Looking Back

What old dictionaries can reveal to us

Reading old dictionaries is one of my eccentric pastimes, because words can be understood more fully in their historical context. It’s a pity that people have ditched physical dictionaries for online sources that can search any word meaning or translation faster than your fingers can flip pages. There is a charm in using a huge dictionary, such as the pig-skin covered “Vocabulario de la lengua tagala” (1860) by the Jesuit Fathers Noceda and San Lucar, and the “Vocabulario de la lengua Pampanga” (1860) by the Augustinian Father Bergaño. Both are now available in reprints, with modern orthography.

I wrote a college paper on Filipino curse words and culled all the “bad words” from these dictionaries. I noted that missionaries were not prude; they included vulgar words, but translated them not into Spanish, but Latin.


In Noceda and San Lucar’s dictionary, “puqui” is translated as “pars vaerenda mullieris, verbum turpissimum.” The 2013 edition of their dictionary published by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino respelled it into a four-letter word with “k”, and defined it as “Pribadong bahagi ng babae, salitang malaswa” (Private part of a woman, vulgar word).

Contrary to popular belief, dictionaries are never innocent. What is included and excluded depend on the bias of the compiler, who sometimes renders a value judgment. The eminent Benedict Anderson famously derailed a UP lecturer by asking, during an open forum, “What is the Filipino word for sodomy?” No one was able to provide a word acceptable to all in the forum, so at a dinner party, when the story was related, we went to my library, pulled out an English-Filipino dictionary on “Sodomy” and let Danton Remoto read out: “Makahayop na pagtatalik, lalo na kung lalaki sa lalaki” (animalistic sex act, especially if it is male to male).


After laughing, we all realized the dictionary provided more than a translation. It carried a value judgment, one that would validate the likes of the Bible-thumping Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who declared that “gays are worse than animals.”

Hours and hours of fun followed my finding a rare volume by the 18th-century Czech Jesuit missionary Pablo Clain (Pavel Klein) in the Biblioteca Nacional de España Digital Collection. Father Klein served in the Philippines, where he compiled words that went into the earliest dictionaries of Tagalog, Kapampangan and Bisaya, disproving the oft-repeated but historically unsupported claim that the Spanish missionaries destroyed our pre-Spanish religion and culture.

Our languages survived because, unlike Spanish America, where missionaries and conquistadores spread Spanish among the local populations they encountered, in the Philippines they did the opposite—they learned the local languages, which was easier than teaching everyone Spanish. Studying the evolution of our languages is possible because of missionary dictionaries compiled from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

I missed finding Klein at first not only because he used his name in Spanish form as Pablo Clain, but also because his most famous book, known in shorthand as “Remedios faciles…” or “Easy remedies for ailments and illnesses in the Philippines,” did not seem like a dictionary. Until I came across his word lists.

For example, cerilla del oido (ear wax) is rendered in Latin as aurium sordes unctusae;  in Tagalog as antotoli; in Bicol as  atoli; and Kapampangan as luga. The list of common ailments—from cough, colds and asthma to more uncommon ones like scorpion stings, poisoning from the botete or blowfish, and even crocodile bites—also says a lot about 18th-century Philippines.

Some remedies are worth trying. For borracho (drunkenness), the patient was brought back to his senses three ways: by letting him take cabbage juice, inducing vomiting or throwing cold water or vinegar on his testicles! Burned heads were refreshed by washing with gogo, lemon, vinegar, gumamela flowers alias tacurangan; or a wash of white wine mixed with two beaten fresh eggs and a bit of vinegar and hot water.

Crocodile bites were first washed with lukewarm wine, then cabbage juice was poured over the wound before it was covered with cabbage leaves. The same remedy was used for dog bites. Another remedy was to rub salt over the wound, mixed with a solution of ash of burned crocodile hide mixed with vinegar.


Reading Klein made me thankful I live in a wired world and 21st-century medicine.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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