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Colorful Combinations

Compound Words Freely Formed in Spanish

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Umbrella forest

Bosque de paraguas en Bilbao, España. (Umbrella forest in Bilbao, Spain.)

Photo by Lorena a.k.a. Loretahur; licensed via Creative Commons.

A puzzle in Spanish is a head-breaker (rompecabezas), and someone who reads books a lot is a book-warmer (calientalibros). These two words are among the more colorful compound words that have entered the Spanish vocabulary.

Most compound words are more mundane and self-explanatory (a dishwasher, lavaplatos, for example, is just that). Compounds words, known in Spanish as palabras compuestas, are quite common. They are frequently coined, sometimes for humorous effect, although not all impromptu compound words survive or become widely known.

As you may have already noticed, the compound words being discussed in this lesson are formed by taking a verb in the third-person singular and following it with a plural noun (or, rarely, a singular noun when it makes more sense to do so). For example, cata (he/she tastes) followed by vinos (wines) gives us catavinos, a winetaster or barhop, depending on the context. Often, these words are the equivalent of the English verb followed by a noun and "-er," as in rascacielos, "skyscraper." In English, such words can be written as one word, a hyphenated word or two words, but in Spanish these compound words form one unit.

Words formed in this way are masculine, with rare exceptions, although they are sometimes used in the feminine if they refer to women or girls. Also, the plural of these words is the same as the singular: a can opener is un abrelatas, but two or more are los abrelatas. If the noun part of the word begins with an r, it is typically changed to an rr, as in quemarropa from quema + ropa.

Although no collection of compound words can be complete, on the following page is a list of some of the most common along with many that have been included merely because they're humorous or otherwise interesting. Where the English translation doesn't convey the origin of the Spanish word, a literal translation of the Spanish is included in parentheses. Note that in some cases not all possible meanings of the Spanish words are included.

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