Category Archives: Phrases

Sick as a frog’s tail (The Bogotá Post)

As we continue playing catch-up with my newspaper columns from the past few months, here’s the next installment from The Bogotá Post: being sick in (but never of!) Colombian Spanish. Much of the information can also be found in this post that I wrote in 2012. And if you don’t know what chikungunya is, look it up–I didn’t choose that sickness because it has a cool name but rather because it regularly pops up on the Colombian news (also written chicunguña).


Last week I felt a cold coming on, a friend had to cancel lunch plans because he too had come down with something, and one of my boyfriend’s cousins was also feeling under the weather. It seemed like a great excuse to write about how to talk about feeling sick in Colombian Spanish, so, from the sniffles to chikungunya, here’s how to cope, Spanish-wise.

I’m sick is Estoy enfermo (think of sending someone to the infirmary), but a very common way in Colombia to say that you’re feeling bad is Estoy maluco or Me siento maluco. The noun form of this adjective is maluquera: Tengo una maluquera also conveys that you’re feeling lousy. Tengo un malestar is more formal way of saying the same thing. Estoy indispuesto is a more formal and elegant way of saying that you’re sick and out of pocket, like saying, I’m ill. I’ve never found a convincing way of saying that someone feels sick as a dog in Colombian Spanish, but you can compare how bad you feel to what it must feel like to have the plague: Tengo una peste horrible, Tengo la peste, or Estoy apestado.

So, what do you have? A cold? The flu? Here in Colombia and in some other countries, these are treated as pretty much the same animal: la gripa. Note that it’s gripa and not gripe, as it is in most countries. So, you say Tengo gripa, or Estoy agripado, or Me dio gripa. I caught a cold. Resfriado or catarro–common words for a cold in other countries- are not words you’re likely to hear in Bogotá.

sick

Medicines are called medicamentos far more than they’re called medicinas, and you can also say drogas or remedios. Pills are almost always called pastillas, not píldoras. You can see that pastillas is the diminutive form of pastas, so if you hear someone ask for pastas at the farmacia or droguería, there’s no need to tell them that the Italian restaurant is around the corner.

¡Que te mejores! is your standard way of telling someone to get well soon. If you know that someone was sick and you want to check in on them, you can ask them ¿Cómo sigues? or, more specifically, ¿Cómo sigues del ojo/estómago? or whatever body part was ailing them.

Losing your voice is always a pain in the neck, and economy of words becomes of the utmost priority. When this happens, you’ll say, estoy afónico. Estar ronco means that your voice is hoarse. Tener carraspera is another way of saying this, kind of like saying that you have a frog in your throat.

Speaking of frogs, there’s this great little rhyming chant in Spanish that parents say to little kids when they get a boo-boo and think that the world is going to end: Sana que sana colita de rana, si no sanas hoy sanarás mañana. Basically, get better, little frog tail, if not today, then tomorrow.

sana que sana colita de rana

What are the best local remedies to take when you get a cold in Bogotá? Their versions of chicken noodle soup include: aguapanela with lemon and cinnamon, honey with milk, and the like.

There are many old wives’ tales here that revolve around not mixing hot and cold, for fear of causing anything from a cough to crippling you permanently. Some examples are not opening the refrigerator right after coming home all hot and sweaty after exercising, or not running your hands under cold water right after ironing. You and I might roll our eyes, but Colombians take this folk wisdom extremely seriously.

People also tend to be a little OCD about cold air. Quick, quick, close that window; you’ll let el chiflón in! El chiflón being a draft that can have all kinds of pernicious effects. And don’t go from a warm inside environment to the cold outdoors unprepared, or you risk the danger of el sereno, or, a deadly chill. Very much talked about as a sort of bogeyman, the dreaded sereno is also infamous for increasing the effects of alcohol on the brain. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

May you never have the need to use any of this vocabulary, but it’s always good to have it in your back pocket just in case. Make sure you’re always properly bundled up (especially your feet), if not for your own wellbeing then at least for the sensibilities and concern of the Bogotanos around you. When in Rome…

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Fit for Spanish (The Bogotá Post)

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m still happily writing a Spanish language column for The Bogotá Post, which is published about every three weeks. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share the posts that have come out since I put down my keyboard back in January and let the blog take a breath, interspersing them with new posts.

This column came out in January, I think, when we were still ringing in the new year and initiating our resolutions with vim and vigor. If you too set goals to eat healthier and get in better shape, this column will help you with the related vocabulary in Spanish. Feel free to share your progress in the comments. I’ve been working on toning my arms, and I’m also trying to make a Colombian equivalent of “an apple a day…” and eat a mango a day, or at least just increase my consumption of all the local delicious fruit in general!


Happy New Year! Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Maybe to improve your Spanish? Maybe to lose weight? I thought we could kill two birds with one stone by talking about one goal that’s very common (losing weight), and teaching you some related useful Spanish de paso.

First of all, a goal in this context is un propósito. If your goal is to lose weight, you’d say: Mi propósito para este año es bajar de peso. If it’s to get in shape: Mi propósito para este año es ponerme en forma. Another way of saying to lose weight is adelgazar; you can see its connection to the word for thin, delgado. Use the preposition para to express a deadline: Quiero bajar cinco kilos para junio. I want to lose five kilos by June.

Maybe you just want to tone up, either in general or a certain body part. To tone is tonificar. Quiero tonificar mis brazos – I want to tone my arms. Maybe you want to eat healthy: Quiero comer sano/sanamente. To go on a diet is hacer una dieta; to tell someone that you’re on a diet, you say, Estoy a dieta.

diet and exercise

If you want to join a gym, you’ll say, Quiero entrar al gimnasio. To work out is hacer ejercicio. Want the holy grail of gym rats, a six-pack? Locally, you call that a chocolatina because it looks like a chocolate bar with its various squares. Ironic, right?

Have a spare tire around your middle? That’s a michelín; yes, just like the brand of tires. A double chin? That’s called a papada. Rolls of fat in general are called gordos. Spanish even has a word for chubby cheeks! They’re cachetes.

You may have noticed that here in Colombia the words gordo and gorda frequently don’t carry the same stigma and insult that FAT carries in other cultures. There are husbands and wives that affectionately call each other gordo and gorda, as well as women who greet their female friends by calling them gorda. It’s all about the tonito. Gordito makes the label softer, obviously, and means chubby or plump.

What are some other ways of expressing that someone is heavy? Your doctor is most likely to say something tactful and technical like Usted tiene sobrepeso or Usted está pasado de peso. If your friends notice that you’re packing a few extra pounds than usual, or if you come back from vacation with your face a little rounder, they might say that you’re repuesto or repuestico. A little stronger than that would be rellenito. Rechoncho is a harsher way of saying that someone is chunky or hefty. One very local way of saying that someone is gaining weight is se ve que se toma la sopita. You can tell they’re eating all their soup! Soups of all kinds being, of course, a classic Bogotá staple for the traditionally cold weather. People even eat soup at breakfast! Speaking of Bogotá food, once I heard an overweight person jokingly called a buñuelo con patas. A walking buñuelo.

campbell's soup

What about when someone has a killer bod? ¡Qué cuerpazo! What a great body! A macancán is a guy who’s really ripped. Acuerpado also means buff or toned (though it can also just mean large), as does musculoso. Delgado is thin, of course, and esbelta (usually for women) means slender, svelte. Flaco carries more of the connotation of skinny, sometimes being underdeveloped and unattractively thin. Not always, though: ¡Flaca, tírame un hueso! is a famously humorous piropo for women. Hey, skinny Minnie, throw me a bone!

If someone’s skin and bones, you can say that they’re puro hueso or that they parece un palillothey’re as thin as a rail, er, toothpick.

One false cognate you run into when talking about bodies is complexión. As someone once wrote, resist the urge to write “cleared up years ago!” when you see this on a form for you to fill out. No, it’s not referring to your skin complexion. Instead, complexión in Spanish refers to your build or body type.

All that really matters is that you’re happy and healthy, and we all know that thinness is not necessarily a guarantee of either. Whatever your size, hopefully 2015 will be a year of joy, success, and increased Spanish fluency!

When it rains, it pours (The Bogotá Post)

My latest column in The Bogotá Post came out a few weeks ago, but with 12 days spent in Nicaragua it’s just now that I have a chance to share it here. I’m posting what I wrote, and I’m including the link to TBP’s website, where you can see the column in its final format. Rain is an ever-present backdrop to this city, and you can come to love it. Especially with the trend of global warming/weirding–Bogotá’s cool, drizzly weather may be something we look back on fondly in decades to come! Enjoy it while it lasts, and use the words and expressions below to sprinkle your Spanish with fluency and colloquiality. Happy new year!


Bogotá is a fairly rainy city even at the best of times, but lately the rain has been absolutely relentless. That’s because we’re in what’s called invierno, a rainy season that’s particularly strong in November and December. In fact, some people jokingly call November lloviembre, combining noviembre and lluvia. It’s said that Eskimos have one hundred terms for snow due to its importance and ubiquity in their culture, so it’s only logical that Bogotanos would have a plethora of vocabulary for talking about rain.

When dark clouds look menacing or you can just tell that it’s going to rain, you’ll want to say Tiene ganas de llover or Quiere llover.

There are many ways to say that it’s raining hard. The most common word locally for a downpour is aguacero. More colloquially, many people call this a palo de agua. You can also say: está lloviendo a cántaros (it’s raining buckets), llueve hasta maridos (it’s raining men), or, está cayendo un diluvio (it’s flooding).

Esta tarde cayó un aguacero ni el berraco, jamás había visto semejante palo de agua.

It rained so much this afternoon–I’d never seen such a torrential downpour before.

2014-MR-001

If you get caught in the rain without an umbrella, you’re going to get soaked to the bone. The standard and most common word for this is empapado, from the verb empapar. Of course, there are also a few local ways to say that you got drenched, one of which is emparamado. You can also say, Me pegué una lavada.

Maybe it starts to sprinkle and nothing else. The word for this in Spanish is una llovizna, and informally it’s also called un espantabobos. That is, just a little drizzle to make all the silly rain-paranoid people panic. Espantaflojos and espantabrujas also exist.

No te preocupes, es solo un espantabobos.

Don’t worry; it’s just barely sprinkling.

A key rain-related word to know is escampar. It refers to when it stops raining, when it lets up. It can additionally mean to take shelter somewhere while you wait for it to stop raining, like ducking into a cafe or standing under a doorway.

Nos vamos apenas escampe.

We’ll leave as soon as it stops raining.

Vamos a escampar en ese chucito para que no nos mojemos.

Let’s go wait out the rain in that little hole in the wall so we don’t get wet.

For umbrella, you’ll hear both sombrilla and paraguas here, though sombrilla is more common. Puddles are charcos, and they are legion.

If you read my column a few weeks back, you’ll recall that a moza or mozo is the person you’re having an affair with. Well, this word makes a reappearance with rainy weather in the phrase para moza (or, para mozo). This expresses that the lousy or rainy weather just makes you want to be curled up in bed with the person you’re seeing on the side. It’s a play on words of paramoso, which means rainy.

Uy, este clima está como para moza.

This weather just puts me in the mood to snuggle with my sweetie.

Arrunchar means to cuddle, and the sight of rain always makes locals express their desire to be in bed, either watching a movie or spooning with their partner. This is called a plan arrunchis.

So, you’ve got your umbrella, check, you’ve made your plan arrunchis, check, and now you’re fitted with the vocabulary for any and every rainy situation. A hard rain’s gonna fall, and you’re going to handle it as fluently as a local.

Chespirito

Something sad happened a few days ago that has all of Latin America mourning: Roberto Gómez Bolaños passed away, famously known as Chespirito (little Shakespeare, a reference to his prolificness, talent, and short stature). Chespirito had a variety show where he played several different characters, but he’s most fondly remembered for the show El chavo del ocho, as well as El chapulín colorado. El chavo del ocho was and still is an absolute phenomenon throughout the region: though the show’s heyday was in the 70s, tens of millions still tune in daily to watch reruns.

If you spend time in Latin America and even halfway embed yourself into the culture, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across references to El chavo del ocho, whether you realize it or not. I remember that my first year here in 2009, I went to a Halloween party (dressed as a gypsy) whose costume contest was won by a guy dressed as El chavo del ocho. I had no idea who he was supposed to be: he just looked like a hobo to me. I was so confused, as well as a little indignant that such a shabby costume could take top prize. Saying that he was el chavo del ocho made no sense to me! What the heck was a chavo, and from the eighth what? Here are a few general pointers to know about the show, with no need to actually watch it. If you ever have an hour to spare, though, I definitely recommend catching an episode or two. Think of it as an infusion of culture.

The show was Mexican, and chavo in Mexico means boy. Ocho refers to the apartment number of where he supposedly lives, though I’m told you never actually see the apartment. El chavo is an orphan, and we mostly see him on the patio of an apartment complex. He spends a lot of time in a barrel on the patio.

Main characters: El chavo (orphan), La Chilindrina (friend), Quico (friend), plus several adults.

I think that most of the current love for the show is based on nostalgia. It gets a few laughs out of me, but El chavo is just too woebegone and pitiful for me to really enjoy myself. When it was being shown during the seventies and eighties, many countries only had one or two channels, and much of Latin America was under dictatorships. Something about the perpetual down-on-his-luckness of the beloved underdog and the working-class cast really spoke to people. Trying to describe its almost inexplicable success and appeal to Americans, one Internet commenter described it as The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and Charlie Brown all in one show.

In El chavo, the kids all speak in these very whiny voices (and I think the Mexican accent can be a little chillón to begin with), so I sometimes find it a little hard to make out what they’re saying. If you ever catch an episode on TV, though, watch it a for a few minutes at least–it’s good language practice, and you’ll get a healthy dose of Latin American culture in you. Actually, a fair amount of the humor revolves around language: misunderstandings and double entendres, and then the meanings will be spelled out with plastilina for the slow-witted characters who didn’t get them. Great for a Spanish learner to eavesdrop on.

¡Uno de cuatro (el último) no está mal!

¡Uno de cuatro (el último) no está mal!

I watched part of the first episode of El chavo del ocho that came up on Youtube and loosely transcribed an interaction centered on language.

¿Quieres por favor poner las petacas en la escalera? [El chavo then goes and sits on the stairs.] (petaca = suitcase in Mexico; petacas = buttocks in Mexico and the Caribbean) (Could you please place the suitcases/buttocks on the stairs?)

¡Estoy hablando de mis petacas! (No, my suitcases/buttocks!)

¿Qué quiere, que le empuje pa’ que dé un sentón o qué? (What, do you want me to push you so you fall on your butt or what?)

Estoy hablando de las maletas, ¿no sabes lo que son maletas? (maleta = suitcase; idiot, good-for-nothing) (I’m talking about the suitcases/idiots–don’t you know what suitcases/idiots are?)

Ah, sí, los árbitros de futbol, dice Don Ramón. (Oh, right, soccer refs, according to Don Ramón.)

Mira, estas son maletas, [points at his two suitcases on the ground] o petacas, son sinónimos. (Look, these are suitcases, or luggage: they’re synonyms.)

¿Son sinónimos? (They’re synonyms?)

Claro. (Of course.)

Ah, o sea que [walks over to the suitcases] este es un sinónimo chiquito y este es un sinónimo grande. (Oh, OK, so this is a small synonym, and this is a big synonym.)

Voy de nuevo, eh. Esta es una maleta. (Let’s try this again, OK? This is a suitcase.)

Ah bueno, sí, también. (Oh, OK, that, too.)

¿Tú sabes si Doña Florinda ya hizo su maleta? (Do you know if Doña Florinda already packed/made her suitcase?)

No, las compró ya hechas. (No, she bought them pre-made.)

Me refiero a si ya preparó su maleta. (I mean whether she packed her suitcase.)

Ah, pues no sé. (Oh, I don’t know.)

¿Quieres echar un ojo a las maletas? (Could you keep an eye on/throw an eye into the suitcases?)

Ay no, quedo tuerto! (No, then I’d be a one-eyed man!)

Pues, por favor si quieres vigilar mis maletas mientras yo voy a hablar con Doña Florinda. (Look, just watch my suitcases while I go talk to Doña Florinda.)

Ridiculous? Absolutely. All of the humor here centers on words with more than one meaning, as well as expressions taken literally. Great practice for learners, though, and de paso you can learn some very colloquial and Mexican Spanish.

El chavo and Chespirito in general also have left a great legacy on the Spanish language. Here are some phrases you’re very liable to hear in day-to-day life.

From El chavo del ocho
Fue sin querer queriendo. (It was accidentally on purpose.)
¡Se me chispoteó! (Whoops, it just slipped out!)
Es que no me tienen paciencia. (I just can’t get a break.)

From El chapulín colorado (The Crimson Grasshopper)
¡No contaban con mi astucia! (They never saw it coming!)
Calma, calma, que no panda el cúnico (Pobody nanic.)
Lo sospeché desde un principio. (I smelled a rat from the beginning.)

chespirito

These shows are really near and dear to most Latin Americans’ hearts, so I recommend that you at least have a cursory knowledge about who their beloved Chespirito was! The comedian made generation after generation laugh, and people will always be grateful for how he brought so much cheer and love to their lives. Que en paz descanse.

Working your Spanish (The Bogotá Post)

The latest edition of The Bogotá Post, Bogotá’s finest English-language newspaper, has come out, and once again yours truly had a piece on the world’s finest language: Spanish. I was commissioned to write about local work vocabulary and phrases, so I put my nose to the grindstone and made it happen.

There was one hiccup, however, with what I submitted: several of the phrases had decidedly racist overtones, and these ended up getting nixed. I totally understood the decision, and I’d felt a little squeamish including them myself. As well as just downright unsure of how offensive or inoffensive they really were, so shame on me, then, for not asking around. I got help and feedback on the column from three Colombian friends, but none of them are people of color, if that designation even lends itself to being used accurately in this very blended country. I simply pointed out the racial and historical connotations of the phrases in question, withholding any further judgment or admonitions. In the future I’d definitely do due diligence and make sure to ask a more diverse group. The editors at TBP are great, though, and they asked me what I thought of their edits and let me make my case for a few other changes. The phrases were:

trabajar como negro pa’ vivir como blanco (or pa’ ganar como blanco) (to work like a black in order to live/earn like a white)

trabajar como esclavo (to work like a slave)

and, muy negrero (an employer who pays slave wages, exploitative)

The most concerning phrase was the first one, and you can certainly see why. I’d heard and read it, but had never used it and never would. The second phrase isn’t even very common, and I’ve always felt unsure and iffy about the last one (though it is very common). Part of me did want to keep them just because I’m more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist with language, fascinated by what is used, right or wrong, and trusting readers to use their best judgment and ask their own questions about tactfulness and appropriateness. But, I too care about always being respectful and inclusive, and I’m careful with the words and phrases that I include (which, like it or not, becomes to teach) in this blog. I can’t just assume that readers will ascertain in what contexts certain phrases are OK, if ever. Or they may simply lack the means to do so. I felt that the editorial rephrasing of that section was very tasteful, and I’m at peace about it.

So, with no further ado, here are ways to talk about work in Colombia, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m interested in hearing about other people’s inadvertent toe-steps when wading into the waters of language and race (or other touchy topics), and, as always, I welcome any and all contributions to the vocabulary.


Maybe you teach English, maybe you work in a Colombian office, maybe you do freelance internet stuff from home–whatever your situation, odds are you do some form of work in Bogotá. And at some point or another, you’re going to need to know the basics of how to talk about your job. So, let’s take a look at some very common work-related vocabulary here in Colombia.

Every country seems to have its local word for to work: currar in Spain, laburar in Argentina, chambear in Mexico. Here in Colombia, we say camellar, and work as a noun is frequently el camello. As you can imagine, camellar conveys the idea of working hard.

Estuvimos camellando todo el día, ahora toca descansar. We were working hard all day–now we can take a break.

Tengo que dejarte, es que tengo mucho camello. I have to go now–I have a lot of work.

¡Necesito conseguir camello! I need a job!

There are a lot of ways to express that someone is working like a dog, some of which–as in English– have racist connotations and are probably best avoided. Much better to stick to expressions like trabajar como un burro and trabajar que da miedo.

Donkeys, dogs, camels- who works the hardest?

Donkeys, dogs, camels- who works the hardest?

Colombia has a different and slightly poetic way of naming resumes/CVs: hoja de vida. The leaf of life, or the page of life, as hoja is also a sheet of paper.

Pásame tu hoja de vida, a ver si te puedo ayudar en algo. Send me your resume, and I’ll see if I can help you in any way.

Work always seems to be characterized by one headache after another, and it’s common to hear problems called chicharrones. Yes, chicharrón, as in that deep-fried belly fat that comes with your bandeja paisa, which you’d think would be a good thing.

Tengo que quedarme hasta tarde hoy porque se nos presentó un chicharrón terrible. I have to stay late today because a huge problem came up.

chicharrón deep fried belly fat pork rinds

Estar embolatado is a very Colombian way of saying that you’re busy or tied up with something.

Estoy embolatada ahora, pero dame media horita y te llamo. My hands are full right now, but give me half an hour and I’ll call you.

If you want to complain that your boss or company worked you to the bone, you can use the phrase sacar la leche–they milked you for all you were worth, plus a little more. There’s also sacar el jugo, or exprimir.

Hoy fue un día muy agotador, nos sacaron la leche. Today was really exhausting–they worked us like slaves.

One verb that you can get a lot of mileage out of in the workplace is rendir with the meaning of to yield. This is used to talk about a certain amount of time or an event yielding productivity (or not).

Trabajé duro en el proyecto y me rindió mucho. I worked hard on the project and made a lot of headway.

Mañana vamos a empezar bien temprano para que nos rinda la jornada. We’re going to get an early start tomorrow so we can get a lot done during the workday.

¡Que te rinda! Hope you get a lot of work done!

Whether you love your job or hate it, knowing how to talk about it in an über-Bogotano way and deftly slipping in references to camels, milk, and fried pork rinds might just make it that much more interesting. Certainly more colloquial!