An interesting illustration of semantic specificity and cultural dominance

It’s not so much unusual for neologisms that are adopted from another language to have a very concrete meaning, which is far more specific than the word as used in the original language. A more or less random example is the term factoring as used in business Dutch, with that very particular meaning explained in the Wikipedia article. Yet in English that term can also be used in reference to an algebraic operation. I just came upon an interesting and quite visual example in a much more common word: sombrero, the word for “hat” which in Spanish is just as its English equivalent quite generic.

In English, that Spanish word is often used to refer to a specific type of hat, the Mexican sombrero. And indeed, the US version of the Google Images search engine faithfully illustrates that commonly understood meaning, as shown above in a reduced screen shot of the result page for that term on images.google.com.

To the left, you can see that the Mexican version of Google Images – images.google.com.mx – shows different hats, of course also containing some examples of the typical Mexican sombrero.

In the Google Images version that is used in Spain – images.google.es – we see less specificity. We also see more examples of hats that may be worn by a woman:

Results for "Sombrero" in Google Images in the UK What struck me as interesting is that the version of Google Images used most often in Great Britain – images.google.co.uk – follows the US version, and therefore its shorthand usage referring to a Mexican sombrero. I find that somewhat curious, given the far greater proximity of Spain than Mexico. Of course it’s not too much surprising either, given the cultural dominance of US English and its likely infusion of its Mexican connotation into the local language.

I find that an interesting multilateral instance of how semantics can reflect geopolitics.

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