playa

The Spanish word playa means “beach,” “shore,” or “seacoast.” However, throughout the Spanish-speaking world—and in the United States along the Texas Gulf coast, Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and southern California’s Pacific coast—the word usually refers more specifically to a sandy beach. Playa is also used when describing the sandy bank along a river bend, or at the edge of a lake or pond. In a curious appropriation of the word (perhaps as a result of a mistranslation), geologists and geographers have developed an elaborately esoteric definition of the word. Accordingly, playa refers to shallow, gravel-bottomed, recharge wetlands in semiarid and arid prairies, or dry non-vegetated flat areas at the lowest sections of undrained desert basins. One might speculate that while viewing a wetland, a scientist inquired of a Spanish speaker, “What do you call this?” The Spanish speaker— referring to the sandy edges around the wetland—said, “Es una playa.” Unable to fully understand the foreign tongue, the scientist wrote dutifully that a “shallow, gravel-bottomed etc.” is called a playa. What we are seeing then is language evolving. Perhaps in two hundred years playa will mean universally more than merely a sandy beach. For now, however, millions of Spanish speakers know the word playa only as beach.

Arturo Longoria