The Zen of Fin and Fondo
Back when folks spoke Latin, finalis meant final and fundus meant bottom. Let’s go to the fundus of fin/fondo by first getting out of the way some equivalents of these English words. Final in Spanish is usually último (meaning not “ultimate” but “last”). The Spanish word final exists, but with little life of its own. You see it in phrases like poner punto final a (“to put an end to”). This is what my wife wants to do to my trips to Becky’s Bar in Panajachel, even though I never “drink” there. Bottom, in Spanish, becomes base for many physical and metaphorical foundations, whereas trasero is the word used in mixed company for that, um, part of the anatomy the wife must think I go to Becky’s to look at (quick note: I don’t).
Aside from fondo and fin, extremo often translates end, mainly in the sense of “tip” for anything ideological (as in English) or tubular (candles, pipes, pencils, caterpillars, etc.). Trotsky burnt the candle at both extremos while writing down his opiniones extremas. All in all, extremo is not too zenny.
Fin is straightforward, especially for movie buffs who recall that movies made in the 40s and 50s concluded with the uppity French fin at the fin of the final scene. And the common phrase por fin means finally. Fin is also the word for end in geometry and for time periods, lives, events, and civilizations. Admiral Nelson found two fines in the battle of Trafalgar: the fin of his life (he was fatally wounded), and the fin of the combined French-Spanish fleet (Nelson’s costly victory could also be called a meta, the proper word for goal).
Fin means purpose or aim in the phrases a fin de and con el fin de. Before a verb, they mean, “with the goal of” or “in order” or simply “so.” The wife could tell her knitting circle, “I went to Becky’s Bar a fin de poner punto final a las visitas que mi esposo hace.”
Fondo is zennier than fin. For abstractions, you need fin. For physical things, especially things big enough to enter—caves, buildings, railcars, peninsulas, fuselages, attics, cul-de-sacs, and the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia universe—you need fondo. Boats may be an exception, because the Spaniards were seafarers who thought up nautical synomyms. “All right, boys,” Columbus might have told his crew, “it’s a long way to India, especially since we’re going the wrong way. So let’s think up some good words for stern and bow, so we can quit saying fondo-this, fondo that. It’s something to do!” They already had a word for deep—profundo—and depths—las honduras. This word went on to become the name of a country, perhaps because the coastal waters are deep enough to drown in if you have had enough rum.
The first zenniness of fondo is that it means both end and bottom. If your movement is lateral, it means the former; if you’re descending, it means the latter. The second zenniness is that for lateral movement, fondo is relative. The fondo of, say, a row of offices in a government ministry is the end where the speaker is not. When you arrive at the reception desk and ask whom you need to see, you might be sent all the way to the licenciada at the fondo. And so, after you go there and stand in line (ideally with a copy of Revue), the licenciada might explain that you’re in the wrong place, and that you need to return to reception for redirection (perhaps to the fondo of another floor). Where is the reception desk? Al fondo, “at the back.”
Reader, maybe I have not reached the fondo, but I have reached the fin.
And so I have. This is the fin of “Zen of …” I want to thank all those readers who have, over the years, followed this column loyally, especially those who sent compliments, ideas for future columns, and the occasional correction or barb. There is talk of compiling the columns into a book. But for now, from one student of Spanish to many others, ¡Qué les vaya bien!
PS: Look for my new column, starting next month.