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In my conversational Spanish class, the instructor gave us several aphorisms to translate. One seemed rather racist to me.

Más perdido que turco en niebla.

which means

More lost than a Turk in fog.

I questioned her whether this was racist, because it seemed that way to me. She tried to assure me that it was uncontroversial in Spanish (she is from Argentina, if that makes any difference).

She said, "Many people have no problem saying things like this."

I replied, "And other people might have no problem calling those people racists."

My feeling is that any saying that singles out a member of an ethnic or racial group is potentially racist and offensive. There's a reason people no longer say "There's the n***** in the woodpile" when declaring that they've found the source of a problem.

Is this kind of thing common and uncontroversial in Spanish-speaking countries? Am I being too sensitive?

  • I don't think you are being too sensitive. Everybody is becoming too sensitive. This site is about language and you are asking about culture. Anyway, in any culture you will find people that use language carefully not to offend others and others that don't care. In every case you have to judge tone, intention and situation. My advise is don't use those kind of sentences since being foreign could be misunderstood. In this case being lost in fog is not that bad but is better to avoid those comments. An alternative: Más perdido que Adán el día de la madre. (More lost that Adam on mother's day) – DGaleano Oct 27 '16 at 16:45
  • @user. Sure. It is a fact. An indisputable fact for any religious person. Adam had no mother. An atheist should laugh since in theory they don't believe in anything religious. I'm sorry but I think we should end this dialog here since this is not Stack Exchange Religion or Stack Exchange Cultural Differences. – DGaleano Oct 27 '16 at 19:21
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Más perdido que turco en la neblina is a typical saying from Argentina, so you are unlikely to hear it from anyone who is not Argentine. Arabs are colloquially called "Turks" in Argentina, probably because they lived within the Ottoman Empire at the time of mass immigration into Argentina, in the late 19th century. People of Arabic descent are estimated to number between 1-5/3.5 million, roughly 4/8% of the total population, and do not appear to be very offended by the saying, although it would be polite to use a different idiom if you are speaking to an Arab person.

There are many theories about the origin of the saying itself, and it looks like it does not actually refer to Turkish people. One says that Turkey and the Near East are dry places and that a Turk would be confused if he found himself amid fog; another says that in Spain, unadulterated wine was called "turco", as it had not been "baptized" (that is, it had not been mixed with water), thus a "turca" became slang for "being drunk" and a "turco", a drunkard, who would feel understandably lost in the fog. The third explanation says that the original saying was "more lost than a tuco in the fog", a tuco being a kind of firefly found in Northern Argentina that, not seeing its own light, would be lost in the thick fog. As the saying spread Southwards, people did not understand what it meant and thought of Arab traveling merchants getting lost in the roads when the fog rose (perhaps that made sense as there was a relatively high concentration of Arab immigrants in Northern Argentina).

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  • Never heard that word "turco" with that meaning, but it's on the RAE, really interesting. I wander if it is or was only used at certain places of Spain, more locally. – Nox Oct 27 '16 at 20:45
  • @Nox moro (def. 8) also has this meaning, in contrast to cristiano (def. 3) / bautizado (def. 4) / aguado. Note though that the RAE notes all of these euphemisms as coloquial or poco usado (or germanía in the case of turco). – brazofuerte Apr 29 '19 at 15:12
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Each culture and society has rules about what they take as offensive and what not.

Here in Mexico we take with humour a (rather offensive) comment made by an ex-president, Vicente Fox, that was asked about immigration from Mexico to the U.S.A.

When answering the question, he declared that Mexicans were indispensable to the American economy because "they do the work that even the black people don't want to do" (Los mexicanos hacen el trabajo que ni los negros quieren hacer).

Here you can see a review of that interview: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2005/05/14/index.php?section=politica&article=008n1pol

We take that remark as humorous and not as offensive, even when it is.

So, yeah, you may see something as offensive for your cultural or societal background, while someone else won't.

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  • Agreed. It is much more of a cultural and current issue, to take offense at misogynist jokes and sayings rather than racial slurs. It has something to do with the way Latin America was colonized, with minimal segregation and equality "on paper and in the eyes of the law between the conquistadores and native Americans. Race just doesent come up as an issue in our minds. On the other hand, we have much to learn about women's rights, since in every segment of society, we are exposed to sexism and abuse towards women. That's our cultural shame, as racism is the cultural shame of euro-americans. – hlecuanda Oct 29 '16 at 1:56
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I am 38 years old and always living in Spain never heard that exact aphorism (by the way, why turks and fog? O_o).

BUT, the constructions of the type "Más perdido que...", "Más borracho que...", "Más hambriento que...", changing the verb with any you can think AND you want to make a joke by exaggerating the comparison (it's right comparison in English?), have become super popular in the spoken language since several years ago. I'm pretty sure that's what your teacher was trying to say ;)

Apart from that, as I was saying, almost always that type of phrases are jokes based on exaggerating the comparison, which would represent the literal meaning of the phrase without the joke. So, not always, but yeah, many times that phrases use racist prejudices, among others... morally reprochable black humor references? I'm not really sure if that's totally correct in English but I think you took the point. I'm pretty sure too, that black humor are similar in any country.

Honest people won't say that type of things in front of a member of the affected ethnic group, or all the opposite, they'll say it loud and clear so that person can understand it's a joke, not an insult.
Racists will say it in a disgusting and bold way, clearly insulting (or not, if they're hypocrite enough, there are dumbasses in all places).

At the end, don't forget that these things are jokes. We don't go down the street insulting people... at least not the majority of us (again, there are dumbasses in all places), but at least me, I make soft jokes like that every time I can do it, life is too hard to live without humor. I suppose that's why that type of constructions are so popular nowadays, among others of the same type.

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  • Agree 100%. That last paragraph says it all. – DGaleano Oct 27 '16 at 19:14
  • Yes, if the teacher would be spanish it would only be a joke, that's for sure, but being from Argentina the answer from JMVanPelt is probably more accurate. – Nox Oct 27 '16 at 20:33

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