Words can carry as much ammunition as some of the most lethal weapons.
Diplomatic tensions arose at the end of April after a North Korean official entity used foul language when commenting on South Korean female leader Park Geun-hye during President Barack Obama's visit to this Asian country.
The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, shockingly, decided to include the words "running dog," among others far more vulgar, in a statement to criticize the summit in which Park Geun-hye and Obama "urged the North to give up its nuclear weapons development," according to The New York Times. After decades of friction, this impasse certainly was not a lost-in-translation situation. The intention to offend was clear.
However, could it be possible to insult someone without knowing it? Absolutely! As a Spanish speaker, I know many words sit in a controversial limbo.
Take, for instance, the word "hembra," which in some Spanish-speaking countries, such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic, is widely accepted as a synonym for "woman," but in Peru, where I was born, it represents an insult since it refers to "female animals."
The Spanish Royal Academy, the official entity that regulates the language, recognizes both usages. So, in theory, the word "hembra" shouldn't offend anyone. However, common sense dictates that it's preferable to avoid a choice many would consider degrading.
At least in Lima, the Peruvian capital, the word "hembra" is loaded with sexual connotations and alludes to a primitive and bestial nature.
Not in vain, the reference to the female gender of certain species works as an insult. Besides the almost universal derogatory use of "perra" (bitch), the Spanish language finds other synonyms in the animal kingdom when it comes to alluding to an immoral woman. That's the case of "loba" (she-wolf) and "zorra" (fox). This last Spanish word doesn't refer to a good-looking young woman as it does in English.
The English language uses "male" and "female" for both humans and animals. Be aware, though, that the same principle doesn't apply in all Spanish-speaking countries. The difference might gain you a slap in the face.
The politically correct way wouldn't be "macho" and "hembra," but "masculino" (masculine) and "femenino" (feminine), or simply "hombre" (man) and "mujer" (woman).
Nevertheless, since "macho" and "hembra" are popular words in some regions such as the Caribbean, filling out forms might become a challenge due to the fact that the initials "M" and "H" don't stand for "Macho" and "Hembra" but for "Mujer" (woman) and "Hombre" (man) in standard Spanish. So those who proudly consider themselves "supermachos" might mark the wrong choice and raise questions about their much bragged about testosterone levels.
Unlike "hembra," the word "macho" has no pejorative connotations in Peru.
Does language simply reflect the social disparities between genders? Or does it contribute to reinforcing differences and biases?
Context plays an important part. Perhaps the word "hembra" wouldn't be offensive but liberating — if society acknowledged the same sexual freedom for all Adams and Eves.
Alessia Leathers is a native of Peru who has called Cape Coral home since 2003.