I was sitting by the pool a few days ago, working on my “You’re a Greek, stop looking like milk” mission, when another resident of my building came and sat next to me. He was blond and his skin was even whiter than mine. He started talking to me in Spanish; it turned out he was Cuban. When I said I was Greek he said I didn’t look Greek, that I didn’t look like anything, that I could be anything (Should I throw him in the water or should I ignore him?, I thought). I said “Well, you must have thought I was Hispanic, otherwise you wouldn’t have spoken to me in Spanish.” He said that was the only language he knew. He had been in the US for more than fourteen years but he’d been able not only to get by but to work in a hospital even with his very limited English.
After we talked for a while about things of little importance (he was telling me that his tanning accelerator didn’t have any effect, I said I use Coppertone because the smell brings back beautiful memories of my childhood in Greece), he told me about his life. He said he had just moved to the building and that he lived with his mother and his sister, who was a special little girl, “es una niña especial”. I smiled and tried to register this. Whenever I’m not 100% sure about the meaning of something someone says to me, I just smile a little and in those first few seconds I’m racing through my brain’s dictionaries and corpuses to see what it could possibly mean. After discarding the possibility that he just loves his sister so much that at the first mention of her he says she’s a special person, I realized he meant she was a child with special needs. Thank goodness I had only smiled, any other reaction would have been inappropriate and maybe even offensive (think “Oh, what’s so special about her?”, even if said with the best of intentions or out of plain curiosity).
He went on talking but at that moment I had already drifted away in virtual dictionaries and sunk into the Spanish depository in my head, trying to remember if I’d ever heard or read “niño especial” with that meaning. I could only find “persona con necesidades especiales”. I couldn’t wait to go back upstairs and write to my Spanish friends to ask if this term is commonly used to refer to a mentally or physically handicapped person. Of course I wasn’t going to interrupt the conversation or my mission! I jumped from dictionary to dictionary in my brain, in the other languages I know. I stopped at French for a while, then moved on to Greek and parked there. I tried several terms, several synonyms of special, periphrastic and paraphrastic equivalents. Nothing. Was it an Americanism of Spanish speakers? “A special girl.” I smiled again, although the man had long moved on to a different topic.
Eventually I joined him again in the conversation but went back to that special term again and again that day and the next, smiling at the sweetness of it and of those it describes or should describe, and wished that it replaced all other equivalents in all languages and all dialects and all registers and all situations.