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The Big Question: Big, Ballsy, and Bilingual | Manolo for the Big Girl

The Big Question: Big, Ballsy, and Bilingual

One of the very first issues tackled on this blog was that of “how does one refer to Big Girls.” Plumcake waxed poetic on her insistence that “fat” is “fat,” while I suggested that “cushiony” suggests both bigness and an invitation to experience one’s well-endowed body.  We have also touched upon the idea that “fat” does not have to be considered an insult, but merely a neutral descriptive term, as in “I am 5-foot-1, I’m wearing a wool suit and matching suede boots, I’m fat, and I have shoulder-length hair.” See? That was painless. You don’t even need synonyms like “voluptuous” or “curvy” or “plus-sized” – unless you want some variety.

Anyway, Francesca wonders: In other languages, is “fat” a negative word, or an adjective? And what synonyms for fat do different languages have?

I call upon our bilingual sisters to share some international linguistic fat culture with us!

Francesca is particularly interested in how to say “fat” in Arabic, and whether it’s an insult or a neutral term, since she has noticed that men of North African origin seem to be deeply enamored of her cushioniness, even of her lumpy-squishies.  If Francesca needs an ego boost, she calls her Moroccan man-friends, who quickly remind her that our fear of fat is a Western invention.

34 Responses to “The Big Question: Big, Ballsy, and Bilingual”

  1. caitlin October 10, 2007 at 1:00 pm #

    All I know is that, if forced to choose, I would pick “fat” over “obese” hands down. I can’t think of an uglier-sounding description than “obese”.

  2. roya October 10, 2007 at 1:01 pm #

    In Chinese fat is pang, which really means plump, so be called pang pang (fatty) traditionally has been more affectionate than bad, but now people will waant clarification between pang as in plump or taipang, too fat.

    So in short, in the past it was sort of neutral but now like plump it is sort of akward. changing times… but to clarify, My grandmother, like a lot of the older people, think being plump was sort of “common”, it could be cute, but real beauties were willowy and skinny, beautiful was never pang, but pretty often was…

  3. TNBelle October 10, 2007 at 1:32 pm #

    I’m actually studying in France right now. In French fat is “gros” in the masculine form and in the feminine it’s “grosse”. I would say that’s most certainly a negative conotation, wouldn’t you.

  4. Miu October 10, 2007 at 1:50 pm #

    In french the translation for “fat” is “grosse”. It’s a negative word sometimes used as an insult, no one likes to be called “grosse”. The words that are most used are “ronde” or “pulpeuse” which could be synonyms for “curvy”.

  5. MsMonis October 10, 2007 at 2:14 pm #

    in spanish “gordo/a” = fat. it’s negativity depends on how and in what context it is said. example: “ay, que gorda!” can be translated to “oh my, she is fat!”. this is obviously something that i would not like to hear someone say about me. like many descriptive words in spanish, adding “ito/a” at the end of a word can turn it into an endearment. following this logic, i have started to refer to plus-sized women (myself included) as “gordita”.
    sidenote: my nickname is “monis” and growing up with i had to endure “gordis” on more than one occassion…sigh.

  6. Sophia October 10, 2007 at 2:17 pm #

    In spanish, Fat is Gorda. It is most assuredly negative in Spain, but in some South American countries it is used affectionately.

  7. Sophia October 10, 2007 at 2:18 pm #

    Hehe, we posted at the same time :)

  8. Em October 10, 2007 at 4:07 pm #

    In German you can say “fett” if you want to insult someone, but there is also a descriptive term that I’ve rarely ever heard being used as an insult. It’s neutral, not euphemistic like “curvy” or “voluptuous”, and unlike those, can apply to men, too.
    It’s “dick”. :)

    If you think fear of fat is a western invention, you haven’t been to Iran! My family’s from there. Fat women are no human beings, period. There are no inbetween shades of “pleasantly plump” or “curvy” either. You’re either stick thin, or you’re worthless. None of the “I’m just concerned about your health” talk. Worthless.
    I don’t know if this is an isolated phenomenon in the middle east?

  9. Toya October 10, 2007 at 4:30 pm #

    OMG, I’m going to have to go home and look up the word for “fat” in my Arabic dictionary. (I’m a bellydancer, so having an Arabic dictionary on hand helps.)

  10. succubus October 10, 2007 at 4:46 pm #

    I’ve always been partial to zaftig; Etymology: Yiddish zaftik juicy, succulent, from zaft juice, sap, from Middle High German saf, saft, from Old High German saf
    of a woman : having a full rounded figure : pleasingly plump

  11. curvalicious October 10, 2007 at 7:00 pm #

    So basically “zaftig” means juicy? I love it! Next time my grandmother tries to pull that on me, I’ll just take it as a compliment:-)
    In the words of Fergie, “I like my lady lumps!”

  12. Elizabeth K October 10, 2007 at 7:18 pm #

    I have no problem saying I’m fat, round, obese, overweight, hefty, or heavy but saying I’m squishy or cushiony or lumpy or anything like that is just insulting. It sounds like you are trying to apologize for your size by using a cute word.

  13. Nemtynakht October 10, 2007 at 7:44 pm #

    When I was living in the Middle East, overweight men were often called “ummuba,” or propane tank. This didn’t have a negative connotation but was instead just a teasing insult.

    For women, I don’t remember what the word is but you’re definitely right that there’s an entirely different attitude/appreciation. It doesn’t bother men at all if you’re overweight, and both men and women will comment on your weight as they see fit without meaning any insult by it. So the last time I was over there, this past summer, one of my friends saw me and immediately after hello said, “You got fat!” She didn’t understand why I was offended by this; it’s just a physical description.

  14. Sarah October 10, 2007 at 8:20 pm #

    Russian has a few. There’s “tolsty”, which is straight-up “fat” and usually has a negative connotation. Then there’s “polny,” which is gentler; more equivalent to “plump”. And yet a third option, there’s “pukhly”, which is more like “chubby,” and literally derives from the word for fluff.

    It’s interesting to note that the typical Russian word for thin, “khudoy,” often has the negative connotation of being too skinny.

  15. sara October 10, 2007 at 8:50 pm #

    I personally like “big”. I’m a big girl. :)

  16. Twistie October 10, 2007 at 10:44 pm #

    Alas, I’m not in a position to add to the sum of linguistic knowledge on this particular topic, but since others are weighing in on what they prefer to be called, I’ll tag along and do that, too.

    I don’t care in particular what word is used (other than ‘fluffy’ because that one just annoys me on a deep and visceral level for some reason) so long as it is used with some modicum of respect. Fat, plump, chubby, big, plus-sized, obese, zaftig…as long as it doesn’t sound like you intend it to be insulting, I’m fine with it. But I usually describe myself as fat. I find that using it as a simple descriptor of my body took away its ability to hurt me if someone else used it against me as an insult.

  17. crewbie October 10, 2007 at 11:38 pm #

    I just thought it would be interesting to note that in French, while “grosse” has a negative connotation, so does “maigre” which technically means skinny. If one wants to politely call someone skinny, or ‘slim’, one uses “mince”. So at least there are polite and negative connotations for both…

  18. dangermouse October 11, 2007 at 12:00 am #

    Similiar to what Nemtynakht wrote above about some cultures just seeing “fat” as an adjective, when I was studying ASL (American Sign Language), my deaf teacher said that describing someone as “fat”, “skinny”, “old”, whatever… was just that: whatever. She said adjectives were just how people in the deaf community describe each other & such descriptions were without negative connotations. Seems pretty reasonable to me :)

  19. Leah October 11, 2007 at 12:22 am #

    The thing about Arabic is that it’s based on the root system, so often words that indicate degree can actually be forms of the same root. So the root بدن (or the letters ba-dal-noon) has to do with the body fat, basically–it has forms (based primarily on the addition of vowels and prefixes/suffixes) that are adjectives for fat, corpulent, or obese, nouns for the state of corpulence or obesity, the actual trunk or torso, verbs for to be fat, or adjectives to imply having to do with the body or physical being. Specifically for the adjective fat, the most common term is badeen (بدين) which is defined as stout, corpulent, fat or obese, or the alternate type baadin (بادن) which means the same thing but is just a different “type” meaning it follows a different conjugation pattern from the root. None of these roots refer to “fat” the substance, either on people or on animals. The root for that, which also has forms relating to plumpness and the verb for to gain weight, but also for butter, is سمن or saa meem noon, and the word meaning “fat, corpulent, plump, fleshy, stout, obese, or thick” is sameen (سمين).
    As far as the usage, neither is deeply derrogatory and both are often used fondly or factually more than they are as a put-down. The attitude towards fat people is somewhat different among young people, I think–college age girls worry about their weight; what is considered “normal” or “thin” is, I think, still not as extreme as the US, but young men have more western-influenced images of women’s bodies. Women in the gulf still spend money on diets that don’t work. The Arab world is not immune from cosmopolitanism and it’s accompanying media preys on insecurities or desires to be “pretty.”

  20. shiloh October 11, 2007 at 1:23 am #

    In Malay, there’s fat as in ‘gemuk’ which is descriptive, and ‘montel’ which is complimentary as in voluptuous, nice curves or she’s hot. From what I can see, Malay men are quite into plump girls, with large hips being quite popular, but that’s changing if the number of ads for diets and gyms is anything to go by.

    Zaftig is my favorite – there’s a zinginess to it. Montel is a nice one too.

  21. Another Sarah October 11, 2007 at 5:09 am #

    As in Arabic, the root Sh-M-N in Hebrew refers both to lipids (oil is shemen, cream cheese is shamenet) and to the state of fatness. A woman who is “shmaynah” is fat.

    Israelis also use the word “milay-ah,” which literally means “full,” and is more akin to “plump” than to “fat,” though the lines get blurred depending on who is talking and what their standards are. Some people think I’m cute and milayah and consider it a compliment, to others I’m shmaynah. If they think I’m shmaynah and that that’s not a good thing, they might call me milay-ah as a euphamism.

    Among older Israelis, both words are simple descriptive adjectives. Younger folk have been influenced by American television and are more likely to see it as an insult (and, eating disorders are on the rise . . . .) . I’m sure there are also cultural differences between different populations (eg those descended from Moroccan refugees vs. Iranians vs. Russians vs. Ethiopians etc etc), and also rich vs. poor, urban vs. rural, etc. A girl in Tel Aviv is probably under a lot more pressure to be thin than a girl in Ashdod, though I could definitely be wrong about that. The range of varying subcultures here is mindboggling.

  22. erin October 11, 2007 at 6:20 am #

    i’m living in cairo right now, and some egyptian boys (12-15) are quite fond of yelling “hey you..you fat…” in english. they know it’s not necessarily a nice word in english, so it’s their way of getting a rise out of someone

  23. aliki October 11, 2007 at 6:42 am #

    I speak English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Greek. I can only think that 40 years ago, in brazilian far away farms, one used to say “GORDURA é FORMOSURA”, which rhyms, meaning : to be fat is to be pretty – because being fat meant you had enough to eat, you were rich… Nowadays even in Brazil fat is never neutral, it is the opposite of pretty (and not even the opposite of thin).

  24. Another Sarah October 11, 2007 at 11:17 am #

    The discussion here made me wonder whether the English word “gross” (slang meaning “disgusting”) is related to the German “grosse” (which means “large” or “fat”). It certainly would be saying something if they were related.

    Here’s what the online etymological dictionary says:

    gross (adj.)
    c.1347, from O.Fr. gros “big, thick, coarse,” from L.L. grossus “thick, coarse (of food or mind),” of obscure origin, not in classical L. Said to be unrelated to L. crassus, which meant the same thing, or to Ger. gross “large,” but said to be cognate with O.Ir. bres, M.Ir. bras “big.” Its meaning forked in M.E., to “glaring, flagrant, monstrous” on the one hand and “entire, total, whole” on the other. Meaning “disgusting” is first recorded 1958 in U.S. student slang, from earlier use as an intensifier of unpleasant things (gross stupidity, etc.). Noun sense of “a dozen dozen” is from O.Fr. grosse douzaine “large dozen;” sense of “total profit” (opposed to net) is from 1523. Gross national product first recorded 1947.

  25. Nariya October 11, 2007 at 11:36 am #

    I don’t remember how to say it in any of the Indian languages, but as a skinny girl, I know that in Southern India I’m considered kind of unattractive because of my size. The general response I get there is “oh… you’ve lost weight again…” with a pitying look, or “you would be so pretty if you gained some weight!” So I think that in some parts of India at least, skinniness is not a good trait. Better to be on the plump side and have some softness and curves.

  26. fillyjonk-knitter October 11, 2007 at 10:16 pm #

    I loathe the euphemism “fluffy.” I am not “fluffy.” I am not made out of polyester fiberfill, thanks. “Fluffy” implies insubstantiability, and I am definitely substantial.

    I also don’t like “Obese,” it seems very cold and clinical and it’s also just an ugly word.

    I don’t mind “fat.” It’s a simple descriptive. Yes, it’s sometimes used as a pejorative, but it’s also a descriptive term.

    I do like “voluptuous,” or “zaftig,” because both suggest that there’s something other to being “fat” than “dear, we’re worried for your health.”

    You also don’t see this word much any more: “Statuesque.” Which, near as I can tell, used to be applied to tallish, large, well-proportioned women. And it was a positive.

    I speak a little French and once had someone tell me that “Pneumatique” (pronounced “p-nuh-mah-teek”) was sort of a rude (not derogatory so much as kind of sexual) slang term applied to a curvy woman (particularly with a large bust). You know, like a pneumatic tire? Pumped up with air? I think that’s kind of funny, actually.

  27. Rubiatonta October 12, 2007 at 12:37 pm #

    As a zaftig (my fave descriptor) person, I always enjoyed traveling in the Mideast and Turkey, where the combination of my ample curviness and curly blonde hair garnered lots of admiring looks and comments. I once complained to a (male, Syrian) colleague that so much travel was resulting in weight gain, and he replied, “You’re not fat, you just live in the wrong country.” Sigh.

  28. Gwen October 13, 2007 at 12:58 pm #

    With my husband and his friends/family I speak almost exclusively Spanish, though I’m not a native speaker, so some of my interpretations of social meaning may be off, but…one thing I’ve noticed, as mentioned above, is that “gordo/a” is often either simply descriptive or borderline insulting, while “gordito/a” is often used as a term of endearment, or nickname, or a much nicer descriptive word.
    But there seems to be a gender distinction. We have male friends whose nicknames are “Gordo”, and it’s no big deal, not insulting, but I’ve never heard of a woman being called “Gorda” (without the “-ita” at the end) in a neutral way.

  29. KateriBella October 14, 2007 at 10:38 pm #

    I like the words “statuesque,” “zaftig,” “voluptuous,”…heck, “big” even works for me! I can’t stand the word “obese.” However, the comment made for “gordito/a” makes one sound like something off of the Taco Bell menu, and for me, they aren’t that appetizing (he he he…just call me a Burrito Supreme).

  30. KellyGirl October 15, 2007 at 10:34 am #

    In Italian, “Ciccia” is a term of endearment that essentially means “chubby girl.” When I lived in Italy, I heard “Ciccia” and “Ciccina” (“little chubby girl”) almost every day — and it was always a compliment.

  31. N October 17, 2007 at 6:13 pm #

    I am Dominican, and it is often commented, “you look fatter!” or “my, you’ve gotten fatter!” [tu si que te has puesto gorda] but in a pleased tone of voice, sort of like, “oh, how nice that you’ve been eating well and taking care of yourself.” “Mira que gorda eres” [look how fat you are], etc- not negative. Can be, but not necessarily. Especially when it’s followed by, “y que linda” [and how pretty] :)

  32. Sarah C. October 29, 2007 at 6:26 am #

    In Dutch, “fat” is “dik.” As in: Ik ben dik (I am fat) or een dikke vrouw (A fat lady) Literally, it translates to thick. I never really hear it used perjoratively- other things are “dik” and not fat, like hair.

    There’s also breed (broad), but it’s also used as in english- broad hips, broad shoulders, etc.

  33. Margo October 29, 2007 at 8:18 pm #

    I like to think of myself as “sumptuous”.

  34. GROS BLONDE July 24, 2008 at 7:24 am #

    J’ai trouv