It’s funny how changing one single vowel can affect the meaning of an entire conversation.
I learned this firsthand while hanging out with my host family about a week after I got to Argentina. They were having a family get together and, naturally, I was hiding in the kitchen because I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. It would have been rude of me to stay in my room all night, but I had no idea how to socialize with them when this was supposed to be their family time. Besides, they were all speaking Spanish so fast it might as well have been Japanese, so I decided to help my host mother in the kitchen.
I think she knew what I was up to, though, because after a while she told me to go make friends and kicked me out of the kitchen.
Everyone else was in the backyard, so I ended up finding a nice stretch of wall to lean on while I eavesdropped on them. I feel like I should make a point: my host family is absolutely wonderful. They have been the most kind, welcoming, patient, and open group of people that I’ve ever met, and I feel lucky to have been placed with them. When I went out to the backyard, they didn’t ignore me. On the contrary, it felt like the entire family did their very best to make me feel welcome. The problem is that I tend to dissolve into a mushy puddle of awkward when confronted with large groups of people. I did my best to talk to them, but then I ran out of things to say and found my place on the wall.
While I was listening, a friend of the family started talking about what he did earlier that day. He went into great detail about how he cleaned out his closet and decided to sand his cajonera (Spanish for dresser). I heard a different word which really confused me, but everyone else was still listening to him, so I kept quiet and tried to follow along. He then talked about how he took it apart and asked his brother to help him sand the cajones (drawers). At this point I was extremely confused. The word I heard wasn’t cajones. It was cojones.
Cojones means balls. As in slang for testicles.
He kept talking about how he and his brother spent the afternoon sanding his cojones, and I kept looking around at the other people, trying to figure out if this was a joke or not. Everyone else was standing there, completely serious as they listened to him talk about his day. Finally, I had to interject.
Me: Disculpa, que significa cojones? (Excuse me, what does cojones mean?)
My host brother, trying not to laugh: Querés decir cajones? En inglés significa drawers. (Did you mean cajones? In English it means drawers.)
Me, really confused now because I didn’t know that cajones is a word in Spanish: Él dijo cojones, no? Cuál es la diferencia entre cajones y cojones? (Didn’t he say cojones? What’s the difference between cajones and cojones?)
My host brother, really laughing now: No, dijo cajones. Son cosas muy distintas. (No, he said cajones. They are two very different things.)
After he explained it to me, my host brother stood there and tried to imagine what I had been thinking the entire time the other guy had been talking. He was very amused.
Moral of the story: keep track of your vowels, kids. They can make you think dirty things.