Spanish walk

Ministry of Un-silly Walks.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m listening to Tom Waits’ song “Walking Spanish” and wondering: what is the etymology of this macabre phrase? — Topi.

Tom Waits? The strangest things turn up in this column. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tom Waits. I recognize that he’s a very talented singer-songwriter. My only problem is his voice, which, according to Wikipedia, was once described by a critic as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Remember that business back in the 1990s when The New England Journal of Medicine documented the case of a 45 year-old woman who had seizures whenever she heard Mary Hart’s voice? Tom Waits is my Mary Hart. A Tom Waits duet with Van Morrison would probably do me in for good.

The song “Walking Spanish” is, at least on the surface, about a condemned prisoner walking to his execution, and the phrase in question concludes each verse (e.g., “Tomorrow morning there’ll be laundry, But he’ll be somewhere else to hear the call, Don’t say goodbye, he’s just leaving early, He’s walking Spanish down the hall”). From this we can conclude that “walking Spanish” is not something done voluntarily, and indeed the Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “to (cause to) walk under compulsion, properly with someone holding the collar and the seat of the trousers.”

The phrase dates to the early 19th century, and has been used both literally (with the subject being under the sort of physical restraint described above) and figuratively, where the person is compelled to leave a job, the premises or the country, etc., unwillingly. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1894) provides an example of the figurative “dismiss” or “fire” sense from 1885: “If I had to deal with the fellow, I would soon make him walk Spanish, I warrant you.”

The question, of course, is what makes a “Spanish walk” Spanish in any sense. The simplest (and probably most likely) explanation is that the phrase is just another example of the use of “Spanish” as a derogatory modifier in a wide range of English idioms. This would put “Spanish walk” in the same category as “Spanish castle” (a daydream unlikely to be realized), “Spanish disease” (syphilis) and “Spanish padlock” (a chastity belt). Many of these phrases reflect the national rivalry between Spain and England in the 16th and 17th centuries, just as such phrases as “French leave” (desertion) and “Dutch act” (suicide) echo England’s periods of enmity towards France and the Netherlands.

There is, however, a possibility that “Spanish walk” has a somewhat less derogatory origin. In dressage, the art of training horses to move in precise, sometimes elaborate fashions, “Spanish walking” (presumably named after a style of dressage fashionable at one time in Spain) is a style of walking in which the horse swings its forelegs forcefully straight forward with each step. The effect is roughly similar to soldiers marching in “goosestep,” and a person being involuntarily marched in a “Spanish walk” might approach such a stiff-legged gait.

8 comments on this post.
  1. Alex:

    Have you considered the possibility that it is the other way around and that the stiff legged gait of prisoners made to “walk Spanish” inspired the name for the style of dressage?

  2. h.s. gudnason:

    @Alex I think that the term in dressage is part and parcel of the elaborate court ceremonies that started in Burgundy in the fifteeenth century and passed from there to Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, and the Habsburg court in Vienna. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna dates back to the sixteenth century.

  3. Topi Linkala:

    Sorry to inform you Mr. Evans, but as much I like Tom Waits, the more I like Van Morrison.

  4. Big DD:

    Cool song and groove. Obscure lyrics. Jeff Bridges played an ex-con in American Heart, ca. early 90s. In one scene, he heatedly tells his son how his parole officer is making him walk Spanish. After that I assumed it was just prison slang for staying straight.

  5. Sparrow:

    It is said that walking Spanish was what pirates called walking the plank i.e. walking unwillingly towards something. In that case – death. Interesting theory about walking with straight legs. Would I be correct in thinking that condemned people would probably be wearing shackles (in America, chains linking hands and feet) so would be forced to shuffle with a straight legged gait? Great song – one of my favorite songs by my favourite singer.

  6. B.Rokas:

    Eighteenth British navy slang for deserting .

  7. mike:

    20th century con slang for not going completely strait after being released from prison, i.e., still doing jobs.

  8. Marty:

    In the Joshua Ferris novel Then We Came to the End, an account of an ad agency in free fall during the dot.com bubble burst of the early 2000s, the term walking Spanish denotes the final act of those personnel who have been given the axe. Their exit from the agency, carrying personal effects in a carton down a long hallway, is referred by the survivors as walking Spanish and likened to the stiff-legged walk of a pirate’s victim being prodded down the gangplank at the end of a cutlass.

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