Latin American Spanish Slang Essay

Latin American Spanish is different, you already know that. But this article is not about that. Instead, this one is about the myriad idiomatic expressions that underscore the Spanish of Latin America. These expressions make no sense whatsoever when translated literally. But strung together, they come loaded with meaning, wit, and humor. That’s what makes them so much fun to use.

Idiomatic expressions, be it Spanish or English, are a reflection of culture more than that of the language or its grammar. These evolve over years of vernacular improvisation and serve to lend a defining character to the region they’re used in. Think about it, would America sound the same without its get down to brass tacks or go the whole hog? Hardly.

Now listing out, let alone discussing, every Latin American Spanish idiom in currency would warrant way more than a blog article. Also, I am not qualified – I doubt anyone is – to objectively rank them by importance. What I’ve listed here is 21 of my personal top favorites. Some enjoy currency throughout the continent while others are more specific to certain countries. So let’s cut to the chase and start with the list.

1. Irse a Alguien el Avión

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To miss the plane

Actual meaning: To get distracted; to forget doing something

This one is about forgetting in general. What happens when the plane takes off without you? The analogy is fairly straightforward and yet the expression sounds so quirky. Were gonna say something but forgot as something else distracted you? You missed the plane. Came to the room to get something but can’t remember what anymore? You missed the plane. Did something just slip off your mind? You missed the plane. Lost a train of thoughts? You missed the plane. So you see, this isn’t just about distraction but forgetting in general. The association is easy to make here, no? Who said it works only with vocabulary!

Se me fue el avión y no le llamé (It slipped my mind and I forgot to call you).

Se me fue el avión, ¿dónde estábamos? (I lost my train of thoughts, where were we?)

2. Dar a Alguien el Avión

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To give someone the airplane

Actual meaning: To humor someone, to pretend to be paying attention to someone

This one is a super idiomatic gift from Mexico to Latin American Spanish. I mean who could possibly see a connection between giving you an airplane and ignoring you? Brilliant, no? Think of this as when someone is just nodding along as you’re talking without actually paying attention. Why are they nodding along if they aren’t even listening? Maybe because they don’t wanna offend you. Let’s be honest, we’ve all done this at some point in our lives. Don’t agree with me? Think of your days at school and what you did as Mr. Quincy went on a long rant about hydrocarbons. Think of what the salesman does to your questions after having closed the sale already.

¡No me des el avión cuando estoy platicando! (Don’t ignore me while I’m talking)!

Me estás dando el avión (You’re not even listening to me).

3. Andar en la Luna

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To walk on the moon

Actual meaning: To be distracted

This one along with its variant estar en la luna (to be on the moon), speaks of a general distraction. Depending on where you are, several fun English equivalents exist. To have one’s head in the clouds is one of them. Other possibilities are to go about in a daze, to be daydreaming, to be woolgathering, or to be off with the fairies. Be careful about the last one when in America though as it can be misread as a tad derogatory there. In the US, fairies is a less-than-polite reference to the homosexuals!

Perdóname, estaba en la luna (Sorry, I got distracted).

Parece que andas en la luna (It seems you are distracted).

Vivirse en la luna is also heard at times. Not sure if it means the exact same thing nuance-wise but here’s an example of it in action:

Siempre te la vives en la luna (You are always lost).

4. Estar en la Baba

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To be in the drool

Actual meaning: To be unaware

Baba is Spanish for drool. That makes this expression sound pretty gross. I mean who could possibly enjoy marinating in saliva? Yuck! But, luckily for us, that’s not how idiomatic expressions work. In Latin American Spanish, estar en la baba means to be blissfully unaware. Especially when it’s something important. In other words, when you’re not clued in on what’s going on around you, you’re in the drool. If you want to specify what it is that one’s unaware of, you use con.

Estoy en la baba con las políticas de mi país (I’m unaware of the politics in my country).

El presidente estaba en la baba con la pobreza en su país (The president was clueless about the poverty in his country).

5. Comer Moscas

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: To eat flies

Actual meaning: To space out

Another disgusting one there. This one might enjoy slightly better currency in Mexico than elsewhere but can still be heard all over Latin America. I have no idea how the analogy works or how it started but it’s intriguing for sure. Latin American Spanish is full of such wacky analogies, so get used to them. English equivalents could range from space out to drift off. Doesn’t seem very different from estar en la luna, does it? Maybe a wee bit when it comes to finer details but overall they’re quite similar.

Al menudo come moscas mientras enseño (She often drifts off while I’m teaching).

Si comes moscas en mi clase, no aprobarás el examen (If you space out in my class, you’ll not pass the exam).

6. Buena Onda

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: Good wave

Actual meaning: Good vibes

Onda is big in Latin American Spanish, especially in Uruguay and Argentina. There are more expressions to its credit than I could ever list out in a single article. But the good news is, wrapping your head around it should be no big deal. That’s because waves are analogous to vibes in English too. So the literal meaning here is not too far off the idiomatic one. So to have a buena onda – i.e. good vibes – is, for the lack of a better term, to be cool. Of course, there’s also mala onda and it means exactly what you think it does. So anything living or non-living can have buena or mala onda. It could be a person, an animal, an object – just about anything.

¡Tu tía tiene muy buena onda! (Your aunt is really cool!)

¡Qué buena onda! (How cool!)

7. Echar la Hueva

Heard in: Central America

Literal translation: To throw the egg

Actual meaning: To be too lazy

Huevo is egg in Spanish. But hueva is not a female egg. Instead, it refers to roe, i.e. fish eggs. Now eggs and Mexico go a long way. For some reason, Mexicans have always associated eggs with laziness which is why hueva also means laziness in colloquial Mexican Spanish. This analogy has also caught on in the rest of Central America. Echar or tirar hueva is most common in Mexico but also a legitimate member of Latin American Spanish in general. Besides this, huevo and its variants have given more idioms to Latin American Spanish than a single article could ever do justice to. Those range from casual and innocent to downright offensive in even informal contexts.

Deja de echar hueva y termina la tarea (Stop being lazy and finish the homework).

Hoy mi único plan es echar la hueva (Today my only plan is to lay around).

8. Vivir en Nube de Pedos

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To live in a cloud of flatulence

Actual meaning: To be out of touch with reality

Sorry if this one came at a wrong time but it was inevitable. Latin American Spanish is far from complete without a reference to the Spanish of Argentina. And fart is to Argentina what eggs are to Mexico. They go deeper than we foreigners could ever fathom. I say this because there happen to be dozens and dozens of colloquial expressions involving pedo in common currency throughout this South American nation.

Another expression with similar connotations in the River Plate basin is vivir adentro de un Tupperware (to live inside a Tupperware?). The closest English equivalent I can think of, idiom-wise, is to live in a bubble.

My novia siempre vivía en nube de pedo (My girlfriend always lived in a bubble).

Esos días todos vivían en nube de pedo (Those days everybody was out of touch with reality).

9.Hablar hasta por los Codos

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: To talk through one’s elbows

Actual meaning: To talk a lot

What’s elbows got to do with speaking? This one’s got to be the weirdest of all idioms I’ve come across not only in Latin American Spanish but any. The closest you can think of in English is to talk one’s ears off. I have also heard to talk one’s head off, to talk a blue streak, and so on. But my top favorite remains to talk nineteen to the dozen. Hablar hasta por los codos might seem synonymous to calentar la oreja a alguien but there’s definitely a subtle difference between the two. You could also do away with hasta and just go with hablar por los codos. The two alternatives mean the exact same thing.

Hablaron todos hasta por los codos (They all went on and on).

My abuela hablaba por los codos (My granny talked a lot).

10. Ser Duro de Codo

Heard in: Central America, Latin America

Literal translation: To be hard-elbowed

Actual meaning: To be very stingy

You may also run into its shorter variant, ser del codo. The two expressions mean the same thing, to be mean. Again, don’t ask me what elbows have to do with meanness or how the literal translation even works grammatically. It’s an idiom, deal with it. Throughout Latin America, Mexico in particular, codo is slang for a tightwad. So the harder your elbow, the stingier you are. At least in Latin American Spanish. Makes sense? It doesn’t have to, although I’m pretty sure the metaphor has an interesting story behind it. If you happen to be in the know, please share it with us in a comment below!

Órale, ¡no seas tan duro de codo! (Come on, don’t be such a miser!)

Tú mujer puede ser del codo a veces (Your wife can be stingy at times).

11. Morderse un Codo

Heard in: Mexico, Southern Cone

Literal translation: To bite an elbow

Actual meaning: To restrain oneself

What’s with me and elbows? Hope I’m not developing an unhealthy fetish for them. Don’t worry, this one’s the last, I promise. But that doesn’t mean Latin American Spanish is done with the organ yet. There’s a truckload of fun idiomatic expressions with codo and I urge you to explore them for yourself. In English, you might bite your tongue but in Spanish, you do that to your elbow. That is when you’re in retreat or, more accurately, holding yourself back. To hold one’s horses is a close equivalent in English. There are many others but you get the idea, don’t you?

No voy a muerdeme un codo si me insulta (I’ll not restrain myself if she insults me).

Uno siempre debe morderse un codo (One should always restrain oneself).

12. Bajar un Cambio

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To lower for a change

Actual meaning: To calm down

Take it easy, relax, chill, calm down – There are so many ways to soothe your friend’s nerves. Bajar un cambio is how you do it in Latin American Spanish, at least in Argentina. Bajar means to lower. But what’s being lowered here? I am not totally sure but from what I can remember, it’s an allusion to a speeding car. Think of speeding as going out-of-control bonkers. So what’s the opposite? Slowing down, right? That’s decelerating or lowering the speed. This is the analogy at work here. Think of yourself as a speeding car and you’re good to go with bajar un cambio.

¡Baja un cambio, mi amigo! (Relax, my friend!)

Pídele que baje un cambio (Ask her to calm down).

13. Picarse el Bagre

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To be bitten by the catfish

Actual meaning: To starve

Bagre is catfish – elsewhere, they call it siluro – in Latin American Spanish. So think of hunger as a stinging sensation in your tummy and you’ll see where this metaphor comes from. Don’t get technical because, frankly speaking, I don’t know what a catfish bite feels like. Not pleasant I suppose. But then, starving was never pleasant either, was it? The stinging sensation, the burn in your stomach – That’s the bridge between the idiom and its implication here.

Bagre, by the way, is quite a word in Latin America. It’s often heard as a colloquial term for an ugly person. In Nicaragua and Honduras, you can also hear it used for a cunning or sly person. In Costa Rica it’s a prostitute, whereas in the Andean regions of South America it’s a bumbling idiot! See how versatile it is? Anyway, I digress. Let’s stick to the catfish bite for now.

¡Me está picando el bagre! (I’m famished!)

Cuando la vi, la picaba el bagre. (When I saw her, she was starving).

14. Más Loco Que una Cabra con Pollitos

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: Crazier than a goat with chickens

Actual meaning: Too crazy

The metaphor is gold. Not sure how goats behave around chickens though. Someone who grew up on a ranch might want to chip in here. But I am sure they’re safe. This expression basically alludes to someone or something that’s beyond mad. It could be a person or a situation. That’s it. Nothing more to it. The analogy is completely in line with the actual meaning, although no animals are involved in real.

Creo que tu novia fue más loca que una cabra con pollitos (I think your girlfriend was super crazy).

No es bueno ser más loco que una cabra con pollitos (Being extremely crazy is not good).

15. Arrastar el Ala a Alguien

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: To drag the wing at someone

Actual meaning: To hit on someone

I am not sure if this is how the idiom came to be but every time I hear this, I think peacocks. These are fascinating birds. The dude is known to pull a riot of colors with its abnormally long plumage to impress his girl, often when it rains. Like I said, I’m far from sure if this is the story behind arrastrar el ala but it does sound mighty plausible. Regardless of whether you plan on hitting on a Latina while there, this is one interesting idiom worth knowing. Both arrastrar and ala, by the way, have a whole range of idioms to their credit. But we’ll stick to this one for now.

In some contexts, arrastrar el ala can also mean to be depressed. But I’m sure there will be enough of contextual cues to keep you from confusing one meaning with the other.

¿Crees que no le arrastra el ala? (Do you believe he’s not putting the moves on her?)

Me arrastraba el ala una mujer en el bar (A woman was hitting on me at the bar).

16. Tirar los Galgos a Alguien

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To release the hounds at someone

Actual meaning: To hit on or make a pass at someone

Arrastrar el ala is fine when you’re still being subtle about your game. But if you choose to step up the heat and get more in-her-face, that calls for something stronger. That’s when tirar los galgos comes in handy. The expression enjoys maximum currency in Buenos Aires but can still be understood elsewhere in Argentina. Galgo is not just any dog. It’s the Spanish greyhound. And that should tell you a thing or two about the seriousness of this expression. No matter what you do, please do not consider letting lose a bunch of dogs at the girl you’re trying to woo. That ain’t gonna work!

Mañana voy a tirar los galgos a mi vecina (Tomorrow, I’m really gonna give it a go with her).

Todos me tiraba los galgos cuando era joven (Everybody used to hit on me when I was young).

17. Echar Ganas a Algo

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To throw desires at something

Actual meaning: To try harder at something

Of course there’s nothing you’re actually throwing here. What the expression actually says is that you ought to rally up all your will behind doing the task at hand. That is if you really want to do it, of course. It’s very common to yell échale ganas at someone who needs that extra adrenaline rush for something big. The expression also seems to be common in Peru where you may also hear it with poner. The expressions might have an ever so slight difference of nuance but I wouldn’t bother splitting hair over it. Treat them as synonymous and nobody’s gonna notice.

Ponle ganas para aprobar el examen (Make a last-ditch effort to pass the exam).

Vamos a echarle muchas ganas a los estudios para graduarnos (Let’s put in our all in our studies to graduate).

18. Atar a Algo con Alambre

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To tie something up with wire

Actual meaning: To jury-rig or MacGyver something

This one is a pretty straightforward expression. What it seems is what it means. Rigging up a makeshift contraption often involves tying up stuff, sometimes with a piece of wire. So the analogy works seamlessly. Although the idiom originally belongs to Argentina, I would expect it to be well understood all over Latin America, especially around the Southern Cone.

Lo voy a atar con alambre de algún modo (I’m going to fix it somehow).

Ataron a una choza con alambre por el río (We put together a makeshift shack by the river).

19. Ser Pesado de Sangre

Heard in: Chile

Literal translation: To be heavy-blooded

Actual meaning: To be a not-so-nice person

I am as clueless as you are so far as the connection between the weight of your blood and the content of your character goes. Having said that, blood has always enjoyed a rather poetic interpretation in most European languages. It goes well beyond simple anatomy. Note expressions like boiling blood and blood relationship. Maybe heavy means thick here and maybe, just maybe, a thicker blood is analogous to evil owing to its darker color? Just a random theory I put together right now, so don’t quote me on this. The expression also enjoys currency in Mexico albeit in a slightly different avatar – Ser de sangre pesada.

Speaking of Mexico, there also happens to be another expression involving blood that you’ll commonly hear in the country. It’s tener la sangre de atole or horchata. Both atole and horchata are drinks made from cereals. While horchata is made from rice and belongs to Mexico, atole is made from cornflour and belongs to both Mexico and Honduras. So the idiom obviously doesn’t make any sense when translated literally. Idiomatically, though, it means to be cold-blooded.

Mi jefe es un poco pesado de sangre (My boss is a bit wicked).

Era pesado de sangre tu abuelo (Your grandfather was not a very nice man).

20. Ser Liviano de Sangre

Heard in: Chile

Literal translation: To be light-blooded

Actual meaning: To be easygoing or good-natured

If a heavy blood is evil, naturally the opposite should be good. That’s what a lighter blood represents. So if you happen to be light-blooded, you’re awesome. Don’t take this literally though and if you do feel your blood is lighter that it ought to be, go see a doctor! That’s because in reality, light blood could indicate a less-than-optimal hemoglobin count which is certainly not good. But the literary world has different standards. Here, light is good just as dark is bad. Damn racists! Mexicans use a slightly different ser de sangre ligera which means the exact same thing.

Mi mamá es muy liviana de sangre (My mom is very easygoing).

Solía ser de sangre ligera hasta ahora (I used to be good-natured until now).

21. Andar con Sangre en el Ojo

Heard in: Southern Cone

Literal translation: To walk with blood in the eye

Actual meaning: To bear a grudge

Blood in one’s eyes is already a sign of something scary. The guy with such eyes is anything but happy. And most often, a bad mood involves a grudge on someone. This idiom seems pretty logical if you ask me. And that’s why, despite being originally from the Southern Cone region, I’d expect it to be well-received elsewhere as well. Latin American Spanish has many more expressions involving blood but in the interest of sanity, I’ll stop here. Tener sangre en el ojo is also heard and carries the exact same meaning.

Andaba con sangre en el ojo conmigo porque lo humillé (He holds a grudge against me because I humiliated him).

Tiene sangre en el ojo con su propio hermano (He has a grudge against his own brother).

Concluding Thoughts

So that’s the end of an exceptionally long rant on some of my top favorite idiomatic expressions in Latin American Spanish. Idioms lend a certain vibrance to a language. And when the language is as evolved and diverse as Spanish, they become all the more colorful. Latin American Spanish is not the only variant that boasts of such wit. The Peninsular dialects have their own proud stock but that’s a topic for another day. Do you have any favorites? I bet you do. Do tell us more about them, their story, places they’re commonly heard, and anything fun you have on them. Sharing knowledge is always good karma, no?

There can be crucial differences in the meanings of certain words and phrases among (and within) different Latin countries. This list contains widely known and also peculiar words, expressions and Latin American slang in eight countries. Categories range from romance and partying to work and food.

As a teaching assistant for an intermediate college-level Spanish course, my job entails facilitating weekly discussion sections where students can develop their conversational skills and fluency in the language. After working in this position for two semesters, I have had over thirty students with diverse backgrounds in Spanish. Because of that, my sections are more than often a melting pot of a variety of accents and colloquialisms of different countries (including those of my home country of Ecuador, of course).

 

Argentina

The Spanish dialect spoken in most of Argentina and Uruguay is called Rioplatense Spanish, after the Río de la Plata Basin (the hydrographical area encompassing northern Argentina, most of Uruguay, all of Paraguay, and parts of Bolivia and Brazil). Historically, it has been influenced by several languages, such as Italian, Basque and Galician.

It has incorporated words and expressions not only from French and English but also from the indigenous Quechua and Guaraní. Rioplatense Spanish is usually recognized for the voseo (using the pronoun “vos” instead of the more common “tú” for the second person singular) and the sheísmo (pronouncing “ll” and “y”as the “s” in “measure”).

Common expressions:

  • ¿Qué hacés?/¿Qué contás?: In Argentina, friends don’t greet each other with a standard “¿Cómo estás?” (“How are you?”) but rather ask “What are you doing?” or “What can you tell me?” (the equivalent of “What’s up?”). They usually add a friendly “boludo” (or “jerk”) at the end.
  • Pibe: A guy. A young man will call his group of male friends “los pibes”. According to experts, the word comes from the Italian Genoese “pive”, which means “apprentice” or “errand boy”.
  • Rancho: Argentine teens call their best friend their “rancho” (which means “ranch” in English). The word can also be used to refer to your house.
  • Fresca: This word, which literally means “cool” or “chilly”, is slang for beer. Another word for “beer” is “birra”, which is also the Italian word for it, a fact that shows the heavy influence of this country’s immigration to Argentina.
  • Previa: Literally, “previous”. The Argentine equivalent of a “pregame”, or the act of drinking alcoholic beverages before heading out to a party. This is also used in Chile!
  • Boliche: In Argentina and Uruguay, a “boliche” is a nightclub. In other countries, this word means “bowling alley” and the word for nightclub is “discoteca”.
  • Ponerse en pedo: Literally, “to put oneself in a fart”. This expression is used to denote the act of getting drunk. E.g. “¡Vamos a ponernos en pedo esta noche!” (“Let’s get drunk tonight!”).
  • Laburo: A word derived from the Italian “lavoro”, which means work. The verb “laburar” (“to work”) is also commonly used.
  • Asado: An argentine typical dish consisting of beef and other meats cooked on a grill or “parrilla”. The word is also used to refer to the social event of attending a barbecue. In other Latin American countries, the word for “barbecue” is “parrillada”. E.g. “Hay un asado en mi casa este fin de semana” (“There’s a barbecue at my house this weekend”).
  • Cheto: A person of high socioeconomic status who is usually conceited or vain.
  • Alto: Literally, “high”. When used before a noun, it means “awesome” or “great”, e.g. “¡Alta fiesta!” (“Great party!”).

 

Chile

Chilean Spanish is very distinctive from other dialects in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and slang. It has been influenced by Rioplatense Spanish and the Spanish spoken in Andalusia in Spain. It has incorporated words from the Mapuche and Quechua languages, as well as from French, German and English.

This accent is characterized by a very fast and “jumping” intonation, the quasi-elimination of the sound /s/ (especially at the end of words), the pronunciation of “ch” as “ts” (as in pizza), and a particular form of voseothat involves corresponding voseoverbs (e.g. using “vos sabís” instead of “tú sabes” or “you know”).

Common expressions:

  • ¿Cómo estái?: The Chilean version of “¿Cómo estás?”, using voseo verbs. Friends will usually add a friendly “weón” (or “fool”) at the end.
  • Pololo/a: Boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • Copete: The generic term for “alcohol”. A more specific drink is a “piscola”, which is a mix of pisco (a colorless brandy produced in Chile and Perú) and any form of fizzy soft drink.  
  • Carretear: To party. It can mean anything from hanging out and having fun with friends to partying wildly. E.g. “Salgamos a carretear el viernes” (“Let’s go out and party on Friday”).
  • Estar arriba de la pelota: To be drunk (literally, “to be on top of the ball”). E.g. “Solo se tomó una piscola y ya está arriba de la pelota” (“She only drank one piscola and she’s already drunk”).
  • Pega: Used for “job” or “office”.
  • Chuparse los bigotes: Literally, “to lick one’s mustache”. It is a common expression of praise for delicious food and the Chilean equivalent of KFC’s slogan “Finger lickin’ good”. E.g. “¡Este plato está para chuparse los bigotes!” (“This dish is very delicious!”).
  • Cuico: A person of high socioeconomic status who is usually conceited and politically conservative.
  • Filete: Literally “filet” or “steak”. Used to express something is awesome, as in “Esta fiesta estuvo muy filete” (“This party was great”).
  • ¿Cachái? (or cachay): The second-person singular of the verb “cachar”. The verb is believed to have been borrowed from “catch” and it means “to get” or “to understand”. E.g. “¿Se puso muy weon, cachái?” (“He became such a jerk, you know what I mean?”)

 

Colombia

Colombian Spanish is a geographical term used to describe the varieties of Spanish spoken in the different dialectal zones in the country. The most widely recognized dialects are the Paisa and the Rolo, or Bogotá. The former is characterized by the voseo and a very specific pronunciation of the letter “s” (a transition between a standard “s”and the way Argentines pronounce “ll” or “y”), while the latter uses the pronoun “usted” for the second person singular. The use of the diminutive forms “-icoand “ica” is widespread in Colombia (e.g. Colombians will say “chocolatico” instead of the more standard “chocolatito” for the diminutive of “chocolate”).

Common expressions:

  • ¿Quiubo?: A compression of “¿Qué hubo?” (“What was?”), used to greet people. It is common for close friends or even friendly strangers to add “parcero” or its shortened version “parce” at the end, a word from paisa slang meaning “friend”.
  • Parche: Literally, “patch”. Used to refer to a meeting place or a group of friends. E.g. “Hagamos una fiesta con los del parche” (“Let’s have a party with our group of friends”).
  • Jincho: Drunk (In Spain, however, the word is usually understood as a derogatory term for drug consumers).
  • Guayabo: Botanically, a guayabo is a guava tree. In Colombia, however, the word is the equivalent of “hangover”. The corresponding adjective is “enguayabado”.
  • Camello: “Camello” (the Spanish word for “camel”) is the noun for “work”, whereas “camellar” is its corresponding verb.  
  • Tinto: Literally, an adjective that refers to a very dark red. While in other places a “tinto” denotes “red wine”, in Colombia it refers to “black coffee”. A common variation is the diminutive “tintico”.
  • Gomelo: A person of high socioeconomic status who is usually conceited and superficial. The word comes from the stereotype that rich people are usually dressed up and use “gomina” (hair gel).  
  • Bacano: An adjective to describe something “good” or “cool”. A variation is the word “berraco” (which means “brave” in Ecuador and “sexually aroused” in Spain or Mexico).
  • Dar papaya: Literally, “to give papaya”. In a few Latin American countries, when something is “papaya” it means that it is “easy”. Therefore, “dar papaya” refers to unnecessarily giving others the opportunity to take advantage of oneself.

 

Costa Rica

Costa Rican Spanish varies by province. For instance, the form spoken in provinces in the north has similarities with Nicaraguan Spanish, while the form spoken in the Caribbean province has influences from Creole English and Jamaican patois. Ticos (the demonym for people from Costa Rica) use the pronouns usted”and vosfor the second person singular (the former is more formal, while the latter is used with friends and family) as opposed to the more standard “tú”.

The slang in Costa Rica is known as pachuco, and it incorporates words and expressions from indigenous languages, French, Italian, Jamaican patois, Creole English and Malespín (a kind of Central American slang that originated in El Salvador in the 19th century).

Common expressions:

  • Pura vida: Literally, “pure life”. This expression is the tico answer to the question “¿Cómo estás?” (“How are you?”). It means “great” or “fantastic”. It can also be used as a greeting or a valediction.
  • Mae: A guy. It can be used among friends as in the American “dude”.
  • Zarpe: A word used to refer to the last alcoholic drink of the night or last round.
  • Estar de goma: Literally, “to be of glue”. This expression is translated as “being hungover”. The origin of this word is quite interesting: a hangover is called a “goma” because “la goma pega” (“the glue sticks”) and in Costa Rica, “pega” is used to refer to an unpleasant situation (and it is safe to say that having a hangover is very unpleasant).
  • Brete: A noun for “work”.
  • Jamar: To eat. A variant is the word “monchar”, which is believed to be derived from the English “to munch”.
  • Tuanis: A word used to denote something “nice”, “cool” or “awesome”.
  • Pipi: A person of high socioeconomic status who wears designer brands and is very superficial.
  • Hacer un MacGyver: Literally, “to do a MacGyver”. This expression is derived from the ‘80s American show “MacGyver”, whose eponymous main character was a secret agent who solved complex problems. Thus, “to do a MacGyver” means to find a solution with what you have at hand.
  • Vara: “Thing” or “stuff”. This is the Costa Rican variant of “vaina”, which is used in a number of other Latin American countries. It can be used in countless expressions, such as “¿Qué es la vara?” (“What’s the deal?”) or “Toda esa vara” (“All that stuff”).
  • Diay: An all-purpose word which can mean anything from “hey” and “so” to “obviously” and “what happened?” E.g. “Y diay, José, ¿cómo te ha ido?” (“And so, José, how have you been?”) or “—¿Vas a salir hoy en la noche? —Diay, sí” (“—Are you going out tonight? —Obviously, yes”

 

Cuba

Cuban Spanish has been influenced by indigenous Taíno, English, French, West African languages and even Portuguese and Russian. Some of the key characteristics of this dialect include: the elimination of the sound /s/ (usually at the end of words but also in words such as “espalda [back], which is pronounced “epalda”); the pronunciation of “r” as “l” (as in “celdo instead of cerdo” [pig]); and the non-inversion and redundant use of pronouns in questions (Cubans will say “¿Qué tú quieres?”instead of the standard “¿Qué quieres?”).

Common expressions:

  • ¿Qué bola?: Literally, “What ball?”. This expression is the Cuban way of asking “How are you?”. Friends usually accompany it with “acere” (or “friend”).
  • Janguear: This word comes from the English verb “to hang” and it means “to talk with friends” or “to hang out with friends”. E.g. “Vamos a janguear un rato” (“Let’s go talk for a while”).
  • Jeva: Girlfriend.
  • Coger nota/Coger curda: Literally, “to take a note”. In Cuba it means “to get drunk”.
  • Pincha: A noun for “work”. The corresponding verb is “pinchar” (“to work”).
  • Darse lija: Literally, “to give oneself sandpaper”. It means “to be pretentious or ostentatious”. E.g. “Tremenda lija que se da este tipo” (“This guy is so stuck-up”).
  • Yuma: A word used to refer to Americans. It can also mean “the United States” or “abroad” as in the expression “Irse pa’l yuma”, which is “to go to the United States” or “to go abroad”. E.g. “Por ahí viene un yuma” (“There comes an American”) or “Mi hermano vive en el yuma” (“My brother lives in the United States”).
  • Tocao: An adjective to describe something “nice” or “cool”.

 

Ecuador

The three macrodialects spoken in Ecuador correspond to the four regions in the country. Equatorial Coastal Spanish is spoken in the Galápagos Islands and the Coastal mainland. It comprises a number of subdialects, but one characteristic common to all is the aspiration of /s/. People in the highlands speak Andean Spanish, which is more influenced by the indigenous kichwa language and uses the voseo for friends and family. Finally, Amazonic Spanish, which is very similar to the Andean variation, is spoken in the eponymous region.

Common expressions:

  • ¿Qué fue?: Literally, “What was?”. This expression is a common Ecuadorian way of asking “How are you?”.
  • Pana/Broder/Mijín: Words to refer to a close friend. The first two, however, can be used by friendly strangers to establish contact with others. “Broder” comes the English word “brother”, whereas “Mijín” is a diminutive of the affectionate “Mijo” (a contraction of the phrase “mi hijo” or “my son”).
  • Pelado/a: Literally, “peeled”. This word has a number of meanings, including “boyfriend/girlfriend” or “kid”. It can also be used in the expression “Estar pelado” (“to be peeled”), which refers to not having any money.
  • Lanzar/tirar los perros: This expression refers to “throwing the dogs at someone” whom you are trying to seduce, comparing the act of seduction to a hunt. E.g. “Ese man te está tirando los perros” (“That guy is trying to seduce you”).
  • Biela: A beer.
  • Preli: This word is the shortened version of the Spanish word for “preliminary”, and like the Argentine “previa” it is the equivalent of a “pregame”, or drinking alcoholic beverages before heading out to a party.
  • Hacerse funda/bolsa: Literally, “to make oneself a bag”. It refers to drinking very heavily. E.g. “Me hice funda en la fiesta de anoche” (“I got wasted at the party last night”).
  • Chuchaqui: A hangover. It comes from the Quichua “chaqui”, which is the state of discomfort that follows the act of chewing coca leaves.
  • Camellar: A verb meaning “to work”, like in Colombia.   
  • Jamear: To eat. This verb is similar to the Costa Rican “jamar” and is used in Peru as well.
  • Aniñado/Pelucón: “Aniñado” is an adjective derived from the word “niño” (or “kid”), whereas “Pelucón” refers to someone who wears a wig. Both words allude to a person of high socioeconomic status.
  • Bacán: Similar to the Colombian “bacano”, this word is employed to describe something “nice” or “cool”. A common variant is “chévere” which is widely used in Latin America.
  • Once: Literally, “eleven”. This word means “to be focused in what you are doing” or “to be alert”. E.g. “Tienes que estar once; cuidado con los ladrones” (“You have to be alert; watch out for thieves”)

 

Mexico

While foreigners usually associate the label “Mexican Spanish” with the form of Spanish spoken in Mexico City and central Mexico, Mexico has around ten dialects spoken in different areas of the country. The vocabulary and intonation of the different varieties of Mexican Spanish have been influenced by the indigenous Nahuatl, Mayan and Zapotec languages. For example, a lot people will use “guajolote” (a word of Nahuatl origin) instead of the standard “pavo” for “turkey”.

Common expressions:

  • ¿Qué onda?: Literally, “What wave?”. This expression is a common way of asking someone else how they are doing. It can be accompanied by a friendly “güey” (also spelled “wey”, which can mean “friend” or “guy”).  
  • Cuate/carnal: Both words are used for close friends. Literally, “cuate” is a fraternal twin, whereas “carnal” means “pertaining to the flesh”.
  • Pedo: Literally, “fart”. “Estar pedo” (“to be pedo”) means “to be drunk”, but the word “pedo” can have a variety of meanings. For example, it can also refer to a complex situation or problem.  
  • Cruda: Literally, “raw”. This word means “hangover”.
  • Chirria/Chela: A beer. “Chela” is a commonly used word for beer in many Latin American countries.
  • Mala copa: Literally, “bad glass”. This expression refers to a person who behaves unpleasantly when they are drunk.
  • Chamba: A noun for “work”. It is also used in other Latin American countries. The corresponding verb is “chambear” (“to work”).
  • Fresa: Literally, “strawberry”. A derogatory term to refer to people of high socioeconomic status, who are usually conceived as being pretentious or conceited. The opposite of fresa is a “naco” (which comes from “nacido corriente” or “born uncouth”), which refers to a person who lacks good manners and does things that are commonly looked down upon by society, or just has bad taste.
  • Padre/Chido/Chingón: Words to refer to something “cool” or “awesome”.
  • Neta: Literally, the female variant of “neto” or “net” as in “free from all charges or deductions; final”. This word can be used as an adjective to refer to something “true” or as a noun (“la neta”) to talk about “the truth”.
  • Pinche: It is an adjective generally used to describe something contemptible or of bad quality. It can also be used as an adverb in order to emphasize the meaning of an adjective. Thus, it isn’t exclusively used for insults as the meaning provided would suggest. E.g. “Ramiro es un pinche tonto” (“Ramiro is a damn fool”)

 

Peru

In Peru, Spanish was initially only spoken by Spaniards and mestizos. This continued to be the case up until the twentieth century when the majority of the population in the highlands was still speaking the indigenous Quechua language. The heavy influence of the latter is responsible for the widespread confusion of gender, number, and agreement in two of the Peruvian dialects, Andean and Amazonic Spanish. Equatorial Spanish is spoken in Tumbes, located close to the border with Ecuador.

The “standard” Peruvian Spanish is the limeño, spoken by people from the country’s capital, Lima. Two very distinctive characteristics of this dialect include the strong pronunciation of /rr/ and /r/ and a palatal pronunciation of “j” and “g” (before “e” or “i”). The use of the augmentative form “-azo” is widespread in Peru, e.g. “solazo” (from “sol” or “sun”).

Common expressions:

  • Habla: This is the second-person singular conjugation of the verb “hablar” (“to speak”). Some peruvians use it to greet friends.  
  • Pata/Choche/Causa: Words used to refer to a close friend. As is common in Latin America, however, they can also be used by strangers to establish a friendly rapport with each other.
  • Collera: Literally, a “horse collar”. This word is used to refer to your group of friends.
  • Afanar: In standard Spanish, this verb means “to do something with dedication and interest”. In Peru, however, it is used to describe the act of seducing or flirting with someone. E.g. “Se pasó la fiesta afanando a la rubia” (“He spent all night flirting with the blonde”)
  • Choque y fuga: Literally, “crash and flight”. This expression refers to a one-night stand. E.g. “José no es mi novio, solo tuvimos un choque y fuga” (“José is not my boyfriend, we only had a one-night stand”)
  • Tono: Literally, a “tone”. A word used for “party”. E.g. “Tengo un tono este viernes” (“I have a party this Friday”)
  • Chancha: Literally, a “female pig”. A noun that refers to the sacred pool of money used exclusively to buy alcohol. Similar to the Ecuadorian “vaca” (a “female cow”). E.g. “Ya pues, hagamos una chancha para comprar las cervezas” (“Okay, let’s pool our money to buy beer”)
  • Huasca: An adjective to refer to someone who is drunk.
  • Pituco: A person of high socioeconomic status; posh or elegant. This word is also used in Chile.
  • Paja: Literally, “straw”. When used in the expression “¡Qué paja!” it refers to an ideal or happy situation, but it can refer to the act of masturbating in a range of Latin American countries. For example, if your favorite song starts playing at a party, you would exclaim “¡Qué paja!”
  • ¡A su madre!: Literally, “to their mother”. It can be shortened to “¡A su!” and it expresses surprise or pain.
  • Pe’: A contraction of “pues” (a Spanish word with a number of meanings including “well”, “since”, “so”, “then”). It is very common to hear it in the limeño slang, as in the greeting “Habla, pe’” (“So, speak”).

This list was created as a resource so that my students can understand how the cultural diversity of Latin America is reflected in the variety of colloquialisms used in the region and so it is by no means comprehensive. I encourage you to visit Latin America if you want to experience all of this dialectal and cultural richness (or apply what you have learned in this guide!).

 


Categories: From the Team, Latin American Syllabus, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

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