About words

Halfway through Historia de España en el Siglo XX by Julián Casanova and Carlos Gil Andrés, I came across the fascinating etymology of the Spanish word “estraperlo”. Although it quickly came to mean black marketeering, estraperla was originally coined in 1935 to describe a case of political bribery and corruption that not only derailed the Radical Party but also seriously undermined the credibility of the Second Republic.

Estraperla is a combination of the names of the men behind the scandal: Daniel Strauss, a shady businessman interested in introducing a novel form of roulette machine that favored the house when the stakes were high and his financial backer Perle. After their invention was banned in the Netherlands, these gentlemen bribed a number of people in or close to the government of Alejandro Leroux, including his adopted son Aurelio, to secure a license to install their machines in casinos in Spain. Although an undetermined amount in cash and a number of gold watches changed hands, the promised license did not materialize and Strauss and Perle plotted their revenge. They presented a self-incriminating dossier detailing the entire history of the bribes they had paid and the promises that had been made to them to Leroux’s successor, Alcalá Zamora. Leroux unwisely dismissed the accusations when questioned by Zamora and in October 1935 a judicial investigation was undertaken that would end in the resignation of all government ministers who where members of Leroux’s party.  The fall of the Radical Party precipitated political realignments that would soon harden into the divisions that sparked the Spanish civil war.

Franco instituted rationing basic goods in 1936, a policy that he doggedly followed until 1952. As Spain lacked the infrastructure to provide the basic necessities for the entire population, black marketeering was rife. As Michael Richards notes in his book A Time of Silence: Civil War and the Culture of Repression in Franco’s Spain 1936-1945,  work permits and ration cards were doled out to members of the Falangist movement and individuals who cooperated with the new regime. Those unaligned with the new regime had to find their own novel ways of getting by and even the lucky holders of a ration card sought methods of supplementing the meager daily ration that was provided by the state. Fascist state intervention at all levels of agriculture and industry provided as many, if not more, opportunities for graft and corruption than those of the Republican governments that had preceded the dictatorship. It was in this new game of roulette where the losers faced prison sentences for selling a few chickens in the black market and winners amassed fortunes through corrupt practices that the word estraperla found a permanent place in the continental Spanish vocabulary.


The origin of the Spanish word “Gilipollas” was a mystery to me for years. I knew that referring to someone as a gilipollas was the equivalent saying he or she was stupid, an idiot, or a fool, but I couldn’t see any etymological trail behind it. Even more curious, it was an epithet rarely used outside of peninsular Spain.

Some time ago, Victoria Maso González, a colleague and fellow member of ASATI, the Association of Translators and interpreters of Aragon, shared a wonderfully detailed etymology of this ever-so-Spanish insult.

It seems that the term was coined to describe Don Baltasar Gil Imón de la Mota, a gentleman who served as mayor of Madrid during the times of Philip III. When Mr. Gil’s three daughters reached a marriageable age, he dragged them along to every reception and public event he attended in the hope of they would catch the eye of potential suitors. The story goes that all three were somewhat lacking in the beauty and wit department and that the good Mr. Gil’s hopeless attempts became a standing joke among the people of Madrid.

According to María Molinar, young ladies in those days were often referred to as “pollas,” a Spanish term for  “young hens who have not yet begun laying eggs.” When Mr. Gil appeared in public with his brood, people laughingly said, “Here comes Gil y pollas,” an expression that long after no one remembered the gentleman in question, mutated into gillipollas. Nevertheless, there is a street named after this doting dad who spent so much time in public with his marriageable daughters that he became a public joke: the calle Gil Amón, which is situated between the Paseo Imperial and the Ronda de Segovia.

The word “polla” has since taken on a harsh sexual meaning that has intensified”gilipollas” as an insult.