Spanish Word of the Day: Picaresca

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It might sound like a spicy ingredient you add to paella, but this word has come to define a common trait in Spanish society and politics, even according to Spaniards themselves.

Published: 2 September 2020 10:25 CEST
Updated: 24 August 2022 15:38 CEST

Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Wisegie/Flickr

Picaresca may not have many different meanings in Spanish but it’s certainly a word that carries a lot of clout in Castilian. 

Next time you watch a rowdy TV debate on corruption in Spanish politics, or have a beer with your friend Manolo while he tells you how he carried on getting unemployment benefits while still working, you may hear the words “España, país de la picaresca”, Spain, the country of guile or wiliness. 

Picaresca comes from the word pícaro (rogue or rascal), a term which actually came to refer to a genre of Spanish prose fiction developed in the 1500s, la novela picaresca or picaresque novel.

The plot usually has a roguish anti-hero as its protagonist, who has to use his or her wits and craftiness to get by in a corrupt society. 

The earliest example of this type of satirical work is the anonymous 1554 classic “El Lazarillo de Tormes”, which tells the story of an impoverished boy from Salamanca who after being accused of stealing by his stepfather is taken under the wing of a blind beggar, who in turn teaches him how to survive in an unjust world. 

Historians have concluded that this distrust for institutions and desire to ‘beat the system’ has lived on in Spanish society, and that achieving better social positioning through illicit acts or deception is more socially accepted than in other countries. 

Despite having all the comforts that come with being married to a Spanish princess, former handball player Iñaki Urdangarín is a fine example of how “la picaresca” is rife in Spain’s ruling classes, having set up fake NGOs in order to line his own pockets. Photo: AFP

A 2013 study on Values and World Views by the BBVA Foundation found that Spaniards are, together with the French, the Europeans who are most distrustful of politicians and religious institutions.

And while they are justifiably angry at how “la picaresca” of Spain’s political classes has led to countless corruption cases being uncovered in recent years, “la picardía” (a similar word to picaresca which means slyness, naughtiness or even lewdness but refers to people rather than in general) is an attitude which is somewhat accepted and secretly revered among a large section of the population. 

“Guile in the DNA” reads the headline of this opinion piece about Spanish attitudes in El País.

Here are some examples of how these words are used:

Somos el país de la picaresca, casi todos nuestros políticos son corruptos.

We’re the country of wiliness, almost all our politicians are corrupt. 

Las Aventuras de Tom Sawyer tiene muchas características de una novela picaresca 

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has a lot of the traits of a picaresque novel

Juan tiene mucha picardía, siempre consigue que hagamos lo que quiere. 

Juan is very sly, he always gets us to do what he wants.  

Me miró con picardía así que supe que le gustaba.

She gave me a mischievous look so I knew she liked me.

Es una chavala muy pícara, consiguió que le diera €200.

She’s very cunning, she managed to get me to give her €200.

Mis nietos son unos pícaros, me dejaron la casa patas arriba.

My grandchildren are rascals, they made my house an absolute mess.