Tapas bars, a British invention?

This isn’t about who invented bar snacks, or about why one particular gibber of Catalan nationalism should want to deny having invented them.

Someone speculated drunkenly last night that, since tapas appears in English from the 1950s (C Salter in OED, “In Spain, when you order a drink in a bar.., you will always be given..something to eat.”), it may have been part of the lexical cloud conjured as the Franco government commercialised Hemingway’s message, that Spain is different.

The rise of Spanish tourism and the appearance and generalisation of the phrase tapas bar/bar de tapas are linked, but I suspect that tapas made their way into standard Spanish several decades earlier–as part of the reinvention of the Spanish nation around Andalusian stereotypes devised by confused and dangerous racialists like Lorca during the transition from Azorín’s post-Cuba rediscovery of Castile to Jaime de Andrade‘s famous Crusade. The Royal Academy’s dictionary first mentions tapa in this sense in 1936:

8. And. Ruedas de embutido o lonjas finas de jamón que sirven en los colmados, tabernas, etc., colocadas sobre las cañas y chatos de vino.

In 1970 it adds:

Hoy se da este nombre a pequeñas porciones de algunos manjares que se sirven aparte de la bebida.

In 1984, after careful consideration, that drink is declared to be alcoholic.

It would be interesting to know more about the history of the RAE dictionary. The 1936 edition includes new regionalisms and esotericisms (eg “homosexual. adj. Sodomita”) but I don’t know whether in numbers exceptional enough to suggest that gay Andalusians had stormed the lexical establishment, whether via the back or the front door.

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Last updated 25/10/2008

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Andalusia (152):

Federico García Lorca (38): Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca, known as Federico García Lorca was a Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director. García Lorca achieved international recognition as an emblematic member of the Generation of '27, a group consisting of mostly poets who introduced the tenets of European movements into Spanish literature.

Generation of '98 (23): The Generation of '98 Generación del 98 or Generación de 1898) was a group of novelists, poets, essayists, and philosophers active in Spain at the time of the Spanish–American War. The name Generación del 98 was coined by José Martínez Ruiz, commonly known as Azorín, in his 1913 essays titled "La generación de 1898", alluding to the moral, political and social crisis in Spain produced by the loss of the colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam after defeat in the Spanish–American War that same year.

José Martínez Ruiz (7): José Augusto Trinidad Martínez Ruiz, better known by his pseudonym Azorín, was a Spanish novelist, essayist and literary critic.

Kaleboel (4307):

Nationalism (100):

Sex (40):

Spain (1881):

Spanish literature (171):


  1. The general take is that the custom and the word date back to a royal decree in colonial times ordering seaport bar owners to serve food with alcohol to ease the problems caused by drunken, hungry sailors. Tapa itself comes, it is said, from the custom of placing the dish on which it was served on top of the glass – como si fuera un tapón.


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