“My better half”… the interesting way Spanish expresses this concept

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Spanish speakers often say “mi media naranja” (literally: “my half-orange”) to mean “my husband,” “my wife,” etc.

The phrase has an informal, humorously affectionate tone, not unlike “my better half,” which is widely used by English speakers.

La cúpula del Monasterio del Escorial, Madrid. La palabra "cimborio" puede significar el cuerpo cilíndrico que sirve de base para la cúpula, o la cúpula misma, que también puede llamarse "bóveda" o... ¡"media naranja"!

The dome of the Monastery of El Escorial, near Madrid.  The Spanish word “cimborio” can refer to the cylindrical body that forms the base of the dome, or the dome itself, which can also be referred to as “cúpula,” “bóveda” (vault)… or even “media naranja” (literally: half-orange), which happens to be the popular Spanish equivalent of “my better half”!

A common explanation: since no two oranges are identical, each half-orange only has one possible match. In this view, media naranja isn’t just one’s mate, but the perfect match, something like “soul mate.”

Another, similar theory, widespread on the Web, traces the term to Plato’s Symposium, where Aristophanes speaks of (the already then) ancient notion that originally humans were double (man-woman, woman-woman, and man-man). Then, one day, Zeus decided to split them in two; since then, we’ve all been presumably searching for the literally missing half we long to be reunited with.

Aristophanes’s theory, despite the prestige of its ancient-Greek origin, tells us nothing about why the Spanish phrase happens to use a citrus fruit, in particular, to express this idea.

The real explanation may lie in architecture, of all places. The dome—as of a church—is known as a cúpula, or cimborio (which can also mean the cylindrical base on which the dome rests) or even as… our old friend, a media naranja, or half-orange! Cimborio itself derives from a Greek word for a certain type of fruit.

It could very well be that the vault of a domed church, which is a symbol and representation of Heaven, gives us a way of referring to the beloved—very much like the popular term of affection in Spanish, “mi cielo”—“my heaven.”

¡Buenas palabras… Good words!

About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo is a lawyer, translator, and historian. Many of the posts, or short essays, here are drawn from the newspaper column “MIsterios y Enigmas de la Traducción/Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” (published weekly in La Prensa Latina, Memphis, Tennessee, since July 2012). Pablo had the good luck to grow up marinating in at least a half-dozen languages—his native Spanish and English; French, used by his parents to communicate what they thought were secrets; a salting of Yiddish and a rumor of German; and seasonings of Italian, Portuguese, and Russian. He has always been fascinated with language in its many aspects—a form of human behavior; a medium for the creation of beauty; a tool of persuasion and inspiration; a weapon and instrument of power; and a record of human history, knowledge, and thought, to name just a few. These are some of the concerns and passions that run through the essays on this site. Your interest is appreciated, and your thoughts and comments are very welcome.

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