I just finished Cuentos Alegres, a book assigned to me in Spanish class forty years ago. The book itself may be over 100 years old in its original printing.

In the last story, a Sherlock Holmes story, the phrase "murió de un calambre" was used. A literal translation would be "died of a cramp". It's also what Google translate tells me. Does it mean died from a seizure? It this an old usage?

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Let's see the definition for calambre as it was a hundred years ago. This is written in the Royal Spanish Academy's dictionary from 1914:

Calambre. (Del ant. nórdico klampi, laña, corchete; en al. krampf, calambre.) m. Contracción espamódica, involuntaria, dolorosa y poco durable de ciertos músculos, particularmente de los de la pantorrilla.

No trace of the electrical shock-related meaning, neither in this dictionary nor in other dictionaries from the same time. That meaning was added to the dictionary in 1992. In fact, a hundred years ago the term to refer to an electrical shoch was descarga eléctrica:

Tona sufrió una sacudida de arriba abajo, como si la hubieran aplicado una descarga eléctrica [...].

José María de Pereda, "Peñas arriba", 1895 (Spain).

In the aforementioned dictionary you can read:

Descarga. Acción y efecto de descargar.
Descargar. 5 Anular la tensión eléctrica de un cuerpo haciendo saltar la chispa o por otro medio.

So it seems that the person died indeed from a cramp. And yes, the word calambre dates from very old, it can be found in the Spanish-Latin dictionary by Antonio de Nebrija, written in 1495.

Reading this text from circa 1535 it seems that people could indeed die from a cramp:

"Pereçosa,
vellaca, puerca, golosa,
mala hembra, desoluta;
di, ¿no acabas, çancajosa?
¡Ven aquí, borracha puta!
Dormillona,
¿de dónde vienes, soplona?
¡Mueras de mala calambre!"

Anónimo, "Auto de Clarindo", c1535 (Spain).

The last sentence means "may you die from a bad cramp". By the way, it seems that Spanish calambre and English cramp have the same origin.

Calambre can have many meanings. See the DRAE's entry for "Calambre". One is actually a cramp

  1. m. Contracción muscular involuntaria, dolorosa y de poca duración.

(same for the third entry, a "espasmo de ciertos grupos de músculos") But it can also be an electric shock

  1. m. Sacudida producida por una descarga eléctrica de baja intensidad.

It seems difficult, but not impossible, that a person would die from either of these, specially in a work of fiction. Without any context, after hearing

murió de un calambre

I could not tell if it was cramp or an electric shock.

  • it's the cramp produced by the shock, not the shock itself. – ths Nov 7 at 17:26
  • @ths No. it's an electric shock in the terms of a jolt. That might shake the part of the body that received the electric shock. That area might get cramped, numbed or in pain, but I believe the definition does not imply "the cramp you get after or due to the shock". It means "the jolt of an electric shock". – Diego Nov 7 at 17:38
  • in any case it seems pretty clear that it means the physiological reaction to the shock. – ths Nov 7 at 18:28
  • But when you translate to English, you'll want to convey "he died from the outcome of muscular cramp" or "he died from the outcome of a low intensity electric shock". "Died of a cramp" although technically accurate for both, may not be the best translation for "murió de un calambre", depending on the context (which is unknown). "Died of a cramp" could be misleading if the originator was an electric shock. – Diego Nov 7 at 19:06

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