Some time back I ran across the Spanish word empollón, which was new to me. The DRAE marks it as despectivo ‘derogatory’ and defines it this way: ‘Dicho de un estudiante: Que prepara mucho sus lecciones, y se distingue más por la aplicación que por el talento.’ (Let me translate that loosely: ‘Said of a student who slaves away on assignments and gets good grades more through brute force than through ability.’)

The adjective/noun empollón is derived from the verb empollar, which means literally ‘to incubate, to hatch,’ but the mental image of a bird putting in arduous days sitting on an egg to get it to hatch has led to extended meanings like ‘toil, slave away, work one’s fingers to the bone, plug away, slog,’ and, with reference to students, ‘cram.’

It’s not hard to see that empollar contains the elements en ‘in’ and pollo, which we’re used to translating into English as ‘chicken’ but which earlier meant more generally—and still can mean—’chick, the young of a bird.’ (Notice, similarly, how the English word chicken is based on chick.) A related English word that came into the language from Old French is pullet, which is etymologically equivalent to the Spanish diminutive pollito, and which designates ‘a young chicken, especially one less than a year old.’ Another relative that English borrowed is poultry, which likewise traces back to an Old French cognate of Spanish pollo.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 09:36:26

    This nest is in northeast IA. The eagle pair have 3 eggs. Give the link time to load and run through an ad. Then, you get a live view of empollon in action. I probably didn’t use the correct tense, or whatever. Not my field. But, you know what I mean.


  2. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 10:34:07

    I looked this word up and DRAE has it as a colloquial from P.R. for the word “estofón”. “Estofón” comes from “estofado” which is “un proceso culinario de cocinar un alimento.” “Empollón” is not used here at all; it must be what the DRAE decided to accept as the colloquial term. Why did they change it here, don’t ask me. So “estofón” is particular to P.R. only. It’s interesting that the DRAE accepted its usage. Simply because it’s listed now.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 07, 2014 @ 10:55:19

      The Spanish-speaking world covers so much territory that usage varies in many ways from place to place. Makers of Spanish dictionaries do their best to indicate the regions in which certain words and expressions are used, but it’s an almost impossible task, especially since even in the same place usage changes over time. The nature of language is to change; sometimes we can figure out what led to a certain change, but usually all we can do is recognize that something is changing or has changed, and we will probably never know why.


  3. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 11:27:56

    We also have here the “Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española” which has a “Tesoro Lexicográfico del Español de P.R.” published. So everything there is supposed to have all the recent actualisations made from the DRAE. What drives me nuts is the “Urban Dicitonary” from the U.S.. I read some of those words and meanings with my aunt who lives in Illinois, and we almost died of laughter!!! What do you think of that “Urban Dictionary”? I’m sure it has its validity, but what if people were to consult that type of publication instead of real dictionaries?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 07, 2014 @ 13:49:43

      Urban Dictionary is a mixed bag, as we say. You can see how some people are using certain words or phrases, but as far as I can tell there’s no quality control and no way to know if a contributor is just making something up. I’d look for external corroboration of anything I found there.


  4. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 14:08:16

    I totally agree; and the fact that there’s no quality control is quite alarming. I wonder what role does it play, one of informing about what has been said about something at one point in time; or speculation according to regionalisms used in a supposedly “subculture” of society? I would rather consult a well researched idiomatic phrase dictionary; but then there are the isolated words that the Urban Dictionary catches that the Idiomatic Phrase dictionary doesn’t, and I suppose knowing the meaning of these words could help in understanding some complex sociological behaviours.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 07, 2014 @ 17:03:40

      One advantage of a site like Urban Dictionary is that it may give usages that are too new to have made it into a more authoritative resource. On the other hand, most slang is ephemeral and doesn’t become a permanent part of the language.


  5. shoreacres
    Mar 09, 2014 @ 21:14:16

    Just a note about the urban dictionary. I use it, usually for a hint about expressions and phrases that I don’t know because they’re (1) specific to certain subcultures, (2) tech-related but esoteric, or (3) unutterably crude. For someone of my age and associations, it’s a good way to begin figuring out what millenials, hipsters, rappers, gang members, and the general criminal class are talking about. I’ll often listen to a caller to a radio show or read a blog and think, “What?”

    Believe it or not, I had to resort to the Urban Dictionary for “selfie” and “411” (information, as in, “I gotta get the 411 on that dude.”)

    As for empollón, I realized as I read your discussion that I haven’t heard the word “pullet” used in years. It may be that I’m not around as many chickens as I used to be, when the distance from the poultry yard to the dinner table could sometimes be measured in feet.

    And then there’s “chick.” Today we have “chick flicks”, of course – films meant to appeal to young women. And my dad’s nickname as a boy and young man was “Chick”. I haven’t a clue where that came from. His given name was Lavern, not Charles, so that’s not the explanation. Interesting.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 10, 2014 @ 14:03:03

      You’re right that selfie is too new to be in most “regular” dictionaries, and that Urban Dictionary has the advantage of including recent usages. An Internet resource I’d recommend is


      which searches a bunch of dictionaries and other references simultaneously. It came up with two hits for selfie. The second of those, at Word Spy, gives its earliest citation from 2002. In 2013 The Oxford Dictionaries named selfie its word of the year.

      As for pullet, it was never a part of my life growing up in the suburbs of New York. Maybe it could have been, though, because until I was in my teens there was still a poultry farm and store only a mile or so from home (poultry, in contrast, was a real word for me).


  6. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 10, 2014 @ 12:20:31

    It is interesting that I researched the word “subculture” and now it’s actually a bit pejorative to use the term and some sociologists don’t like to use it, because of the negative connotations the prefix “sub-” has. It’s on this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subculture
    Still the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture.” As much as I actually dislike reading most of the words on the Urban Dicitionary, it’s actually helpful in the sense that I wouldn’t like to be caught off guard with one of these terms with some form of innuendo in any type of literature or actual life situation. I simply brought up the term “subculture” because it’s the only one that I can think of to describe the situations or groups of people with which these words and terms might have at least the possibility of developing to then be perhaps acknowledged and accepted by society.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 10, 2014 @ 14:23:45

      I wouldn’t worry about it, Maria. To me, and I think to almost everyone, there’s nothing pejorative about the word subculture. I’m afraid that in recent decades there’s been a subculture of people who are all too eager to find as many words and phrases as possible that they can take offense at and use to club other people over the head with. If subculture is pejorative and therefore to be avoided, then I guess we’re also supposed to get rid of submarine because it designates a vessel that’s below a surface ship, subtitle because it appears in smaller type below the main title, etc. I for one won’t subject myself to that.


  7. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 10, 2014 @ 19:35:52

    That came out great! I agree. Perhaps the turnaround from the social sciences about using this term may also be due to the diversity of these groups and their innate complexity; so that by giving it another name they acknowledge their active presence in society. I will continue calling it a ‘subculture’ simply because for me it’s just a matter of semantics.


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