Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation: You say “tamal”, I say “tamale”


Dear readers,

Tamales have been a favorite food in the US for over a century.  In the singular, though, English speakers don’t say “a tamal” following the Spanish singular tamal—instead, “a tamale” is the common usage.

hot-tamale-molly  plenty-of-hot-tamales

This use is so widespread, especially in the phrase “hot tamale” (already a favorite item for sale from roadside stands and urban street vendors before the First World War), that it must be considered the correct English singular.

Another common phrase, “a (real) hot tamale”, describes a physically attractive woman, with a likely added connotation of sparkling, magnetic personality and/or “wildness.”

Why does English use this technically incorrect singular?

One hypothesis: English speakers inferred from the Spanish plural tamales that the singular must be formed by removing final ‘s’ (the English rule). Linguists call this “back-formation”; it’s how the verb “televise” arose from “television”, or “gruntled” as a humorous opposite of “disgruntled”.hot-tamale-man

The other possibility: the indigenous (Nahuatl) singular, tamalli, was widely used in old Mexican North/US Southwest Spanish dialect; Anglos might have picked up “tamale” that way.

But retroformation is highly likely.  It’s what’s behind “a frijole” (instead of frijol), for instance.

The process occurs in all languages. In medieval Spanish, Sant’Iago (Saint James) became Santiago; retroformation led people to believe the saint’s name was Tiago (San Tiago).  From there came the “invention” of the name Diego, highly popular today.

There is one more possible explanation, and that has to do with how “tamale” and “tamal” sound in English; for more on this, please click here.

¡Buenas palabras!


A version of this essay first appeared in La Prensa Latina, Memphis, Tennessee, on 23 Sept. 2012.



About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, ATA Certified Translator (Engl>Span) and Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (EnglSpan), offers world-class Spanish/English language services including translation, interpreting, copywriting, and editing in both languages. His specialties are legal, business, medical, and humanities/education; he has wide experience in other fields as well. Also offered: interactive and transformative cultural-awareness training for companies, non-profits, communities, government agencies, institutions of faith, and other audiences. (See just a small sampling of testimonials from happy and satisfied clients: The ability to move effectively from language to language - which necessarily also means moving between cultures - has likely never been at a greater premium than it is in today's world. That ability is what we mean by Interfluency TM.

One Response to Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation: You say “tamal”, I say “tamale”

  1. Pingback: Un tamal para mí, un “tamale” para ti « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

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