If embarazar does not mean ‘to embarrass’ and embarazado/a does not mean ‘embarrassed’, then how do we express these meanings in Spanish? The most widespread Spanish equivalents for these words in standard Spanish are avergonzar for the verb embarrass and avergonzado/a for the adjective embarrassed. However, Spanish prefers to use neither the adjective nor the verb, but rather the related noun vergüenza /beɾ.ˈɡu̯en.θa/ to express these meanings, along with the verbs dar, tener, or sentir. Thus, what a student who is too shy to speak up in class would probably say something one of the following where an English student might say ‘I am embarrassed (by it)’:
- Me da vergüenza, lit. ‘It gives me embarrassment’, i.e. ‘It embarrasses me’
- Tengo vergüenza, lit. ‘I have embarrassment’
- Siento vergüenza, lit. ‘I feel embarrassment’
Either one of these three ways is more common than Estoy avergonzado/a, with the adjective, or Me avergüenza, with the verb. These last two sentences are quite acceptable Spanish sentences, but their meaning is quite a bit stronger than ‘I am embarrassed’, since they express more a sense of ‘shame’ than ‘embarrassment’, though the two concepts are somehow related. Thus, the sentence Estoy avergonzado/a can be best translated as I am ashamed and the sentence Me avergüenza as It makes me feel ashamed.
The patrimonial noun vergüenza comes from Lat. vĕrēcŭndĭa ‘shamefacedness, shame’, ‘bashfulness, shyness’, and even ‘respect’, that is, ‘a natural and positive feeling of shame (face loss), by whatever cause it is produced’. This noun was derived from the adjective vĕrēcŭndus (fem. vĕrēcŭnda, stem: vĕrēcund‑) and the suffix ‑ia which created abstract nouns typically out of adjectives, as in this case (cf. Part I, Chapters 5 and 8). The adjective vĕrēcundus meant ‘feeling shame (at any thing good or bad); bashful, shy, etc.’. This adjective was itself derived from the second-conjugation deponent verb verērī ‘to respect, revere, fear’, a verb that is cognate with the English adjective aware, since they both descend from the same Proto-Indo-European root. (The principal parts of this Latin verb are vereor, verērī, veritus sum.)
The reason for these differences in meaning of vergüenza and the words derived from it is that vergüenza is a polysemous word, namely one that has more than one meaning (sense), as often happens in language (cf. Part I, Chapter 6). Most English-Spanish dictionaries tell us that the noun vergüenza has three major senses, one of which is sometimes divided into two subsenses:
- Embarrassment/shyness, with two subsenses
- Subsense 1: Shyness
- Meaning: ‘bashfulness’, ‘shyness’, i.e. ‘feeling bad about doing something which might make you lose face or feel humiliation’
- Synonyms: timidez, corte(dad), apocamiento
- Examples: Me da vergüenza hablar en clase or Tengo vergüenza de hablar en clase ‘I’m embarrassed about speaking in class’
- Subsense 2: Embarrassment
- Meaning: ‘embarrassment’, i.e. ‘feeling bad about something that happens to you that might make you lose face or feel humiliation’
- Synonyms: turbación, sonrojo, sensación de ridículo, rubor, bochorno
- Examples: Me dio vergüenza cuando me caí or Pasé vergüenza cuando me caí ‘I was embarrassed when I fell down’
- Sense of shame
- Synonyms: sentido del decoro, deshonor, sentimiento de dignidad,
- Example: No tienes vergüenza ‘You have no (sense of) shame’, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself’
- Something disgraceful (that causes or should cause embarrassment or shame)
- Synonyms: escándalo, motivo de oprobio
- Example: Estos precios son una vergüenza ‘These prices are outrageous, disgraceful’
The first sense is the one that is the one that compares to Eng. embarrassment and embarrassed. Notice that this sense has two subsenses. The first one refers to the uneasy feeling about doing something that may cause embarrassment. Eng. shyness and (the somewhat archaic) bashfulness are probably the best equivalents of this sense of the noun vergüenza when this noun is used as an abstract noun. When it is used to express how a person feels at a particular moment, as in No tengas vergüenza ‘Don’t be shy/embarrassed’, the equivalent in English can be the adjective embarrassed (as well as shy or bashful, of course).
The noun timidez is a synonym of this sense of vergüenza, a word that translates as bashfulness, shyness. The noun timidez is derived from the adjective tímido/a ‘shy’ by means of the suffix -ez that creates abstract nouns out of adjectives in Spanish, after removing the inflexional ending ‑o/a (tímid-ez, cf. Part I, Chapter 5). The adjective tímido/a, of course, is cognate of Eng. timid, and it is a synonym of the Spanish adjective vergonzoso/a that we mentioned earlier. Sp. tímido also translates Eng. shy, which is much more common than its synonym timid. Both Eng. timid and Sp. tímido are learned loanwords from the Latin adjective tĭmĭdus/tĭmĭda ‘fearful, afraid, faint-hearted, cowardly, timid’ (English borrowed it in the mid-16th century and Spanish in the late 15th century). This Latin adjective was derived from the root tĭm‑ of the verb tĭmēre ‘to fear, be afraid, be fearful, be apprehensive, dread’, the source of patrimonial Sp. temer, with the same meaning. Another pair of cognates derived from the same root are Eng. intimidate and Sp. intimidar.
The second subsense of the first sense of the noun vergüenza is the one closest to the English noun embarrassment (synonym: ‘anxiety, worry’) and thus to the adjective embarrassed when the noun vergüenza is used to describe how a person is feeling. It refers to the uneasy feeling about something that has happened that is seen as being embarrassing or anxiety provoking. Note that the expression dar vergüenza can be used with both subsenses, whereas pasar vergüenza can only be used with the second subsense. The expression tener vergüenza, on the other hand, can only be used with the first one.
The second major sense of vergüenza is ‘shame’, a sense much stronger than ‘embarrassment’, but one that shares with it the sense of ‘loss of face’, i.e. ‘loss of respectability in front of others’. The word vergüenza with this ‘strong’ sense of ‘shame’ is used in a number of expressions. One of them is tener vergüenza, which we just saw could be used with the sense of the first subsense of the first sense. The noun vergüenza can also have the strong sense of ‘shame’ in the expression dar vergüenza, if used in the right context. Thus, for instance, the sentence Debería darte vergüenza can probably best be translated (typically) as You should be ashamed and not You should be embarrassed.
As we saw earlier, the expression dar vergüenza can also be used to translate the English verb to embarrass or to make (one) feel embarrassed/embarrassment, as in Me dio vergüenza lo que hizo mi hijo ‘What my son did made me feel embarrassed’. Another way to express this verb’s transitive meaning is hacer pasar vergüenza ‘to make (someone) feel embarrassment’.
Words related to vergüenza
There are a number of words derived from Sp. vergüenza. In addition to dar vergüenza and hacer pasar vergüenza, there is also a transitive verb avergonzar (a‑vergonz‑ar; o > ue). Like the noun, it can have both the strong and the weak senses, namely ‘cause shame’ and ‘cause embarrassment’. We find the strong sense in a sentence such as in Mi novia me avergonzó delante de mis padres ‘My fiancée embarrassed/shamed me in front of my parents’. This verb is most commonly used reflexively, that is, as intransitive avergonzarse (de) ‘to feel shame/embarrassment (about)’, as in Me avergüenzo de lo que he hecho ‘I am ashamed/embarrassed of/for what I’ve done’. Sometimes, one of the two senses comes through more clearly, as in Me avergüenzo de ti ‘I’m ashamed of you’. From the past participle of the verb avergonzar we get the adjective avergonzado/a ‘ashamed’ or ‘embarrassed’ (a‑vergonz‑ado/a).
The Latin adjective vĕrēcŭndus that we saw in the previous section was not passed on to Spanish as a patrimonial word and it was not borrowed from Latin later either. Rather, Spanish developed the adjectives from the noun vergüenza. One is vergonzoso/a (vergonz-os-o/a), which has two senses: (1) ‘causing shame, shameful, disgraceful, etc.’, as in un asunto vergonzoso ‘a shameful matter’ or Tus palabras fueron vergonzosas ‘Your words were shameful’. The other sense, not surprisingly, is ‘shy, bashful’, as in un niño vergonzoso ‘a shy boy’ or Soy vergonzoso ‘I’m shy’ (equivalent to Tengo vergüenza).
The other adjective related to vergüenza is actually derived from the past participle of a verb derived from the noun vergüenza, namely avergonzar (a-vergonz-ar), whose two main senses are ‘to cause shame; to cause embarrassment’. This transitive verb is often used as an intransitive in its reflexive form avergonzarse, also with two meanings: ‘to be or become ashamed’ and ‘to be or become embarrassed’. The participle of this verb is avergonzado/a, which can be used as an adjective, also meaning either ‘ashamed’ or ‘embarrassed’.
The word sinvergüenza, formed from the preposition sin ‘without’ and the noun vergüenza can be used as an adjective with the strong sense meaning something like ‘shameless’, as in No seas sinvergüenza ‘Don’t be shameless’. It can also be used as a noun and, as such, it translates as ‘shameless (person)’ or ‘scoundrel’, e.g. Juan es un sinvergüenza ‘Juan is a scoundrel’. Sometimes, however, the word is used tongue-in-cheek in contexts in which the word is not quite as strong, especially when employed often to refer to children who misbehave. Then the adjective is best translated as cheeky or rascally and the noun as rascal or brat.
Since the preposition sin ‘without’ is not used commonly as a prefix in Spanish, the word sinvergüenza is obviously derived from the phrase sin vergüenza, lit. ‘without shame’, as in una persona sin vergüenza or un tipo sin vergüenza ‘a person without shame’. If we drop the noun, we get the noun phrase with the same meaning, namely un(a) sin vergüenza, in which the prepositional phrase sin vergüenza ‘without shame’ has been nominalized (become a noun), namely sinvergüenza ‘shameless’ or ‘shameless person’.
Derived from sinvergüenza is the noun sinvergonzonería that means ‘shameful act, impudence, shamelessness’ or, more properly, ‘the quality of being a sinvergüenza’ or ‘an act typical of a sinvergüenza’. It is formed from the colloquial augmentative of sinvergüenza, namely sinvergonzón, and the ending ‑er‑ía (sin‑vergonz‑on‑er‑ía).
3. Sp. pena
The word vergüenza is not the only way to express the meaning of ‘embarrassment’ in Spanish. Perhaps because this word has two major senses (‘embarrassment’ and ‘shame’), in some dialects, the word pena is used to express the weak sense instead of vergüenza. According to the DLE, in Central America, the Caribbean islands, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, the word pena is used instead of vergüenza for the sense of ‘bashfulness’ or ‘embarrassment’. In some countries, namely Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama, the word pena is also equivalent to the related sense of the word pudor ‘modesty, sense of decency, decorum, bashfulness’, so that in these dialects the meaning of pena extends to embarrassment about the display of one’s body and behavior that is considered immodest.
In these countries, the noun pena is used with this sense of bashfulness with the verbs tener ‘to have’, sentir ‘to feel’, or dar ‘to give’, as in Tengo pena, Siento pena, or Me da pena translate in these dialects as ‘I’m embarrassed’ (equivalent to Me da vergüenza in other dialects, such as those found in Spain). The very common phrase Don’t be embarrassed translates in these dialects as No tengas pena.
The expressions that we have just seen would be interpreted very different in other countries, such as Spain, for instance, since there the word pena does not have this meaning. In those other countries, pena translates primarily as pity (or as shame, but only in the phrase What a shame!, equivalent to What a pity!). In the plural, penas typically means ‘sorrows’ and in legal terminology pena can mean ‘penalty’. The word pena comes from Lat. poena ‘penalty, punishment’, which was a loan from Gk. ποινή (poinḗ) ‘penalty, fine, blood money’.
The English noun pain is a cognate of Sp. pena, but they are false friends since their senses are different. Eng. pain was borrowed from French in the late 13th century with the sense of ‘penalty’. Since judicial penalties in those days involved the infliction of pain (torture), it is no surprise that the word pain came to acquire the meaning it currently has in English, though not in Spanish.
The main sense of Eng. pain translates into Spanish as dolor. Do note that dolor is also an English word, albeit a rare one. It means ‘grief, sorrow’. They come from Lat. dolor (acc. dolōr-em), which meant primarily ‘pain, ache’, but also ‘anguish, grief, sorrow’ and ‘indignation, anger’.
In Spanish, pena can still mean ‘punishment’, as it did in Latin, so that pena de muerte means ‘death penalty’, but that is not its main meaning nowadays. (Eng. penalty is derived from the same root; the expression pain of death is still used as equivalent to dealth penalty.) As we said, the main sense of pena in standard Spanish is ‘grief, sorrow, pity’. It is used very often in sentences such as Juan me da pena ‘I feel sorry for Juan’ and ¡Qué pena! ‘What a pity’, and Siento pena ‘I feel sorry’. It is obviously from this sense of ‘grief, sorrow, pity’ that the ‘embarrassment’ sense was derived for the word pena in certain collocations and in certain countries (though not all).
 In Old Spanish, the noun vergüença, the precursor of Mod.Sp. vergüenza, alternated with a synonym vergüeña (cognate of Catalan vergonya). Corominas thinks that vergüeña is the true patrimonial word whereas vergüenza comes from a semi-learned Medieval pronunciation vergundia, which later became vergunzia (/beɾ.ɡun.ʣ̪i̯a/), verguinza (/beɾ.ɡui̯n.ʣ̪a/), and eventually vergüenza. French lost this Latin word and its meaning is expressed in French by the noun honte /ˈɔ̃t/ ‘shame’, from Frankish *haunitha ‘disdain, scorn, ridicule’. By the way, Eng. shame is a patrimonial word that descends from O.Eng. scamu (also attested as scomu, sceamu, sceomu), which also meant ‘shame’. The plural of the noun vergüenza, namely vergüenzas, is also a euphemism for ‘private parts’.
 Derived from the verb tĭmēre Latin had the noun tĭmor (accusative: tĭmōrem), meaning ‘fear, dread’, which is the source of the Spanish noun temor, with the same meaning. Another word derived, in Spanish, from this noun is atemorizar ‘to frighten, scare; to terrorize’. From the verb temer, Spanish has also derived the adjective temeroso/a ‘fearful’.
 Another words formed on this pattern is sintecho, lit. ‘without roof’, which is one way to refer to a ‘homeless person’.