‘Papel’ in Spanish Means More Than Paper

Word often refers to roles

Papel picado, Mexican folk art
Papel picado. (Perforated paper, a type of Mexican folk art.).

Valerie Hinojosa / Creative Commons.

The Spanish word papel is a cognate of the English word "paper" and often has the same meaning.

Papel also has an important and frequently used meaning not associated with the English word, that of a role, such as in a play or job.

Papel With Meanings Related to Paper

When referring to paper, papel can refer to paper in general or to a single sheet or piece, although hoja de papel can also refer to a sheet:

  • Una bola de papel puede ser un buen juguete para tu gato. (A wad of paper can be a good toy for your cat.)
  • Las dimensiones de un papel A4 son 297 mm x 210 mm. (The dimensions of an A4 sheet of paper are 297 millimeters by 210 millimeters.)
  • Aunque de inicio no lo creas, una hoja de papel simple puede soportar un peso significativo. (Although at first you may not believe it, a single sheet of paper can support a significant weight.)
  • El papel de arroz se usa en la cocina asiática. (Rice paper is used in Asian cooking.)
  • El papel se ha convertido en uno de los productos embleméticos de nuestra cultura. (Paper has become one of the products characteristic of our culture.)
  • Ayer yo necesitaba un papel para anotar algo. (Yesterday I needed a sheet of paper in order to write something down.)

Papel in singular or plural can refer to documents of various kinds:

  • No necesito un papel para confirmar que estamos juntos. (I don't need a document to prove that we're together.)
  • Me dijeron que necesito firmar algún papel de préstamo. (They told me I need to sign some loan document.)
  • Si no tiene papeles de estadía legal y es arrestado, tiene derecho a guardar silencio y pedir un abogado. (If you don't have residence documents and are arrested, you have the right to remain silent and ask for a lawyer.)

Papel Referring to Roles

Papel frequently refers to an acting role:

  • La modelo venezolana es conocida por su papel de Rosita. (The Venezuelan model is known for her role as Rosita.)
  • Hollywood sólo tiene un papel para los actores árabes. (Hollywood has only one role for Arab actors.)
  • Alejandro tenía un papel pequeño en una escena en la película. (Alejandro had a small role in one scene in the film.)

More broadly, papel can refer to almost any kind of role, for both people and things:

  • La universidad tiene un papel importante porque forma valores. (The university has an important role because it forms values.)
  • La iglesia tuvo un papel crucial en la Europa medieval. The church had a crucial role in medieval Europe.
  • Los científicos desempeñarían un papel central en este proceso de reforma ambiental. Scientists played a central role in this process of environmental reform.
  • La Cámara siempre entendió que el presidente tiene un rol importante en estos asuntos. (The House always understood that the president has an important role in these matters.)

Papel in Phrases

Among the phrases and idioms that use the word papel are these:

  • asumir el papel — to assume the role
  • hacer el papel, interpretar el papel — to play the role
  • papel blanco, papel en blanco — blank sheet (can be used figuratively)
  • papel cuché — glossy paper
  • papel de aluminio, papel de estaño, papel de plata — aluminum foil (the latter two literally refer to tin and silver foil but are nevertheless sometimes used to refer to aluminum foil)
  • papel de embalar — wrapping paper (such as for a gift)
  • papel higiénico — toilet paper, bath tissue
  • papel moneda — paper money
  • papel periódico — newsprint
  • papel picado — a type of decorative perforated paper popular in Mexico as a decoration
  • papel pintado — wallpaper
  • perder los papeles — to lose self-control
  • sobre el papel — in theory, on paper
  • tomar un papel — to take a role
  • trozo de papel — piece of paper

Etymology of Papel

Like the English word "paper," papel comes from the Latin papyrus, which came from the Greek papyros, referring to a plant from which paper was once made.

The meaning of papel as a role comes from the roll of paper that actors' roles once were written on. (Despite the different spelling, the English "role" also comes from that usage.) The Spanish rol is often used synonymously for that meaning.

Key Takeaways

  • Papel is often synonymous with the English "paper" and can be used for different kinds of paper and documents.
  • Papel also can refer to various kinds roles played by people or objects.