Specialists in oral translation services

Monday, February 25, 2019

Cazador de Palabras

By Hugo Pooley, AIB

Over the years I have had the great good fortune to be regularly sent to all the major countries of Latin America.  As often as possible I have taken the opportunity to stay over and travel in various fascinating regions.  While there, like an entomologist with a butterfly net I have endeavoured to collect interesting local linguistic specimens.  A selection of my curiouser finds may perhaps be of interest to those visiting this page.

This divertimento is written in English but will only be of interest to readers with a substantial knowledge of European Spanish.  Explanations would, as with any kind of joke, otherwise be so tedious as to deprive them of the fun.

Sometimes it is just a matter – for those accustomed to Old World Spanish – of unsuspected meaning shifts, of usages not being what they seem.  Little surprises like dique for a reservoir; reflector for a flashlight; dársena for a lay-by; plantel for a school; lastimosamente for unfortunately; or allanamiento as a judicially ordered search of premises.  Of course, the same phenomenon occurs when a Brit finds reticulation used for irrigation in Australia, or encounters pants for trousers and fanny for arse in the US.

Geographical labels are necessarily approximate, so items listed for one country or region often turn out to be used in the same way in other places too.

Trigger warning: I don’t apologise for the substantial proportion of items referring to prurient matters.  Up there with drunkenness, the human genital organs, for example, are the semantic field with the highest numbers of synonyms in both Spanish and English –  providing evidence, if any were needed, that this area occupies a disproportionate amount of space in the collective lexical imagination.

Indeed, back in the Paleolithic era, when dictionaries were books, and these were made of paper, I was once in a bookshop with the author of what had for many years been the best Spanish / English bilingual dictionary in the world, on the day that the first serious competitor for his creature was published.  When the eminent academic took it off the shelf, his perusal, like any self-respecting schoolboy's, took him straight to the entry for “the F word”, followed by a series of other scabrous terms for which he had invented the classification of three asterisks, thus *** – i.e. taboo. ROFLMFAO!

Here then are some of my little finds.


bromatología – not the science of humour, but food health; in the context, for example, of roadside checks on food carried in vehicles

costanera – bypass, doesn’t have to be near water; elsewhere (e.g. Chile, Panama) it is often a road or leisure area by a river

joda – joke, fooling around; party

remise – don't be misled by your French, hehe: hire car (with driver)

ripio – nothing to do with doggerel: earth, as in a dirt track

piche, tatú, mulita, peludo & quirquincho: these wonderful, resonant, words all refer to different species of …armadillo!


Starting with two archetypal chilenismos

al tiro – straight away

¿Cachay? – Do you understand? / You know? / Geddit?

dividendo – regular mortgage repayment

lapicero – “pencil” or “pencil case”, you are thinking.  Pues ni una cosa ni la otra; here, as in Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Peru, this is a ballpoint pen!  Known elsewhere as bolígrafo, birome, esfero, plumero, esferógrafo, pluma, puntabola, lápiz pasta…


guanábana, agraz, granadilla, guayaba, lechosa, zapote, lulo, agraz, pitaya, curuba, uchuva, feijoa, borojo, corozo – How lovely are these fruity words, all harvested locally?

comparendo – In theory this is a summons or subpoena, which seems to make sense; but in practice it only ever seems to refer to a notice of a fine, like a traffic ticket!

man – male person.  Not vocative; e.g. Estoy esperando a mi man

prepago – discard your Castilian ideas. This noun can be masculine or feminine; but always refers to …an escort, as in, a prostitute (one can see why: ¿será que hoy no se fía? 😉)

regalar – also not what you would think if you learned the Spanish of Spain: to lend, or let the other use – ¿Me regalaría un esferógrafo?

tinto – black coffee

tractomula – articulated truck

vaina – essentially, a thing.  Sometimes a good thing, others a bad one.  Thank the heavens for context, eh?


patarranas – (swimmer's) flippers


pelado – young kid, friend

polla – again, forget your smutty Castilian preconceptions: a crib, as beloved by students the world over – una chuleta, vamos


madre – interestingly, here this is a taboo word, because of its association with all the colourful insults involving lewd insinuations about the dubious morality of the interlocutor's mother: ¡tu madre!, conchatumadre…
The English terms “SOB”, “motherf***er” are of course equivalent.  However, it must be hard for a pure native English speaker to comprehend how deeply ingrained this taboo is in the common Hispanic imagination.  Sometimes it almost seems one cannot even mention the other's poor progenitor, or if one does, the circumlocution su señora madre is used; I even heard this euphemism on TV news instead: la mamá del acusado!

me vale verga – every bit as rude as it sounds: I don't give a f***


un push – a “love hotel”.  Referenced as such three times in John le Carré's novel “The Tailor of Panama”.  But why is it called this?


gatillar – commonly used in the same way as the English “to trigger, unleash”: Esta legislación gatillaría una ola de desempleo