mano a mano

I recently heard a man on television who used the Spanish phrase mano a mano in his otherwise completely English sentence. Then he paused for a second, as if suddenly shamed by a lack of inclusiveness, and added the words “or woman to woman.” It was clear from his addition that he thinks mano means ‘man’ in Spanish, and now I’m wondering how many other English speakers are guilty of that misinterpretation. The image of two men hammering away at each other with their fists certainly makes it plausible.

If we need ways to be reminded that Spanish mano actually means ‘hand,’ as did the Latin manus that it evolved from, English provides plenty of handy associations. A manual (a word that Spanish shares) is ‘a handbook,’ for instance, and manual labor is work ‘done by hand.’ To manipular/manipulate is ‘to move something with one’s hand(s),’ though we’ve extended the usage metaphorically, as when we speak of speculators manipulating the stock market or corrupt politicians—forgive the redundancy—manipulating an election.

If the speaker I quoted at the beginning was confused about the meaning of mano, many non-native students of Spanish are confused about the word’s gender: almost all Spanish nouns ending in -o are masculine, but mano is feminine because it’s Latin ancestor had been feminine. The diminutive of mano is rightfully manita, though some Spanish speakers say manito. Even then, it’s still feminine: la manito, una manito. To add to the confusion, manito also exists in colloquial Mexican Spanish as a shortening of hermanito ‘little brother’; the feminine counterpart is manita ‘little sister.’ Let’s hope that little brother and little sister get along: it’d be a shame to see manito and manita fighting mano a mano, or, in case they’re still small, manita a manita or manito a manito.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

5 Comments (+add yours?)

    Jan 15, 2012 @ 13:59:10

    ‘…a man on television … used the Spanish phrase mano a mano in his otherwise completely English sentence. Then … as if suddenly shamed by a lack of inclusiveness, and added the words “or woman to woman.”‘

    Oh, brother! Or should I say, “¡Ay, manito!”?


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 15, 2012 @ 14:01:48

    That’s an appropriate comment from a sister etymologist.


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 20:47:22

    When I first moved to Texas, I heard this phrase often, but learned it as mano y mano! It took a while to sort that out. But I’ve always understood it as hand-to-hand combat. The concept was right – only one word was wrong.
    That reminds me of Mark Twain’s wonderful remark: “The difference between a word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.”

    Although I’m a perfect example of a manual laborer, I couldn’t help thinking also of the pleasure of manipulating words by hand – as an amanuensis, perhaps, or a creator of manuscripts. How glad I am that we have our computer keyboards now, and don’t have to rely on manual typewriters!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 24, 2012 @ 21:18:54

      Yes, similar sounds can lead to misinterpretations. For example, many English speakers have internalized a dog-eat-dog world as a doggy dog world.

      Speaking of Mark Twain: he had a better version of my jab at politicians: “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

      I share your gladness at being long past the age of manual typewriters. What a joy it was for someone like me who isn’t a great typist to have been manumitted from my slavery to that heavy mechanical monster.


  4. Trackback: Dos mangos por el precio de uno | Spanish-English Word Connections

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