By Francisco “A.J.” Camacho
Speaking the same language as the person you’re having a conversation with is a great comfort, whether asking for directions in a foreign country or asking for a straw from the smoothie vendor down the road.
In the English-speaking world, we have the benefit of relatively little dialectic diversity. If a Bostonian visits the UK, Australia, or New Zealand, she may chuckle when she fills her rental car with “petrol,” but the word is still understood. If she goes to Alabama, she might not appreciate that “Iced Tea” always means sweetened iced tea, but it’s a minor inconvenience at best.
Yet there are the occasional words that have drastically different meanings between English dialects and can make one wonder if they are even the same language after all. Think “pants” and “fanny.” If you don’t know how the meaning of these words differs between British and American English, suffice it to say you shouldn’t tell a British woman on your first date that her pants look very good.
But while these definitional differences that can create a truly tremendous error with the wrong company are rare in English, there are many in Spanish where the language has regionalized to a much greater degree. Here are 10 key Spanish words to be weary of using depending on who you’re speaking with.
Chompa - We’ll start relatively easy with a word that means mostly the same thing wherever you go—mostly. To Bolivians, Peruvians, and most Hispanics, a chompa is simply a sweater. But go to Colombia and Ecuador, and it is a type of jacket that is usually not knitted and fitted at the hip. In El Salvador, a chompa jacket should specifically be athletic, too.
Coche - In Spain and to most Spanish speakers, coche means car. However, in Guatemala, it is a slang term for the word “pig” and in Peru, Chile, and other South American countries, it can also be used to describe a baby stroller. If you’re wondering how on earth Guatemalans decided to be so daringly different in their definition of coche, it came from their way of calling a pig over. Much like we might say, “Here, piggy, piggy,” a Guatemalan might say, “Ven aquí, cochi, cochi.”
Coger - In Spain, coger means “to take”. However, in Argentina, Venezuela, Guatemala, and other countries, it is also slang for fornicating. The slang form of coger is also known to some extent outside of the country, as I found out the hard way. I remember that while studying in Chile, I was trying to tell a professor that I had to pick up a friend before class. My word choice was sub-optimal: I said I had to “coger” her before class and she laughed for a solid half-minute alongside some of my classmates (others didn’t seem to understand what was funny). When the professor told me what that would mean in Guatemala, I was as red as a tomato.
Chucho - In Guatemala, chucho is what they call dogs. However, in some other Spanish-speaking countries, it is a slang term for a gun. And no, it’s not a coincidence that Guatemala is the odd man out in these first two words. Most Hispanics advise gringos like me that the most different accents are the Chilean and Rioplatense (Argentina and Uruguay) ones, but Guatemala takes the cake for the most colorfully unique vocabulary.
Guagua - In Chile, guagua means baby. However, in Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, and other countries, it can refer to a bus or a large baby carriage. The lesson here: don’t try to warn a Chilean crossing the street about the “guagua” that’s about to hit them. This can be even more confusing when you consider that there are Chilean candies and Peruvian pan dulces called guaguas because they are shaped like babies. Since communists can be derogatorily referred to as “come-guaguas” (baby eaters) in those countries, you may take care not to out your friend who loves pan dulce as a communist.
Saco - In Spain, saco refers to a large bag. However, in other Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas like Peru, it can mean a suit jacket or a coat (specifically a woman’s coat in Uruguay). It’s easy to see how an intended compliment about a man’s jacket could be perceived as an insult to a Spaniard or an Uruguayan. Interestingly, there are conflicting roots for the word, too. The Latin word “saccus” means a bag while the Greek “sákkos” means “to shield [especially the body].”
Novio/a - If you’re in the US, you may already be familiar with this word as meaning “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” depending on whether you use the masculine or feminine form. But if you’re a college student studying abroad in Chile or Peru, you may not want to call your girlfriend of two months your “novia.” In those countries, the term is usually reserved for your fiancée, or at least a very serious partner. You’re better off using the terms polola/o or enamorada/o, which makes it clear that you are not yet engaged. The word “pololo” comes from the indigenous Mapuche people of modern Chile and refers to a specific type of beetle that is known as a ‘love bug’—pun intended.
Gomas - We conclude now with four words that have truly mind-boggling differences in definition. “Gomas” is mostly odd because of the various ways it is used colloquially. In Argentine, they are a woman’s breasts. Up in Spain, that’s a word for condoms. Fly over to Costa Rica, and you’ll be talking about a hangover. I’ll let you fill in the horrendously embarrassing potential scenarios you avoid by being aware of these linguistic nuances.
Cachar - Yes, this one is on the list because, for its many mundane meanings, it can mean something vulgar, too. Peruvians use it as slang for fornication. However, Mexicans imported the term from the English “to catch” and it still means exactly that. Chileans use a version of the word to indicate understanding. Asking someone “Chachas?” (pronounced ‘cachai’ in the Chilean accent) is used to make sure people are following your point when speaking. Think of that one person you know who constantly—if rhetorically—says, “Right?” when speaking at length. Interestingly, most Chileans say that, like in Mexico, the word came from the English “to catch” which was stretched into meaning ‘to catch an idea.’ However, some say that it comes from asimilarly-named old gold panning device and that usage started with prospectors asking each other if they saw any gold.
Pendejo - Pendejo is one you are likely familiar with. To a Mexican, it is a rather light way to call someone stupid. However, moving South the word gradually takes on a heavier cultural context even as the fundamental definition remains similar. Ecuadorians also use it to indicate stupidity, but it goes further to imply mental underdevelopment. In Peru—and most generally—it again carries a PG-13 connotation and could be broadly used to mean a shameless or contemptible person. Peruvians might direct the word at anyone from a womanizer to a mob boss to a sleazy lawyer to someone who’s just a bit of a jerk. Interestingly, the innocence of the word returns in the far south: in Argentina and Uruguay, a pendeja/o is simply a child.
Chongo - In Argentina, a “Chongo” is a womanizer; In Puerto Rico, it refers to a bad, ordinary, or weak horse; Peruvians might use the word for a brothel; In Mexico, it’s just a hair bun; A lover in Paraguay; A pale-faced or nasty person in Uruguay. The list for this word actually goes on, but those are the highlights.
Spanish is only one language, though sometimes it doesn’t act like it. If you’re planning to travel to Chile or Guatemala, words like these might have you a bit on edge trying to avoid a critical mistake. But it is part of the beauty of Spanish that so many cultures and backgrounds can be united behind a single language and that a single language can embrace so many local characteristics. Spanish is like a good Louisiana gumbo: You can still distinguish the flavors and dialects, but combining and exploring them together makes for the best experience.