Y pico

I took a French class a few months ago, and it was fascinating to learn a third language by way of my second language. It also seemed logical, seeing as Spanish is much closer to French than English is. One class that I think would be extremely difficult for me to take in Spanish is math. Why? Is it just me, or do you also find it difficult to work with numbers in a language that’s not your mother tongue? Sure, I can tell you my age or the time or my phone number without a problem, but if I have to do math, I need to do it in English. Or, I’ll at least be able to do it significantly faster in English, and much more comfortably. I’m sure there are studies out there that have documented this, but since I can’t find them I’m just going to have to speculate. Math is a language in itself, and my puny brain can only handle one foreign language at a time.

Fortunately, it’s not often that I need to multiply, divide,  or prove Fermat’s last theorem in Spanish. Even better, in everyday life it’s usually OK to be a bit imprecise with numbers. In addition to well-known phrases such as alrededor decerca dea eso de, and más o menos that give you some leeway, there’s another very useful phrase that you may or may not know: y pico.

Pico essentially means a little bit more, so its imprecision can only work in one direction: more, not less.

Se supone que llega a las 4, pero tú sabes lo impuntual que es, entonces lo más seguro es que llegue a las 4 y pico.

He’s supposed to get there at 4, but you know how he’s always running late. So, he’ll most likely arrive a little after 4.

No tengo reloj y se me descargó el celular, pero deben ser las ocho y pico.

I don’t have a watch and my cell phone battery died, but it should be just after eight.

Me costó cincuenta y pico, realmente fue una ganga para la calidad.

It cost me like fifty and change; it was really a bargain for the quality I got.

Ella tiene cuarenta y pico de años, no me atrevo a pedirle un número exacto.

She’s fortyish, fortysomething–I’m too chicken to ask her her exact age.

¡No la había visto en veintipico años!

I hadn’t seen her in twenty-some-odd years!

As you can see in the last two sentences, when y pico is followed by the noun, in some countries they use the preposition de there and in others they don’t.

Cop and ½!!

Cop and ½!! Definitely saw this as a kid.

As far as I can tell, y pico is used in every country except Chile. Why not Chile? Well, pico means pene (penis) there, so y pico means a little bit of only one thing. The DRAE says that pico has the same meaning in Costa Rica, but my sources say that y pico is used there with the standard meaning.

While we’re on the subject, here a few more uses of pico you might hear if you swing through Latin America.

Rush hour is called hora pico in Latin America (yes, hora pico, not hora pica, because pico is a noun here–peak–just like rush hour is composed of two nouns), which then led to a rather bizarre local phrase: pico y placa. A placa is a license plate, and pico y placa is the system that’s supposed to help traffic congestion by reducing the number of cars on the road during rush hours. Whether you can be on the road at any given moment depends on the day of the week, the time of day, and whether the last number of your license plate is odd or even. When my family came here in 2007, I remember my mom accidentally calling this system plicky-placky, to the great amusement of our hosts. Pico y placa started in Bogotá, later spread to other Colombian cities, and apparently has been replicated in Venezuela and Ecuador under the same name.

If someone asks you for a pico or perhaps ends an email or chat with ¡Picos! (or even, ¡Pikos!), they’re asking for or giving you a little kiss, a peck on the cheek or lips. The DRAE says that pico is used this way in Colombia and Bolivia, but its usage is much wider than that.

Pico can also be an animal’s beak or bill, a pickax, a mouth (¡Cierra el pico!– Shut your trap!), a mountain peak or summit, and a bunch of other things that are in the dictionary but that I don’t have personal experience with. I have to say that I’ve now read so many hilarious stories online about people (both gringos and native Spanish speakers) who have accidentally used pico with Chileans in mortifying ways that I’ll make sure to use it exactly zero times around them. This is one instance where I prefer to be precise–none of this y pico business.

21 responses to “Y pico

  1. The other day I was talking to a coworker and told the phrase ¨cierra el pico¨ she started laughing and I remembered that in Chile pico is penis. They use ¨tanto/s¨ or ¨algo¨ instead o pico as in ¨ella tiene cuarenta y tantos¨ ¨esto me costó luka y algo¨. For the rush hour they say Hora Punta Nontheless they use piquito por kiss. Btw in Puerto Rico we use tablilla instead of placa or patente. Saludos!


    • Hahaha… this is the story from WordReference that I found hilarious. Something about the line in particular… ¡dale pues el pico!

      En mi región, la palabra PICO en sinónimo de BESO.
      En una ocasión fui a acompañar a una amiga al aeropuerto de la ciudad. Ella iba a despedir a su amigo chileno quien regresaba a Chile luego de unas vacaciones en Colombia. Justo antes de partir a la sala de espera, ambos amigos se abrazaron y tímidamente evitaban besarse. Yo le dije a mi amiga: “Dale pues el pico” y el chileno explotó en carcajadas, pues para ellos PICO significa PENE (Esto lo supe luego).

      Good to know! Yes “y tantos” and “y algo” are used in many other countries as well. I knew that hora punta is more common in Spain. And, OK, piquito! Tablilla- thank you. I didn’t know patente either. So much to learn!

      I’m dying to visit Chile, but I just KNOW that Spanish-wise it will be an absolute minefield! And that I won’t understand anything :( How hard has it been for you? Both now and at the beginning.


      • At first it was really hard, I was like what the hell are they speaking. Five years (and many telenovelas) later I think I kind of understand Chilean better. The thing is they use too many modismos all the time and make no effort whatsoever to speak properly around foreigners so it’s hard to keep up. You should definitely come, it’s a beautiful country with lots to offer.


        • Yes, I don’t speak a lick of Portuguese, Hindi, Turkish, or any other language, and that obviously wouldn’t keep me from visiting the countries where those languages are spoken! For someone like you who’s a native speaker of Spanish, I imagine it’s merely frustrating and confusing; for someone like me, a non-native fluent Spanish speaker, there’d also be a bit of an ego blow- after becoming used to regular praise for my good Spanish, I’d go somewhere where I’d suddenly feel like a beginner all over again. But, as you say, it’s not Spanish- it’s Chilean. And I’m sure it’s very loveable in its own way. I’d love to visit in 2015! :)


  2. A friend relates a story out of Chile….a friend of his learned his Spanish in the Dominican Republic, where the word “guagua” is a bus.

    He was visiting Chile, living with a family, on an exchange program and went out shopping with the oldest daughter. The daughter decided to go to a friend’s home, while the visitor returned home to his host family.

    The father asked where his daughter was, and the kid replied “la deje esperando guagua”….I left her at the bus stop.

    Apparently, in Chile, “guagua” means baby. Thus, the unintended meaning came out as akin to “I left her pregnant/I got her pregnant.”

    Allegedly, everyone had a good laugh once the initial shock wore off of the father.


    • Eeeek!!! Hahaha. Great story!

      Yeah, Chile is chock-full of colorful words and expressions. This is probably my favorite blog on Chilean Spanish (and other things), and the last post touched on their linguistic peculiarities: http://bearshapedsphere.com

      There’s also a link to a Colombian-Chilean dictionary in my Friends page above, in case anyone wants to see some of the many differences between these two specific countries. It does tell people to avoid y pico because it’s a grosería, but it doesn’t say what it translates to in Chilensis.


  3. Que interesante! I feel like there’s some phrase using “pico y poco” floating around in my brain but I can’t place it and couldn’t find any information on the internet.
    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles with numbers in a second language! I remember once, a few years ago, before I started studying languages, I was exercising with an Italian friend and a Norwegian friend and I looked over and could hear the Italian quietly counting off in Italian, and then looked over to hear the Norwegian doing the same in Norwegian. I remember thinking how weird it was because they both spoke English so well (probably better than I do) but now I can completely sympathize! It doesn’t matter how many hours I’ve been in Spanish mode, as soon as I started counting I automatically switch to English if I don’t think about it…it’s like a jerk reflex!


    • I’m pretty sure it’s a universal phenomenon! And I’m sure there are some strong psychological reasons for it, but only the obvious occurs to me at the moment. I also struggle to quickly make sense of large numbers (since millions and billions are different in Spanish) and currency changes. My Achilles’ heel (OK, one of them).


  4. oye y que tal va tu clase de frances, reina?


    • Oye, it was going great, and I had a wonderful teacher from France. It was impressive how much we learned in just a few months. But I didn’t continue after the semester ended, and now my French has gone to pot. I have to pick it back up again!

      Here’s what I was able to write to a friend without looking anything up after less than a month.

      Salut Samuel!

      Je vais ecriter un peu en Francais, je ne vais chercher rien. Comment vas-tu? Ca va? Je vais bien ici a Bogota, c’est une ville tres interesant. Je vivre dans un quartier que s’appelle La Macarena. La Macarena se trouve pres au centre de la ville, et il y a beaucoup de restaurants de tout les pays et tres bons. A cote de mon apartament il y a une place ou j’aime acheter des fruits parce que ne sont pas chers. J’habite avec une femme que s’appelle Paola, elle est colombienne et elle est professeure de l’historie et de l’historie de arte dans deux universites. Paola travaille aussi dans la musee national. J’adore mon cours de Francais, la professeure est de France et elle habite cinq ans ici a Bogota. Touts les etudiants sont tres jeunes. Ici je baile un peu, et je marche beaucoup! Au revoir!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. hey! thanks for the shout-out. I can corroborate the pico-penis thing in Chile, and an Argentine told me it also means the rim of a cup, as in “don’t put your mouth on the” when you have a cold and you have to share a cup. Not a good moment for him in Chilean history! Also, when gringos ever-exaggerate (and misunderstand) the absence of the s in the middle of words (when it does not begin a stressed syllable, in which case all bets are off), and mispronounce the drink pisco, it causes great hilarity among the Chileans. When I say misunderstand I mean that they don’t get that the s is not just dropped, it is turned into a slight aspiration, almost an imaginary h/j.

    I have thought about studying French, too. But so far other things have taken priority. I think it would be great fun, but then I think I should study Portuguese instead (my goddaughter’s mother is Brazilian), and then I end up taking a workshop on something totally different!


    • Glad to have it corroborated!

      Haha, good story. I’ve never heard pico for the mouth of a bottle or cup, which doesn’t mean much- probably just that I’ve yet to discuss bottle mouths in Spanish! But I’m sure it will be a scintillating discussion whenever it does occur ;)

      Oh no, pico sours. I’ll make sure not to be one of those gringos. I’m sure you’ve taken lots of interesting workshops. I’ve been reading you since 2009, and I think one of your posts that most stuck with me was the one where you talked about your hula hoop club (and maybe shared that you weren’t quiiite as young as I’d previously imagined). You’re one of the most alive people I “know”! :)))


      • I guess it’s like rim of the cup or glass? I’m sure you would never ask for a pico sour! And sadly, the guy who’s in charge of hula hooping left dodge, but I’m taking an improv workshop at the moment. Though I skipped it tonight and worked on my book for four hours. Really. Thankless work, for the moment. Thanks for saying that about my joie de vivre, I am definitely not young!!! Mind if I stalk you on FB?


        • Absolutely not!

          I’m excited about your book :) Thanks for working on it- there, no longer thankless. Yes, joie de vivre- exactly. Come on, youth is a decision, a choice, an attitude. Like everything, embracing certain things and rejecting others.

          As I think about it, another post that stuck with me was the Suriname one. And all the language ones, of course. Now I just have to visit Chile to practice all this Chilean Spanish I’ve picked up from you :)


      • So… you never heard the expression “tomando a pico de botella?” That means that you are drinking out of a bottle, instead of pouring the liquid into a glass before drinking. It usually applies to spirits but I guess you could use it whenever drinking directly out of the bottle is not the most common (or appropriate) thing to do.

        As for the main topic of your post, “a bit more,” there is a less refined version of pico: pucho. “Llegó a las cuatro y pucho.” “El debe tener cuarenta y pucho de años.” Now, don’t ask me why I am inserting that “de” before años. I don’t know. It just feels better, and I think I would insert it as well after pico in the same sentence. Maybe to avoid the awkward pronunciation of those two vowels, if “de” were omitted, that is.


        • No, somehow just hadn’t gotten around to talking about that! I feel ready for it when it does come, though!

          I don’t recall ever hearing pucho. Posssssibly once or twice. I know I’ve read it, but not just from Colombia. Here, I regularly hear y pico, un tris, un cacho (or am I imagining that?)… mm, I’m sure there are others! :)


  6. Yeah, someimes it is the basic things in your second language that trip you up or slow you down. I think I can count quite fast in English (but then I extremely)rarely do math in English); my problem is with the days of the week. I always have to think a moment which one is which. Especially the ones in the ones in the middle are tricky for me.
    With Spanish, I find both numerals AND the days of the week to be tricky. Telling time can be a problem too, also because the format is different from that in Polish.
    And don’t get me started about French numerals. The fact that at 60 they just up and change from decimal to vigesimal was a nightmare to me when I had to study the language at the uni.


    • Interesting! I hadn’t thought about time or days of the week, but it makes sense that there would be differences and thus challenges. Yeah, I rarely have to do real math in any language. Maybe we revert to our mother tongues because we can? I mean, if it’s just you mumbling to yourself as you do some equation, there’s no need to continue performing in the foreign language. Besides continuity, or just to show that you can. But if you have to do an equation out loud… It’s not a huge problem for me, but if I ever wanted to be a UN interpreter or something, I would have to surmount that obstacle.

      Yes, but could you do 52 x 64 in your head in English?

      OK, I won’t get you started on French numerals!! Don’t worry :)


  7. I feel like I was remiss in not mentioning pico de gallo- rooster’s beak. Is it marketed differently in Mexican restaurants in Chile so that it doesn’t translate as cock’s cock? :)

    Also, it turns out that pico is a word in English! It means a trillionth (10 to the -12th power). (Used in picogram) The pico- prefix can also mean very small.


  8. I feel like it just says pico de gallo, but I will check the next time I go to one. It’s an area in which Santiago cuisine does not really shine, so it’s not something I choose frequently. I looked online, but couldn’t find an answer, sadly. But I think they will just use the same expression, especially since one of the more trad’l mexican restos has “rajas” (which means butt crack in chileno), as well as “costras” which in chileno are scabs. Just gets worse and worse, doesn’t it!?


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