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).
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”).
- ¿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!”).
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 voseo that involves corresponding voseo verbs (e.g. using “vos sabís” instead of “tú sabes” or “you know”).
- ¿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?”)
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 “-ico” and “–ica” is widespread in Colombia (e.g. Colombians will say “chocolatico” instead of the more standard “chocolatito” for the diminutive of “chocolate”).
- ¿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 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 “vos” for 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).
- 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”
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?”).
- ¿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”.
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.
- ¿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”)
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”.
- ¿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”)
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”).
- 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!).