The recent, tragic death of seven-time champion boxer Héctor “Macho” Camacho has filled headlines around the world, and put on many tongues a word that was the nickname of the great prizefighter from Bayamón, Puerto Rico—and is a popular nickname throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
The meaning of macho in Spanish, biologically, is simply “male”. The Spanish and English words both derive from the Latin masculus.
Héctor Luis Camacho Matías, El “Macho” Camacho, native of Bayamón, Puerto Rico and holder, at different times, of seven different championship belts.
Macho is also widely used in the Spanish-speaking world as an appellative, as in “¿Cómo estás, macho?”(“How are you, man?”).The term is also the main way to designate almost any male animal. For instance:víbora macho (male snake), ardilla macho (male squirrel), gato macho (male cat). English is rich in equivalents. Besides the formal, biologically literal “male”, as in “male rabbit”, there is a wealth of folk terms like “jack rabbit”, “tomcat”, “billy goat”. Other common terms for male: “buck” (deer, antelope, ferret, squirrel, etc.), “bull” (moose, hippopotamus, elephant, shark, seal), and “cock” (hawk, turkey, pheasant, indeed almost any bird).
Curiously, the English word “macho”, taken directly from Spanish, means not simply male but rather hypermasculine, very virile or aggressive. “Macho man”, technically (but not actually) redundant, is also widely used; readers over 40 or 50 years old will recall the humorous title of The Village People’s 1978 song. These uses, documented in English for at least a century and a half, have grown dramatically since the 1960s. Not to mention “machismo” to mean hypermasculinity or male chauvinism, appearing around 1970 (in Spanish it dates roughly to 1900).
Given the word’s connotations in their language, many English speakers aren’t aware that Spanish macho refers simply to the male gender, as when a baby boy is born and people say “Salió macho“. That is, the word that in one language just means “male” is taken by members of another linguistic community to express an extreme version of masculinity.
Interesting (though not necessarily a reason for Hispanic pride) that the English language owes this word to Spanish!
Copyright ©2012 Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved. This essay was originally written for the December 9, 2012 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the weekly bilingual column Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation/Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción.
Pablo Julián Davis is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, English>Spanish, and Certified by the Supreme Court as an Interpreter, English<>Spanish. He delivers world-class translation and interpreting, as well as inspiring and interactive cultural training, through his company Interfluency Translation+Culture. He can be reached at email@example.com.