Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: rubber / goma / caoutchouc


Word mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

Stretch Armstong was all about rubber and plastic.

Stretch Armstrong was all about rubber and plastic.

Thinking about peanuts (ES cacahuetes, FR cacahuètes) gets me thinking about rubber for reasons that will (hopefully) become clear in a moment.

EN → rubber — a tough elastic polymeric substance made from the latex of a tropical plant or synthetically. ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from the verb rub + -er. [The substance was rubbed against writing to erase it.]

ES gomaSustancia viscosa e incristalizable que naturalmente, o mediante incisiones, fluye de diversos vegetales y después de seca es soluble en agua e insoluble en el alcohol y el éter. [Viscous and uncrystalizable substance which, naturally or through cutting, flows from various plants and, after drying, is soluble in water and insoluble in alcohol or ether.] Del lat. vulg. gŭmma, del gr. κόμμι. [From the common Latin gŭmma, from the Greek κόμμι.]

FR caoutchouc — Substance élastique, imperméable et résistante obtenue par coagulation du latex de certaines plantes, arbres ou lianes de la forêt équatoriale, en particulier de l’hevea brasiliensis. [Elastic, impermeable and resistant substance obtained through the coagulation of latex derived from certain plants, trees or creeping vines found in rain forests, particularly the Brasilian rubber tree. ORIGIN Quechua word for the same substance, kauchuk. The Quechua are indigenous South Americans, settled along the Andes and the Amazon River, home to rubber trees.

Caoutchouc is a word that I willfully mispronounce (as “ka-chew ka-chew”) because it amuses me but it makes French people think I’m an idiot. I’m okay with that.

Writing all this up reminds me that when I first started teaching English as a second language, one of the things that threw me was little kids asking for rubbers. I never really got over it. I’ve accepted many Britishisms in my life, but, as an American, a rubber will always be a condom, not an eraser.

Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

7 thoughts on “Word Mystery: rubber / goma / caoutchouc

  1. Good one…Caoutchouc is a strange word in French and I didn’t know it came from an indigenous word in South America.

    I chuckled at the last sentence…I had the same reaction as I was reading along and I was wondering why kids would ask you for a rubber…now I know!

    • Is there a slang Canadian English term for condoms? I haven’t seen enough TV shows from Up North to know…

      • Good question but I think it is rubber as well as I immediately thought of condom when I read the line but then again I do know a lot of the British expressions so maybe I am wrong…not that up on English slang words. I am also slowing losing my English (not in writing but in speaking) as I don’t get to practice often enough…a bit sad really as I had to work hard to learn it in the first place! I am not very talented with languages.

  2. My young daughter has fully indoctrinated me: I had actually forgotten that “rubber” means condom in American English. A strange realization of how far I’ve slipped.

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