb to a word already composed in the way we are discussing: limpia + parabrisas. Limpia is the third form singular of the present indicative of limpiar (to clean). Parabrisas (windshield) is formed by para, from parar (to stop), and brisas is the plural form of brisa (breeze).
It’s very easy to get the meaning of most of these words when you already know the meaning of the verb and the noun which form them. Interestingly, many of them are formed in a very similar way in English and other languages. But there are some funny compounds, too; do you know what cantamañanas, matasuegras or chupatintas mean? Check them on the list!
I’m going to transcribe the list we made in class, plus a second one I’ve added with the meanings of the words that form the compounds on the first list. I hope you have fun with these words and learn the ones you don’t know yet.
There are still many compound words missing, so leave a comment with any other words of this kind that you can think of.
|matamoscas||flyswatter / fly spray|
|matapolvo||very light rain|
|quebrantahuesos||lammergeyer, bearded vulture|
|rompehielos||ice breaker (ship)|