I won’t say this is the single most important piece of vocabulary in Spanish but knowing the parts of your body in Spanish is going to come in mighty handy if you find yourself in a Spanish-only situation. You’re no superhero and are not immune to sickness. So why not arm yourself with the right vocabulary in case you wind up at a doctor’s office, which you inevitably will at some point? Remember, a good treatment comes from a good diagnosis. Say you have a headache. How do you even convey this unless you know the Spanish for head in the first place? Sign language is one option but still not as cool and convenient as Spanish.
Given you understand the importance of knowing your body parts in Spanish, this article aims to have you covered on the issue. However, human body is no mean feat. There’s a gazillion different parts, big and small, and almost all of them are worth knowing. But a post like this being only so long, it won’t be possible to cover all of them. Hence, I have decided to discuss some of the most commonly referred bits here and let you get inventive with the rest as your specific situation demands. By the end of this article, you’d have learned the Spanish for these parts of your body and memorized them permanently – without a single minute wasted on rote rehearsal. In case you haven’t already recognized the power of mnemonics and visualization, you’ll do so here.
Head and Shoulders
1. El Pelo (Hair)
Although pelo and hair don’t look like they have much in common, they go back a long way. The word comes from Latin pilus which gives us pile in English. If pile hasn’t point you to hair yet, think of the pile of a carpet. If this etymology still doesn’t do it for you, there’s another way to memorize pelo. Picture pulling your hair in frustration because you keep forgetting what pelo means! Pelo. Pull. See how it works? This is called word-association.
2. La Cabeza (Head)
Picture someone with a cabbage for a head. The near-rhyme between cabbage and cabeza should help you easily retain the relationship in your cabeza for good. In case history is something you enjoy, cabeza has one that goes back to Latin capitia via Old Spanish cabeça. This Latin source sounds eerily similar to English words like capital and decapitate and that’s because it’s the same family tree. This is just a good-to-know trivia since I still believe the cabbage trick should be good enough by itself.
3. El Ojo (Eye)
Don’t know about you but right off the bat, this word looks to me like two eyes with a nose. I mean look at the letters. Think of the o’s as the eyes and the j as the nose. One way to reinforce this is to recall the English word oho which is used as an interjection when one is surprised or shocked. It shouldn’t be hard to picture one’s eyes grow bigger in surprise as they go, “oho!” The words rhyme perfectly so that’s a big plus here.
4. La Oreja (Ear)
The word used to be oricla when they spoke Vulgar Latin and it descended from Latin auricŭla. Now auricŭla sounds like what could have given us ear-related words like aural and audio. And that’s exactly how it went down. Aural is indeed related to oreja which should explain their near-rhyme. If you are now confident about oreja, you should feel equally at home with oír (to hear) since the two words are etymological cousins just as one would assume looking at them.
5. La Nariz (Nose)
Nariz is a corruption of Latin nārēs which still exists in English as naris, the lesser-known term for a nostril. Now if you’re like me and not at all familiar with naris despite being an English speaker, imagine yourself in a face-off with none other than Chuck Norris where you somehow manage to knock him out cold and bust his nose. That’s one hell of a punch and hard to forget, no? Norris is not gonna forget his broken nariz either. My apologies if your name happens to be Norris, though!
6. La Boca (Mouth)
If you remember your high-school biology, you’d probably recall buccal cavity. That’s the biological term for mouth. As you’d have already guessed by now, both buccal and boca share a common Latin heritage. If this etymology doesn’t cut it for you, imagine being so famished, you wind up eating all the books around you because that’s all you got! While eating books is a terrible idea no matter how starved you might be, it’ll at least ensure you recall boca with ease from now on.
7. El Cuello (Neck)
This one goes back to Latin collum which sounds a lot like column and collar. It’s a no-brainer. A collar is what goes around your cuello and a cuello looks much like a column perched on one’s shoulders. The way these words relate to and rhyme with each other, recalling cuello should be an easy feat. If it helps, cuello also translates into collar, so that’s vocabulary bonus for you right there. This collar, though, is not the one your dog wears. A dog collar is alzacuellos.
8. El Codo (Elbow)
Codo was cobdo in Old Spanish which was cubitum in Latin. That’s how we got the ancient unit of length, cubit. A cubit, back in the day, was defined as the length of a forearm. However, since the unit is no longer in use, this piece of history might not be enough to help you memorize codo. So let’s try out plan B. Think of yourself as a member of a secret order where everyone has to get a tattoo of some ancient mantra on their elbows as a sign of allegiance. The tat on your codo is a secret code that identifies you as a member.
9. La Mano (Hand)
Mano has got to be the easiest of the lot. That’s because it has more relatives in the English dictionary than one would care to count. The word derives from Latin manus which happens to be the source of many “manu-” words in English, such as manufacture, manual, etc. Don’t you see how mano clearly has a hand in manual? All this is an ancient conspiracy to make sure you remember mano without any efforts. A manual task involves your manos, after all, right?
10. El Brazo (Arm)
Brazo used to be braço in Old Spanish which itself came from brachium of Latin. This Latin word looks and sounds like it gave us the English word branch and that’s because it did. Brazo itself doesn’t sound all that different from branch, does it? Just think of yourself as a tree and your arms as your branches. That should easily lead you to brazos without any fuss. If you have brazo down, you should probably also learn abrazar (to hug) in the same breath because you’re gonna need it a lot in a Spanish speaking country. Hug as a noun is abrazo.
11. El Dedo (Finger)
You are a serial-killer with a twisted head and have a fetish for fingers. So every night you go around killing people for sport and once done, you pluck out their fingers and string them up in a chain around your neck as a souvenir. Sounds idiotic but there actually did exist someone like that in India a long, long time ago. With this image in mind, you should have no trouble recalling dedo. Your dead victims should always remind you of their dedos around your neck. Yikes, this is so metal!
12. El Estómago (Stomach)
Estómago and stomach already sound too similar to warrant any trickery here. Both derive from Latin stomachus which explains their similarity. Speaking of stomach, there seems to be some confusion between estómago, barriga, vientre, and panza. All of these words often get translated into stomach, so allow me to clear the air once and for all. Vientre is the most anatomically accurate term for the actual stomach inside your abdomen and also preferred in the medical community. Barriga is the most informal and refers to the exterior, much like belly does in English. Panza is similar to barriga but preferred in places like Argentina where the latter is rarely heard. I hear they prefer tripa in Spain. Yet another term you might find interesting comes from Chile – guata.
13. La Cintura (Waist)
Cintura sounds very much like center which is what it essentially is. Your waist is more-or-less your center of gravity. It divides your body in two, an upper half and a lower half. That’s more clue than you were ever gonna need with this word in the first place. From cintura also comes cinturón, Spanish for what goes around it, i.e. belt. Another word for belt is correa but this one is more generic and can also refer to a strap, such as that of a watch or a bra.
Below the Belt
14. La Pierna (Leg)
Pierna sounds like it has a pair built in. Well, legs do come in pairs, don’t they? So next time you think leg, recall that there are two of them and you’ll get pierna in a blink. And just so you know, the word is a corruption of Latin perna which has an curious cognate in the Hindi word for leg! So if you happen to be a Hindi-speaker, pierna should be one less thing to worry about.
15. La Rodilla (Knee)
Your knees are the pivot around which your leg rotates, albeit not fully. And that’s the key to remembering rodilla. That’s because the word descends from Latin rotella, a diminutive of rota. Now, rota sounds a lot like rotate because etymology. Rotor is another English derivative in case one isn’t enough. At least the first half of rodilla rhymes pretty neatly with that of rotor or rotate and that should ensure the analogy is never lost on you.
16. El Pie (Foot)
Picture yourself stepping into an abnormally large apple pie placed on the floor for some reason. Having your pie stuck in a pie is not something that happens everyday and thus, not something you forget easily. This will ensure you remember pie forever. That being said, don’t ever make the mistake of pronouncing them the same. What you eat is pie (/pai/) and what you walk on is pie (/p-yay/).
17. El Muslo (Thigh)
Not sure if it’s accurate but I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the muscles around the thighs are some of the largest in the human body. Looks like the Romans certainly believed so which is why they used the same word for both muscles as well as thighs – mūsculus. With time, mūsculus corrupted to Vulgar Latin musclus, which further morphed into muslo as we know it today. Seeing thighs as muscular muslos should be an easy and effortless idea. Now here’s a little trivia to intrigue you: Muslo is not what they commonly use in Chile; instead, they use tuto, a word likely derived from one of their indigenous tongues.
18. El Tobillo (Ankle)
Tobillo used to be touiello in Old Spanish which used to be tūbellum in Latin. Now tūbellum was a diminutive of tūber, a word we still use in English as tuber. Basically, it’s a reference to the bumpy characteristic that your ankle shares with a tuberous thing such as yam. I reckon relating tobillo to tuber might not be very straightforward given how the connection has been mutilated over time. So, let’s figure out an alternative strategy. Got a friend named Toby? Imagine one if not. Now picture him as having an abnormally bumpy ankle on his left (or right, or both, doesn’t matter) foot. His ankle is so malformed that he can’t even run properly. Toby’s funny tobilla will now be the key to your memory here.
This is a very tiny part I stole from my book, Spanish Vocabulary Bible, to give you an idea of what a little ingenuity can do to your memory. These are just 18 words but I hope that’s enough to help you recognize the futility of memorizing words the traditional way. Cramming up vocabulary lists certainly works. In the same way cooking on dying embers would. Your food will cook, but you’d have starved to death by the time it does. So get your gray cells running and try coming up with clever ways to nail other body parts in Spanish. And, of course, don’t forget to share your hacks with us lesser mortals in the comments below!