When Words are Unjustly Used

Cingular Wireless is offering a new and intriguing international calling plan for Spanish-speaking Latinos. According to a bilingual flier, callers must apply “fair use” (“uso justo”) to their phones in order to take advantage of cheaper international dialing rates.

Who’s to decide the fairness, or justness, of our phone calls? Will our conversations be monitored to test how fairly or justly we treat co-workers, friends and even grandma?

Flip the flier to the English side and the copywriter’s plight is instantly recognizable. In English, “uso justo” becomes “just use” as in “just use Cingular World Basics.” Just and Justo, both from the Latin iustus, are “false friends” or “false cognates,” words that share the same roots or sound alike but have different or even opposite meanings.

In this case, just and justo are better explained as hypocritical friends, since they share some meanings, such as to describe a fair person or punishment (persona o castigo justo), or to thank grandma for that new bilingual dictionary she sent you (Just what I needed! or ¡Justo lo que necesitaba!). Just also means “only,” as in “just call me” (sólo llámame) or, in this case, “just use the damn phone.” Justo, for its part, can also mean “tight,” as in something that fits the body, well, tightly.

Unsuspecting readers who received this promotional material may just find a reason to sign up for the plan. The glossy handout, featuring an “ethnic” looking girl, holding a phone and looking flirtatiously to the camera (or diabolically, depending on your take), also purports an easy way to keep in touch with business associates, friends and family in more than 200 countries (emphasis in the original) around the world (mantenerse en contacto con socios comerciales, amigos y familiars en más de 200 países). Should we disregard for a moment that only 191 countries exist – or 193, depending whether you count Taiwan and the Vatican?

Just another thought.

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