Tag Archives: Education

Favorite words in Spanish (The Bogotá Post)

It’s been quite a while, I know, but I’d like to get back into the swing of things without too much ado. To start, I want to post some of my columns from The Bogotá Post over this past year. This one combines two of my most popular blog posts, and the definitions are much improved. Which one is your favorite?

I just got back from vacation, we’re all busy watching the Olympics now, and we’re in the languorous dog days of summer. So, these summer doldrums are the perfect time to heed the advice of my chief linguistic takeaway from my recent visit to Colombia’s coast: cógela suave. That is, let’s take it easy in this column.

Therefore, para variar un poco, I hereby present you some of my favorite words in Spanish. Some of them because they’re beautiful, others because they’re fun to say, others because I like how they’re used or their meaning, others because I get a kick out of their translation in certain dictionaries (indicated by quotes), and others because they just have a je ne sais quoi about them. All are words that I’ve gradually come across via conversations, books, and life over the years—no cheating and thumbing through the dictionary or looking up someone else’s list of favorite words. A few are Colombian Spanish or particular to other regions; others may be highly literary or old-fashioned. The definitions are not exhaustive. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy this tantalizing smorgasbord of the Spanish language.

(I know that many native Spanish speakers also read this column, some of whom speak outstanding English, so I tried to include some really rich and colorful English words in the definitions for your linguistic pleasure and learning.) 

acuarela (watercolor)

acuatizaje (water landing)

albaricoque (apricot)

almohadilla (ink pad; paw pad; small pillow; pincushion)

amanecer (dawn; to dawn; wake up in the morning; spend the night somewhere; stay up all night)

andariego (full of wanderlust, footloose; wanderer)

apenas (barely, hardly; as soon as)

ay (oh; ow, ouch)

bambalina (stage curtain)

bobalicón (nitwit, twit, dolt)

(a) borbotones (bubbling, gushing; abundantly)

cacharrear (to fiddle with something until you figure it out, tinker)

cachimba (smoking pipe; hookah)

cachivaches (knickknacks, odds and ends; junk)

cantimplora (canteen, flask)

casquisuelto (sexually promiscuous person, womanizer, Don Juan, floozy, man-eater)

chichiguas (pittance, petty amount)

colindar (to adjoin, abut)

cumbamba (chin)

curiosear (to poke around, snoop; to glance at, look around)

decembrino (related to December)

diluir (to dilute)

embebecer (to fascinate)

empiyamado (in one’s pajamas)

ensimismado (lost in thought; absorbed, engrossed; self-absorbed)

escuincle (kid, child)

feligrés (parishioner)

flojera (laziness; weakness)

floripondio (“gaudy decorative flower,” “great flowery thing”; rhetorical flourish)

friolento (cold-natured)

fulano (whatshisname; some random person)

golosina (treat, candy; incentive)

gordinflón (fatty, fatso; chubby, tubby, pudgy)

hediondo (smelly, foul, reeking)

hijueputa (son of a bitch, bastard)

horripilante (hideous; horrifying)

imagínate (just imagine)

inmiscuirse (to interfere, meddle, stick your nose into)

kumis (kumis: kind of yogurt)

lentejuela (sequin)

locuacidad (loquacity, talkativeness)

maracuyá (passion fruit)

memorioso (having a good memory)

mequetrefe (good for nothing, schmuck; busybody)

mermar (to reduce, turn down)

mijo/mija (my son/daughter, “sonny boy”; sweetie, darling)

mismísimo (the very same, itself/herself/himself)

mojigato (strait-laced, goody two-shoes; holier-than-thou, self-righteous; hypocrite, two-faced; prude, prig)

murciélago (bat)

nalgadas (spanking)

natalicio (birthday; commemoration/observance of a famous person’s birthday)

ningunear (to ignore, brush aside; to look down one’s nose at, treat like dirt)

noctámbulo (nocturnal; night owl)

ojalá (let’s hope, hopefully, God willing)

papanatas (sucker, dupe)

papeleo (paperwork; red tape)

parvulario (nursery school, kindergarten)

pecueca (stinky feet smell; bad; brat)

piquiña (itching; envy)

pluviosidad (rainfall)

porquería (junk; dirt; mess; filth, smut; shoddy work)

primíparo (college freshman; first-timer, newbie; primípara: first-time mother)

pues (well; um; then; because, since)

quiubo (what’s up?; hey)

renacuajo (tadpole; nosy)

rosaleda (rose garden, rose bed)

tampoco (neither, nor; come on)

tararear (“to la-la-la”; sing to oneself)

tertulia (get-together, gathering; cultural/literary salon, circle)

tinieblo (secret lover; unofficial or unannounced partner)

tiquismiquis (petty details; bickering, squabbles; fussy, finicky, persnickety; stickler, fusspot)

tulipán (tulip)

vaina (thingamajig, whatchamacallit; headache, drag; pod; sheath, case)

verdulería (produce store; vegetable stand; mayhem, chaos; obscenity)

ya (already; now; enough; right)

Now you have 75 splendid words to season your Spanish with! I hope you enjoyed them and are now thinking about the words that have always struck you as lovely or nifty. What a treat to be able to speak such a beautiful language.



Por y para (The Bogotá Post)

Here’s my latest for The Bogotá Post, and this time it’s an original. I was asked to write something elucidating the different uses of por and para, but I only had 600 words to do so! So, feeling severely restricted on space, this was my best attempt at explaining these prepositions that make a lot of Spanish learners want to cry. The last thing I wanted to do was just rehash the same eternal lists found on every other website. I mean, we’ve all seen them, and if they did us any good we wouldn’t find ourselves continually tripping over por and para. I don’t know if it was even possible, but I tried my hardest to come up with something new and, hopefully, easy. Well, at least easier. Simplicity is golden! Instead of saying use por for A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, etc., I prefer to say use por for A,B,C, and, D (which all fall under category M); E, and F (which fall under category N); H; and I. There–four rules this time, not eight. I looked at every possible resource online and then tossed and turned while trying to think of new explanations and ways of organizing these ideas in my mind. Do these categories and subcategories make sense to you? Let me know if this helps you in any way! If I can get even one aha moment from even one reader, this post will have been worth every keystroke and pixel.

Also, there do exist a few other uses and constructions! For example, por mucho que + subjunctive (as much as . . . ), or estar por/para (to be about to do something), and others. These lists are not exhaustive, but will cover you in, oh, probably 95% of all situations.

And some uses that you’ll learn from a textbook just aren’t used here in Colombia. Maybe nowhere? They’ll tell you to use por for transportation (por avión, por barco, por carro), but here they use en instead. Also be aware that with time expressions, where you’ll be tempted to say por X amount of time, often you should use durante or nothing at all. Trabajé allá cinco años. All right, let’s dive in.

Mastering por y para is part and parcel of speaking good Spanish. Chop-chop, this column will be sans frills. Let’s get cracking!


1. RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TWO THINGS OR EVENTS (One-for-one exchange: you give, offer, or ask for one thing for another; or cause and effect: some reason or impetus elicits a feeling or action from someone)

A. Switches, sales, offers, and haggling (for)

Pagué 60 mil por estos zapatos. 

Te daré mi galleta por tu palito de queso.

Lo dejó por otro.

B. Giving thanks or asking for forgiveness (for)

Gracias por la ayuda.

Te pido disculpas por haber llegado tarde.

C. On behalf of, in favor of, supporting (for)

Yo de ti, votaría por Claudia López.

Trabajamos por los derechos humanos.

D. Cause, reason, or motivation for doing something (because of, due to)

Murió por falta de agua.

Todo lo que hago, lo hago por ti.

E. Emotions (for, because of)

Me alegra por ti.

Estoy triste por lo que pasó.

F. To show the reason for an errand or action (with ir, venir, pasar, mandar, volver, and preguntar)

Paso por ti a las ocho.

Su ex preguntó por ella.

Voy por un tinto, ya vuelvo.


2. MOVING THROUGH TIME AND SPACE (how, when, where, & for how long: we’re interested in the time during the journey, not the final destination)

A. Through, along, by, down, around, in the vicinity of

Iba por Chapinero y me encontré una tienda vintage re chévere.

Si caminas por la Séptima, verás muchos vendedores ambulantes.

B. Modes of communication (by, on)

No hables por teléfono en el bus.

Me lo dijo por Messenger.

C. Length of time (for)

Viví en Lima por 5 años antes de venir a Bogotá.

D. Time of day (during, at)

Desde La Calera, Bogotá se ve divina por la noche.



Velocity, frequency, and proportion (per)

El colibrí bate sus alas 55 veces por segundo.

Agent in passive constructions (by)

Esta ciudad fue transformada por la alcaldía de Mockus.

To be seen as, to take as (for)

Puede que sea extranjera, pero no me tomes por boba.

Substitution (for, instead of)

Lo firmé por ti, como tú no estabas.

Don’t tell me someone’s calling me a paracupine!


1. SPACE/TIME DESTINATIONS AND END POINTS (What/when/who is it for? What’s our goal/destination?)

A. Deadline or specific time (by, on, till, before)

Lo necesitamos para el lunes.

Faltan veinte minutos para las seis.

B. Goals, purposes (in order to, so that)

Para bailar la bamba, se necesita una poca de gracia . . . 

Nado para divertirme.

C. Specific destination (to)

Vámonos pa’l monte . . .

Para la 72 con 9, por favor.

D. Use or purpose/function of a thing (for, so that)

Una sombrilla se usa para que uno no se moje cuando llueve.

E. Recipient (person or activity) (for)

Esta torta es para mi novio.

¡No hay cama pa’ tanta gente!

No tengo para el viaje.



Contrast from what is expected (for, considering that)

Para una extranjera, ella habla muy bien el español.

Porkeet? Try again, mister.

Common snafus:

Work for- PARA: Trabajo para un instituto de inglés.

Excited about- POR: Estoy emocionado por mi viaje.

Forever- BOTH: PARA siempre (more common) or POR siempre

Responsible for- POR: Responsable POR, or, even better, responsable DE

Opinions- BOTH: Para mí, lo más importante es la familia. (I think, in my opinion) / Por mí, no hay problema. (That’s fine with me.)



¿Por qué lo hiciste?

Why did you do it? What made you do it? What was your reason for doing it?


¿Para qué lo hiciste?

What did you do it for? What did you hope to gain by doing it?


¿Por qué hacerlo?

Why should I do it? What good reason is there for doing it?


¿Para qué hacerlo?

What’s in it for me? What do I stand to gain?

Test your Spanish spelling

How good is your Spanish spelling? Do you know the difference between cegar and segar? Rosa and roza? Bazo and vaso? How about Bibiana and Viviana? (That last one still befuddles me as well.) This test, which has been all the rage on the internet these past few weeks, will help you see if you’re a Spanish spelling diva or if your ortografía could use some work. Or is it, hortografía? Hmm. While I ponder that, take the test–it’s short, snappy, and well-designed. If you never took the Spanish vocabulary test I shared a few months ago, be sure to take that one as well.


There are 41 questions, and I’m happy and relieved to say that I got 41 out of 41 when I took it last week. Most were a piece of cake, but there were a few where I had to think about it for a second. Something important to keep in mind for when you come back and tell us your score: unless you get a perfect score, your number will not be your score out of 41 but rather how far you got. Because it’s game over with just one mistake; yes, the test is a little unforgiving. Since I didn’t know that it worked that way, I was a little unforgiving as well when someone close to me told me that they got a 2. 2? 0-2? Out of 41? My heart went out to them. This person’s texts and Facebook chats with me have their fair share (wow, what a nightmare spelling their fair share must be for a non-native English speaker!) of spelling mistakes, but I’d always chalked them up to smartphone typos and stupid Autocorrect. It’s not like I expect the whole world to be part of the literati or a fellow language nerd. But, a mere 2? I couldn’t help but look a bit askance at the relationship. Then they tried again the next time we saw each other, and I got to see firsthand how the music stops with your first misstep (they made it to 13 this time). Whew!

Spanish spelling is a breeze compared to English spelling. Why do you think spelling bees don’t exist in Spanish? To spell perfectly in English is a feat (I can’t–I regularly look words up); to spell perfectly in Spanish seems like it should be a given. So says this impertinent gringa. However, I know some Spanish speakers who are voracious readers and tremendous intellectuals, and I still occasionally catch things like asares or has todo lo posible in their writings. So, I understand that it’s not as easy as I might paint it to be. I and many other language learners largely learned Spanish through reading: my first contact with most words (and certainly the big ones) was in written form. More than sounds, words are emblazoned on my brain as images, unalterable units composed of a certain string of letters. But if I were a native Spanish speaker, my first contact and acquaintance with most words would be orally/aurally. And, in that case, I could totally understand perpetually being unsure of a certain spelling that is much more alive to you as a sound than as an image (After all, how many times must I look up calendar, cemetery, chandelier, etc.? And if you’ve never misspelled the word nuisance, perhaps now is the time to take one step forward.), or simply typing with your fingers and mind more closely connected to your ears, before your eyes get a chance to jump in and revise. I recognize that in this one instance, I might have a slight advantage over the native Spanish speaker.

It’s so difficult for me to misspell in Spanish that we can say that the times that I’ve done it have been practically nil. However, I confess that I once wrote princeza to an ex-lover, and I never lived it down. I don’t know what came over me. It’s also recently been brought to my attention that I use losa and loza incorrectly. I’m yet to do anything about it, though.

Take the test, and then come back and tell us what your score was. And, if applicable, what word was your undoing. Also, what words in Spanish regularly get you? Thinking about it, I realize that once in a blue moon I misspell words that are similar to English words when I’ve never seen the Spanish word in its written form. For example, while taking notes in class the other day, I wrote intrínsico. A classmate who glanced at my computer screen informed me that the word in Spanish is intrínseco. Ahh. I don’t recall ever having seen it written before, and I didn’t catch the slight difference between the English and Spanish forms when the professor said it. I also find it so easy to want to say or write asasinar and not asesinar. As I move into a more oral realm of Spanish, speaking as much as or even more than I read, I wonder if my spelling in Spanish will worsen? When I reach the point where I have to pause to puzzle over valla or vaya, callo or cayo, or hola or ola, maybe then I’ll know that I’ve truly arrived.

Popcorn quiz

Everybody knows that there are a lot of ways to say drinking straw in Spanish. And there are almost as many words for baby bottle as there are babies. But for my money, I think the word that might have the greatest number of regional differences is popcorn. I think it’s cool that in each country a would-be poet thought that none of the numerous pre-existing denominations for popcorn sufficiently captured its popcorny soul and essence and then took it upon him- or herself to invent one that would. For his or her people, in that time. As fun as these regional words are, it’s helpful to keep a more universal term in your pocket for when you cross borderlines. 

I drew a blank on this most basic word the other day. I was interpreting at the OB/GYN clinic for a prenatal care alternative they offer for women where they meet in a group. After interpreting the chat at the beginning, the leader put in a movie about newborn care. She jokingly apologized for not having any popcorn, and my mind went blank. Popcorn! The only thing that came to my mind was a word that I knew would be absolute gibberish to the women there (all of them were from Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras). However, it was the ONLY word I could recall in that split second, and it is a legitimate one in Colombia: maíz pira. Doing my best to mumble, I hoped that people would understand the spirit of my message from the context and not get hung up on the strange words themselves. I’m usually good at toning down my Colombianness while stateside. I know, I know: When not in Rome, nobody understands (nor, for that matter, cares) what the Romans do.

As I sit here writing this post now, I’m thinking, now how do you say popcorn? Just as convinced as I could be that the standard words for it up and left my brain a long time ago. But, aha! Palomitas graciously flys over to me. Good, good. A little longer and then . . . crispetas crackles in a cobwebbed region of my brain. Excellent! I’m re-earning my popcorn wings. Oh, why did palomitas fail me earlier? Se me fueron las palomitas. If you get that double entendre, go you.

Bloqueador palomitas

The idea of pyre corn sounds barbaric and medieval. I don’t think you’re supposed to munch on popcorn at a funeral pyre, but that’s what they say in Colombia. (In their pseudo-defense, a pira can also be an hoguera- a bonfire.) Some people use maíz pira only for uncooked popcorn kernels, but others don’t make a distinction. I remember being teased mercilessly one time when I mentioned maíz pira at a movie theater as if this were the most ridiculous thing I could ever say. Movie theater popcorn was always crispetas, I was told. Rightly or wrongly, I then concluded that maíz pira was this unpretentious, folksy term that you only use to describe the humble popcorn you prepare and eat at home. But when you hold it up to the light and are honest with yourself, you see how unsophisticated (seriously, a pyre?) and embarrassing it really is. The term clearly can’t be used to describe the glamorous, gleaming movie theater popcorn you eat while watching Hollywood movies in English. Enter, crispetas. This term appears to come from the Valencian and Catalonian crispetes, which comes from the English crisps. In some parts of Colombia, they only say crispetas. 

Ni a “PALO” te digo un “MITO” . . .
¿Quieres ser mi palomita?

Palomitas (little doves) or palomitas de maíz is the best catch-all, universal word for popcorn. For some reason, rosetas de maíz (rosettes) is how popcorn is usually translated in movie subtitles and dubbing. No country was stepping up to the plate, though, and claiming it as their own. A prescriptive term that some translator is trying his dangdest to disseminate despite its failure to catch on after decades? Finally, Andalusia owned up to it.

Pochoclo Liniers

Here’s a sample of the many words for popcorn, organized by themes that jump out at me. Countries mean that the word is allegedly used in at least some region of that country, and possibly all of it.

Little goats: chivitas (Mexico), cabritas (Chile)

Onomatopoeia/fun to say: pochoclos (po + choclo- corn) (Argentina, Uruguay), poporopos (Guatemala), cotufas (Venezuela)

Indigenous words: esquites (Náhuatl- Mexico), canguil (Kichwa- Ecuador), pororó/pururú (Guaraní- Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia), cancha/canchita (Quechua- Peru), pipocas (Tupi- Bolivia, Brazil)

And many, many more! So, does popcorn look more like little doves or little goats? What other words do you know? Which one’s your favorite? Don’t tell Colombia, but I quite like pochoclo myself.


Déntrese Firulais

I couldn’t resist coming up with a Spanish version of yesterday’s comic.