Pakis

How would you translate the innocuous-sounding “corner shop” into Spanish? The answer may shock British readers. Ask anyone in Barcelona what the convenient local shops where one can buy food and drink when the supermarkets are closed are called, and they’ll all give you the same answer: “pakis”.

Why? Firstly, because most corner shops in the city are owned and staffed by immigrants from Pakistan. Secondly, adjectival nouns are used extensively in Spanish; fat people are “los gordos” (fatties), shops run by chinese people are “los chinos”, and people with black skin are “los negros” (blacks). And, as these examples indicate, another factor at play is the, shall we say, “relaxed” attitude towards political correctness that prevails in Spain that allows people and things to be freely described by their physical or racial features.

Of course, political correctness aside, in Spain the word “paki” doesn’t have the same bloody history that it is burdened with in the UK. Although there have been some modern attempts to reclaim the word by young British Pakistanis, it is generally considered to be an extremely offensive racist slur. From the 60s onwards it was a hateful epithet usually heard accompanying violence and vandalism targeted at recently arrived Asian immigrants (whether they were actually from Pakistan or not).

After three years in Barcelona, I no longer flinch when I hear someone say the word “paki”, but cultural and linguistic taboos run deep, and it still isn’t a word I feel comfortable saying out loud myself.

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