A Woman and a Guitar: Variations on a Folk Metaphor

ISSN 1323-4633
Volume 1 – Number 2 – 1995



Hispanic proverbs, riddles and folk verse offer numerous examples of metaphor in which a woman is compared–implicitly or explicitly–to a guitar or vice versa. These are primarily (using, for convenience, the terminology adopted by J. David Sapir[1]) metaphors of the “internal” genus-for-genus type, bringing together terms from disparate semantic domains–human being and inanimate, manmade object–and establishing a relationship between them on the basis of certain shared features. As is typical of such metaphors, they also, simultaneously, produce a degree of transference, between the terms, of other features that are not shared, or that have not been perceived as shared. In other words–borrowing from Sapir (p. 9) but substituting the terms with which we are concerned here–we are, through such metaphors, “compelled to consider what we know about [guitars] and to select those features that would apply to [women], thus learning something very specific about [women].” At the same time, we are invited to think about ways in which women and guitars are not alike and to consider whether perhaps some of those unlike features may, after all, be shared–whether, perhaps, women may actually have even more in common with guitars than is immediately apparent. In other words, we are given the means–again, adapting Sapir’s wording–of imagining that a woman is in fact a guitar, down to the smallest detail.

The diagram reproduced here, which is adapted from Sapir and taken by him, in turn, from Dubois[2], shows this process as it applies to some of the examples I shall be citing later on:

Folk metaphor - a woman and a guitar
A woman and a guitar

“D” represents the point of departure, or what Sapir calls the “continuous term,” “A” the point of arrival or the “discontinuous term,” and “I” the intermediary or shared features. Since we are dealing here with a reversible equation, we can put either guitar or woman in the “D” column, and either woman or guitar in the “A” column. Under “I” will then go the various features that the two may be said to have in common, beginning with the simplest–the grammatical gender of the word guitarra and other names for this or similar musical instruments–and continuing through similarities of physical form and action. It should be noted that a number of these shared features are in themselves metaphors: the overall shape of a guitar resembles that of a woman, but to speak of the “waist” and “hips” of a guitar, or of its belly and mouth and teeth and so on, is to employ subsidiary metaphors that could themselves be analyzed in a diagram similar to this one.[3] The same is true when we refer to the sound of the guitar as “weeping,” “talking,” “singing”; and, as we shall see later, the use of certain verbs of double meaning in Spanish–tocar, templar–adds still another dimension.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Mujer mal criada, guitarra mal templada.
[A badly brought up woman (is like) a badly tuned guitar.]

(Spain: ibid.)
Antes templarás una guitarra que una mujer airada.
[You will sooner tune/temper a guitar than an angry woman.]

(Spain: Martínez #43781)
The active role of the musician in tuning/tempering is often emphasized:

La mujer y la guitarra, para usarlas hay que templarlas.
[A woman and a guitar, in order to use them you have to tune/temper them.] (Spain: Sbarbi 665)
La mujer y la guitarra se tiemplan antes de usarlas.
[A woman and a guitar are tuned before using them.]

(Argentina: field, M, 50’s)
La mujer y la guitarra, para tocarlas hay que templarlas.
[A woman and a guitar, in order to play/touch them you have to tune/temper them.]

(Spain: field, F, 20’s)
La mujer y la guitarra, es difícil templarlas.
[A woman and a guitar are difficult to tune/temper.)

(Spain: Rodríguez 12.600 168)
La mujer y la guitarra, hay que saber templarlas.
[A woman and a guitar, you have to know how to tune/temper them.]

(Spain: Rodríguez 6.666 92.)
Mujeres y guitarras, es menester mucho tino para templarlas.
[Women and guitars, you have to have a knack for tuning/ tempering them.]

(Spain: Rodríguez 10.700 203)
It is worth noting the frequency with which these proverbs are stated in the form: “A woman and a guitar…” rather than “A woman is like a guitar,” so that hypothetically at least the topic could be either the woman or the guitar; that is, a musician, observing how easily his instrument gets out of tune, could remark: “La mujer y la guitarra, siempre destempladas” [A woman and a guitar, always out of tune], and be simultaneously commenting on his musical instrument and on women in general.

As a final category of woman/guitar proverbs, we have those in which the two terms are linked to others with which they are considered to share certain features:

Mujer, guitarra y molino, requieren uso contino.
[A woman, a guitar, and a mill require constant use.] (Spain: Jara 303; Ecuador: Bravo 142)
A quien tiene escopeta, guitarra, reloj o mujer, nunca le falta un traste que componer.
[He who has a shotgun, a guitar, a watch or a woman will never lack for something to fix.]

(Spain: Jara 105)
Traste, incidentally, which I have translated merely as “something,” has the basic meaning of “fret,” as on a guitar, but is widely used in place of trasto, meaning a piece of furniture, a utensil, or simply a piece of junk. And finally, in a last example:

Mujer, escopeta, guitarra y caballo, no prestallo.
[A woman, a shotgun, a guitar, and a horse are not to be lent.] (Spain: Rodríguez 12.600 213)
Here, the guitar has simply been added to the more frequent list of three “objects” that one is warned against lending: Mujer, caballo y escopeta, no se presta or Mujer, reloj [watch] y escopeta, no se presta (Spain: Sbarbi 667). In another variant, however, it replaces one of the original group, thus maintaining the original number of three:

No prestar nunca el caballo, la guitarra y la mujer
[Never lend your horse, your guitar, or your woman/wife.] (Honduras: Aguilar #418).
The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

*Previously published in Proverbium, 10 (1993), pp. 21-36

  1. J. David Sapir, “The Anatomy of Metaphor,” Ch. 1 of The Social Use of Metaphor, eds. J. David Sapir and J. Christopher Crocker (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977), pp. 3-32. Sapir draws in turn on sources ranging from Aristotle to Kenneth Burke, Max Black, and I. A. Richards, among others.
  2. Sapir, p. 6. His reference is to J. Dubois, et al., Rhétorique générale (Paris: Larousse, 1970), 108, 118. In the English translation by Paul B. Burrell and Edgar M. Slotkin, A General Rhetoric (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) the corresponding pages are 108 and 121.
  3. Such metaphors are by no means limited to folk tradition; see, for example, a technical description of the tiple and the cuatro–types of guitar popular in Colombia–in terms of the dimensions of the “head,” “chest,” “waist,” and “hips” (Guillermo Abadía Morales, Compendio general de folklore colombiano, 4th ed. [Bogotá, 1983], pp. 269 and 273).
  4. Sources of quoted examples are identified by author’s surname, date, and item number or page. See the bibliography at the end of this study for full details. For examples collected in the field I have indicated region, sex of informant, and approximate age if known. All English translations are my own.
  5. Variants also exist in which the name of the instrument is masculine, e.g., tiple (a type of guitar especially popular in Colombia), violão (the common term used in Brazil for the “Spanish” guitar).
  6. The strophe is one of 38 cuartetas making up the poem “Pórtico,” written originally for a book published in 1892 by Salvador Rueda (see Darío’s Poesías completas, ed. Alfonso Méndez Plancarte [Madrid: Aguilar, 1961], p. 654). Within the poem, the strophe appears in parentheses as a kind of aside on the part of the poet, an isolated image brought to mind by the mention of a guitar in the previous cuarteta; its consequent “detachability” from the rest of the poem, and its use of traditional guitar/woman imagery, might foster its adoption as a “folk” verse despite its non-traditional, 11-syllable form. In the original, the first word of the strophe is urna [urn] rather than the indefinite article una. Assuming it is not merely a typographical error, the variation recorded by Saubidet may be considered evidence of the entry of the cuarteta into oral tradition, where a relatively unfamiliar image (the guitar as “amorous urn”) has been replaced by a more familiar one (the guitar as “amorous woman”).
  7. One of the classificatory categories proposed by Roberto Lehmann-Nitsche in his classic study Adivinanzas rioplatenses (Buenos Aires: Coni Hermanos, 1911) and later adopted by Archer Taylor in his English Riddles from Oral Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951) as well as by other scholars in the field.
  8. The italics are in the original. Escachalandrado or descachalandrado is a regionalism with the meaning of desaliñado, descuidado (“slovenly,” “unkempt”) (María Josefina Tejera, ed., Diccionario de venezolanismos [Caracas: Academia Venezolana de la Lengua, 1983], pp. 374, 418). The use of an adjective typically applied to a person rather than an object contributes to the analogy.
  9. Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la lengua española, 19th ed. (Madrid, 1970), under guitarra. The expression may be applied to individuals of either sex. Under the verb templar the same source notes that in South America (region or regions unspecified) the reflexive verb templarse has the meaning enamorarse, “to fall in love.”


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———-. Los seis mil seiscientos [6.666] refranes de mi última rebusca. Madrid: D. Bermejo, 1934. Cited as Rodríguez 6.666.

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Shirley L. Arora
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
University of California
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1532