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He’s a personal, a friend said, describing someone we both know, trying to distinguish him from someone else of the same name.

A personal what, you may wonder. A personal friend? Or perhaps a personal assistant? Bodyguard? Chaplain? Computer? Contact? Customer? Member? Shareholder? Shopper?

If you live in Chile you know the answer to this. The person who is walking around the gym with the word “Personal” printed on the back of their shirt is a personal trainer. A person that runs you through the paces at the gym for a not unsmall sum of money, in the case of my gym something like $300 a month when the actual gym (if you pay by yearly contract) costs about $35 a month. Eeep, that’s a lot of money.

But if you’re getting an assistant, bodyguard, chaplain, computer, contact, customer, friend, member, shareholder, shopper and trainer all in one, I suppose it’s worth it.

You may wonder why the trainer is called a personal (and not a trainer), or perhaps you are wondering where I got all my clever examples. I got them from a concordancer, like this one , which can tell you the word environment in which your word of choice tends to be found (description mine). And I know that because I used to teach English and study theoretical linguistics and I secretly love the resurgence of corpus linguistics, and if that didn’t make you want to stop reading this, then you’re a big geek, too, and welcome!

So, a personal. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, when I’m not perusing the obscure language geekery forums late at night. Joking, mostly.

I have come to the following conclusion. The reason that “personal trainer” in English is abbreviated to “trainer” is because we know that the second word in the phrase tends to be the noun, and that’s the important part. What kind of house? A white one. Are you with me?

So then there’s Spanish, and the great tendency to (at least in Chile) import words and phrases willy nilly (but not that one, because we have enough problems figuring out how to pronounce Llewelyn Jones in Spanish without introducing willy-nilly (seriously, how do people pronounce that street name?)). So rather than creating our own phrase for personal trainer, which would probably be something like “Entrenador personal” or maybe “Entrenador individual” or even “Entrenador privado” (I’m really stretching here for another term), we import “personal trainer.” Sounds posh! (for $300 a month in a country where that is about the monthly minimum wage, it’d better be!)

But then there comes the abbreviation. In English we try to take the noun, which tends to be the second word. And in Spanish they like to take the noun, too, though it tends to be the first word (programa verspertino (nighttime program) is still a type of programa (program). Following the Spanish grammatical pattern, of taking the first word as the noun and important part, this is applied to the imported English expression (which works in the opposite order), and takes the first word of the phrase “personal trainer” as the noun, and therefore the important part.

And so you get a whole bunch of men muscular (hey! Spanish grammar) walking around my gym in shirts red (look at me! Spanish grammar again) that say Personal on them. Except the new shirts say personal trainer on them, which wrecks the story a little bit. Until someone tells you that they’re reading “un comics,” (a comic book, origin of plural unclear). There’s no concordancer in the world that can explain that to you.

And I shan’t even try (though I’m sure it’s a hypercorrection).