Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A disconcerting ambiguity

Ronald Batchelor

Saint Teresa and the toilet roll

A disconcerting ambiguity: a note on the Spanish noun escatología, and adjective escatológico

Eschatology: Branch of theology concerning the end of the world

Scatology: Scientific study of excrement

Spanish escatología expresses both meanings. Strange but true.

It is possible that the present English reader has never heard of the first two English terms listed above, and (s)he would be forgiven if that were the case. However, one would be wise not to confuse them, or the risk of putting one’s foot in it by mixing up the two, especially if you are a Spanish speaker, is very real indeed.

Remarkably, and it may even be said, alarmingly, cassocks and buttocks do coalesce in Spanish since a Spanish speaker sees no difference between eschatological and scatological. These two English words, perilously similar in spelling and sound, end up as the same term in Spanish: escatológico, leading to its corresponding noun escatología. Humour cannot be far away.

After much consultation with Spanish speakers, it can be safely asserted that it is most likely that they see no striking and contrasting differences at all in the two meanings of the adjective escatológico and noun escatología. Indeed, they are doubtless unaware of the irreconcilable nature of the two meanings, the study of the beyond and of excrement.

At a pinch, a Spanish speaker may be familiar with one or other of the meanings which are made clear in English i.e. eschatological or scatological, but unless they have at their disposal a two-volume Real Academia Española’s Diccionario de la Lengua Española, they may remain in blissful ignorance of either meaning. Yet, what does the Spanish-speaking ecclesiastical hierarchy offer by way of understanding?

Unease must be experienced by the said hierarchy. After all, both connotations lead back to the ends of things, and the priesthood must surely be moved by both connotations, the higher and the lower. Different etymologies of eschatology/eschatological and scatology/scatological are of some assistance to clarify matters here.

The first two terms, noun and adjective, derive from the Greek eskhatos, that is “the study of life beyond the tomb” (if you believe in that sort of thing), while the second two take us back to the Greek skat=excrement (and you must believe in this, given as you, the reader, are, to its expulsion most days). In both cases of the Greek etymology, the initial “eskh” of eskhatos, and the “sk” of skat converge in Spanish to crystallize into “es”. No vernacular Spanish word begins with “s”, always with “es”, hence escatología and escatológico.

It must be legitimate to wonder whether the present Spanish-speaking, Argentinian incumbent of the Vatican, Pope Francis/Francisco, and his acolytes who share his language, even the erudite ones, are sensitive to the stark ambiguity of their native word escatología at the very point when they relieve themselves of the brown stuff in their private toilet moments. After all, theology dominates their thinking, to the possible exclusion of linguistic curiosity.

Yet, one can only imagine the spiritual perplexity troubling the Spanish-speaking clerical community as their preoccupation with higher truths, even Saint Teresa’s ecstasy, is constantly marred on the throne of daily and lower fecal activity. A simultaneous and antithetical upwards and downwards surge, you may say. Both fundamental, but there you are.

About The Author

Ronald Batchelor

Dr Ronald Batchelor is the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011). He taught French and Spanish for forty years in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of N...

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