'Papel' Means More Than Paper

Word Often Refers to Roles

Papel picado
Papel picado. (Perforated paper, a type of Mexican folk art.). Photo by Valerie Hinojosa; licensed via Creative Commons.

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.

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 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 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:

      • 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.

      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
      • 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: 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. The Spanish rol is often used synonymously for that meaning.