Category Archives: Culture

Uy, ¿quién pidió pollo?

The list of so-called Colombian phrases goes on, and today’s entry is one I find particularly fun and with a fascinating backstory. Not to be read on an empty stomach!

4. Uy, ¿quién pidió pollo? (Knew it. Uniquely Colombian.)

Literal translation: Ooh, who ordered chicken?
Translation: How did we get so lucky to have this attractive person grace us with their presence?
Meaning: What a babe! Ooh, sexy! What a stud! What a hunk!

¿Quién pidió pollo? is said when a really attractive person walks into a room. Ooh, who ordered chicken? Why chicken and not chorizo? Why meat and not asparagus? Why are we comparing people to food at all? It’s kind of a long story.

So, chicken used to be a luxury food for Colombia’s middle-class city dwellers. Sure, it was frequent fare in the countryside, but its high price (due to high production costs and inefficient production methods) made it a treat for special occasions city-side. Chicken was for the well-off, and to be able to eat chicken regularly meant you had elite status. Elite families could splurge on chicken on Sundays, and non-elites had to wait until the December holidays to savor the delicacy.

As chicken was so expensive, it became common for a diner in a restaurant to jokingly screech Y eso, ¿pero quién pidió pollo? when the check arrived, indicating their faux shock at the high price, one that could only be explained by someone at the table having ordered the opulent dish. Either to identify the prodigal person and stare them down, or to ironically point out that as no one had ordered chicken, there was no justification for such a sky-high bill. But, really it was just a joke, a meaningless line to gripe about having to fork over the payment and to elicit a chuckle or two. Basically, good grief! You’ve got to be kidding me! Though maybe funny at first, the line is now considered by many to be the height of tastelessness and low-class behavior, eliciting only groans. Dude, you ate the food; just pay what you owe and don’t be stingy. No need to be a drama queen about it. Oh, and the eighties called; they want their joke back.

Sometimes the phrase is used to express that a bill for anything is expensive, not necessarily chicken. It’s when you do a double take when the bill comes, incredulously asking yourself, how can that be?

Recién llegado a Colombia, me comí unos patacones con pollo y queso en un restaurante del centro comercial Santafé. Allí me cobraron la módica suma de U$ 12. ¿Cómo? ¿Quién pidió pollo? Bueno, yo pedí pollo, pero me pareció costoso.

I’d just gotten to Colombia, and I ordered some patacones with chicken and cheese at a restaurant in the Santafé mall. The bill came for the totally reasonable amount of a whopping $12 USD. Excuse me? But, who ordered chicken? OK, I ordered chicken, but it still seemed crazy expensive to me.

Times have changed, though, and chicken is now the cheapest meat in Colombia. Whereas before chicken would have been unreachable for the lowest strata, it’s now a food for the masses. To be pertinent today, the phrase would have to be: Who ordered beef? Or, who ordered pork? Not to mention who ordered lobster, Waygu beef, or caviar. The phrase lost its punch and has largely disappeared from Colombia’s lexical landscape, after its peak during the 50s and 60s. Well, with this meaning anyway. ¿Quién pidió pollo? is still alive and kicking, after being reborn in an entirely different environment. From being used to describe a luxury food, it’s now used to describe a luxury person. That is, when an attractive man or woman walks into a room, catching people off guard.

How to reconcile this new usage with the old one? This gringa‘s guess is that the “chicken” (the luxury item) has arrived, luscious and mouth-watering, and now people want to know what they did to deserve such over-the-top eye candy. Like, people walk in and out of a room or an office constantly, and they’re just rice and beans or a plate of lentils. Filling but nothing to get excited about. But, chicken? And nobody even ordered it? It just walks in to freely bestow us with such attractiveness? Yessiree, count me in. It’s a phrase of admiration. The question also seems redundant to me–it’s not really asking who does this “dish” belong to? It’s more like, um, nobody here ordered such a gourmet dish, but we’ll take her/him! I’d love to hear the perspectives of others–like I said, these are just my speculations.

Some people think the phrase is used because an attractive woman is similar to a chicken: legs, bronzed skin, and what have you. I don’t really buy it, though. And, as noted, the phrase is also used for men.

So, you might hear this when someone (or even you, you stunner you!) attractive walks into a room, or you might just hear it used as a piropo when someone who’s a looker passes someone on the street. It’s like, would ya look at that . . ?

Eh ave maría, ¿quién pidió pollo?

This was bizarrely enough one of the first Colombian phrases I learned when I arrived five years ago. Family members of the people I first stayed with put on some clips of Antonio Sanint’s classic standup comedy routine, ¿Quién pidió pollo?, going on and on about how it was the funniest thing ever, oblivious, I guess, to how iffy my Spanish was. Yeah, funniest thing ever, I’m sure, except when you only catch or understand every tenth word. So, that was a bomb, but I listened to the routine on Youtube years later while working a boring desk job. Much, much funnier that time around. I listened to the routine again last night while making dinner for, um, research. Here’s the part about the phrase, and Sanint touches on both meanings and uses of ¿Quién pidió pollo?

Pero la reina de todas las frases, las que no podemos evitar decir, es cuando uno está en un restaurante y le llega la cuenta y uno mira a los amigos y aunque no se les hace cara, uno dice, uyyyyy, ¿quién pidió pollo? Yo me imagino que en algún momento fue chistoso . . . cuando el pollo era caro, creo. Pero ya no, entonces esa frase ha, ya ha montado, ya ni siquiera es con la comida, sino, uy, ¿quien pidió pollo? Con esa pierna, ¿pa’ que la otra? Así me la recetó el médico, ¿sí o qué?

But the king of all the phrases, those ones that we can’t help saying, is when you’re in a restaurant and you get the check, and you look at your friends, and even though they don’t even think it’s expensive, you say, oooooh, but who ordered chicken? I imagine that was funny once . . . back when chicken was expensive, I guess. But it’s not anymore, so that phrase has, it’s taken on, now we don’t even use it with food, but, oooooh, check her/him out! With a leg like that, what do I need two of them for? Just like the doctor ordered–am I right?

chicken lady

I’m pretty sure this phrase is as Colombian as it gets. For better or worse, you’ve just stared right into the Colombian psyche. Food, money, sex, culture: this slice of language encapsulates all of them. What else needs to be said?

Change we can believe in

In the last real post we covered change as in small bills and change (change for a 20, for example), and in this one we’ll look at the change you get back after paying for something. Or not–the accuracy of your change not infrequently depends on the “size” of the bills you paid with, at least in Colombia. Here’s some vocabulary so that if you have to be short-changed, at least you can be sure it has nothing to do with you speaking unfluent Spanish.

Far and away, the most all-purpose and universal word for this kind of change is cambio. Super easy.

Then there’s vuelta and vuelto. Vuelta is said in Spain; vuelto is said in most of Latin America.

As I read about vuelta and vuelto, beads of sweat started forming on my forehead, and I felt mildly ill. Vuelta? Vuelto? I’d never heard the words before. How could I be a Spanish blogger and be utterly unfamiliar with these basic words? Because, me? I’ve always said vueltas. I was starting to feel like a crock.

And then I confirmed that vueltas is how you say change in Colombia. Whew! Just one more reminder of how Colombian my Spanish is. Here, we say vueltas, even devueltas. Also devuelta. As well as vueltos. (They obviously delight in being contrarians.) I’ll do my best to drop the s in other countries, but I can’t make any promises. I just don’t see decolombianization in my cards.

If you want to tell someone to keep the change, the most common verb to use is quedarse, followed by guardar.

Quédese con la vuelta. Quédate con el cambio.

Guardá el cambio. Guarda el vuelto.

While researching this, I learned that, at least in Spain, the preposition in the phrase quedarse con algo is often dropped. So, quédate con la vuelta can become quédate la vuelta, or quédatela. Is this construction used anywhere else? (For all I know, it’s used everywhere, and I’ve simply never noticed.) I’m on the case.

Quédate con tus monedas, quiero cambio.

Quédate con tus monedas, quiero cambio.

As I wrote about in the last post on change, it can be somewhat problematic here in Colombia. An article in yesterday’s El Tiempo stated that Colombians prefer cash as much as they did 70 years ago, at a rate of 48%. Plastic just hasn’t caught on like it has in other developed countries. From the article, I learned the phrase dinero contante (y sonante), which means cold hard cash.

The article mentions piggy banks as a common mode of saving money, and my experience bears that one out. They’re a rather common sight here in homes, so alcancía is a surprisingly useful word to know. If someone doesn’t have enough money for something, they might half-joke about having to romper el alcancía or romper el chanchito. Like many Spanish words that begin with al-, alcancía comes from Arabic. From what I read, the word alcancía has disappeared in most parts of Spain, replaced by hucha. (Hucha means butt crack in many countries, and se te ve la hucha or even se te ve la alcancía means, I can see your crack. Daily parlance for plomeros.) Alcancía is the only word used in Latin America, though. The piggy banks here, at least the ones I’ve seen, tend to be made of clay. I’ve never been so indiscreet so as to turn one over and contemplate its underbelly, but my impression is that they don’t have a plug; you have to smash them to access your money, so it doesn’t make sense to do so before you’ve got a nice little stockpile of funds accumulated. Poor piggies.

alcancías de barro colombia

I have an update on the last post’s story about me going head to head with an Éxito cashier about my change. Last week, I had another run-in with her. I think I paid in sencillo, but not with exact change. She asked if I had the 400 pesos or whatever, and I said that I didn’t. (I’m kind of fuzzy, but I think I genuinely didn’t have it this time.) And, then, what do you know, she actually gave me my vueltas in such a way that I was given 110 pesos or so above what I was owed. It’s common knowledge that it’s always the customer who gets the short end of the stick in these complicated sencillo situations, but now I see that it’s tit for tat in the larger stores. At least with steely-eyed Lady of the long braids. (Lady is her name–common here.)

Change or no change, at least Colombian money is relatively pretty to look at. I’ll blog about it at some point. And, rich or impecunious, at least you’re now loaded with Spanish vocabulary for talking about change. Don’t forget: BESO! (Billetes en sencillo, ¡obtuso!) That is, don’t forget your change at home. Hell hath no fury like a Colombian taxi driver scorned, i.e., paid with a large bill.

Colombia: A simple country

You know that famous acronym KISS? Keep it simple, stupid? Well, I feel that it could easily be Colombia’s slogan. Manténgalo sencillo, imbécil. MSI–no, it doesn’t have the same ring to it. Ring or no ring, this is a country where simple is the name of the game. Cash is king in the U.S.–or at least was in our grandparents’ day–and simple is king in Colombia. Ah, maybe you see where I’m going with this now. Flinging around simple like a noun, when I’m really referring to its Spanish counterpart: sencillo. In Colombia and many other countries, sencillo means small bills and change. A must-know word because I can almost guarantee that you’ll have to carry and pay with cash here far more than you’re used to in your home country for a plethora of reasons. Credit and debit cards aren’t yet the common, well, currency that they are in many other parts of the world, so you need to make sure to have bills and coins on you at all times. But not just any dirty money will do. No, it needs to be small. It needs to be sencillo.

Yesterday I bought some things at Éxito, a huge supermarket chain here. They came to 30.650 (around 15 dollars), and I handed the cashier a 50-thousand peso note (around 25 dollars). She then asked if I had the 650 pesos- the coins, that is. I could only find about 200 pesos, so I said no, all the while still rummaging around in my purse. I eventually found one more coin, and then another, and then another. But several of them were just tiny 50 peso coins—I really didn’t think I had 650 pesos, and in any case I just wanted to finish my transaction, get my change from her, and leave. She kept waiting, though, eyeing my accumulating pile of coins feverishly. When I finally rooted out all the metal from the bottom of my purse, I silently noted that the seven or eight coins did miraculously add up to 650. But you know what? I didn’t feel like giving her my every last coin and then remaining coinless in the sencillo-obsessed country I live in. It’s a free country, er, world, right? I’m not under any obligation to hand over my sencillo. That’s why she has a huge till full of money. I wasn’t going to be a pawn in her sencillo game.

I told her to go ahead and just give me the change from the 50,000 peso bill. How much do you have there? she asked n0sily. I don’t know; it doesn’t really matter, I answered, feeling flustered. What I was doing was so un-PC, practically against the social law. But, how much do you have? she insisted. To be honest, lady, I’d really just like to pay with the 50. She probably hated me, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t my finest moment. Lo and behold, she gave me my change with a heaping handful of coins. There was no shortage of sencillo on either of our ends, it turned out. I get it, though–it’s the principle. Better to get as much sencillo as you can and hoard it for a rainy day, a complicated sencillo drought. (A rainy day and a drought? Yes, in Colombia you need sencillo 24/7. As well as an umbrella and sunscreen.) In the morning’s sencillo battle, Vocabat: 1, World: 0. A KO.

I felt like a selfish jerk. How could I not give her sencillo when I had it right there? I’ll tell you why. Because I’m the customer and she represents the multibillion-dollar company. Hardly to be pitied. I always pay with sencillo and regularly make unnecessary purchases on the street or at the corner tienda just to break “large” bills and make sure I have sencillo for the bus driver, the taxi driver, and everyone else. But that’s because I’m nice, and I know how life works here. It’s not my problem (in theory) if you don’t have the right change and certainly not if you’re simply loathe to give up your change. Except . . . sigh . . . it inevitably always becomes the customer’s problem. Oh, why don’t you buy one of these cookies so I can then have the right change for you? Sorry, I’m just under, but it’s close, so please just consider it a small tip and skip off. ¡Te quedo debiendo! I’m X pesos in your debt! Yeah, like they’re going to track you down and repay those pesos later! The best way to prevent this from happening is by being armed to the teeth with–you guessed it–lots and lots of sencillo. Such a misnomer! Simple, my foot.

¡Eso!                     ¡Jamás!

¡Eso!                                                                       ¡Jamás!

I wasn’t trying to lie to her or even hacerme la pendeja–play dumb–but who’s brave enough to say, yes, I have sencillo, but I don’t want to give it to you? I have just as much of a right to it as you do. Read: you ain’t gettin’ any. The social contract here basically requires that you fork over your sencillo if you have any, though. All right, cough it up, mister! If you choose to slyly omit the fact that you’re in possession of sencillo, you may find that the establishment really doesn’t have change. And then you’re in the awkward position of magically “finding” the sencillo you were so sure wasn’t there just a few seconds ago. It’s really uncomfortable, trust me. Or maybe both sides will act tough, and then it’s just a matter of who calls whose bluff first. What would they do if they found out about those little Take a Penny, Leave a Penny change trays that are so common in the U.S.? You mean . . . they leave sencillo there for anyone to just take?! In broad daylight?! But in Colombia’s defense, you can often fiar things at your little neighborhood store (pay on credit, or they’ll let you bring the money by later if you’re short a few pesos). Why doesn’t the government make things genuinely simple for everyone and stop producing non-sencillo denominations? All I can think of when I get stuck with a 20,000 bill is when and how I can break it; a 50,000 bill feels like a curse.

Who tells that story about the kid who had a fifty-dollar bill, but he exchanged it for two twenties, and then three tens, then four fives, five ones, then six quarters, seven dimes, eight nickels, nine pennies, all because he thought he was getting richer with each transaction as the number of units increased? Sometimes it feels like that here! I feel like a king, the cock of the walk, when I have a pocket full of jangling coins, and practically a pauper with large bills. What good do they do me?

Another common way of saying sencillo is suelto. Which means loose. We talk about loose change in English, but not so much loose bills. It works for both in Spanish, though. (There appears to be a rapper named Loose Bills. I’m sure he’s a favorite of taxi drivers.)

I did some research, and here are different ways of saying small change and bills in Spanish.

Monedas (just coins), menudo, cambiocalderilla (Spain, just coins), chatarra (Spain, just coins), morralla (Mexico, just coins), feria (Mexico), chauchas (Chile, just coins)

For my money, I’d stick to sencillo or suelto when traveling around.

This Actualidad Panamericana article (a Colombian The Onion) exposes a bar where Bogotá taxi drivers go to indulge in their peculiar fetish: massages with small bills sensually rubbed all over their bodies. It would explain a lot.

How do you ask for sencillo? How do you beg someone to break a bill? This was one of my very first questions when tagging along with Spanish goddess Eva my first week in Colombia. Well, you don’t say romper. Let’s just get that out of the way. What you do say is cambiar.

¿Me puedes dar cambio para un billete de cinco?

¿Me podrías cambiar un billete de mil?

¿Tienes cambio de cien pesos?

¿Me cambias este billete?

¿Tienes sencillo para (un billete de) 20 mil?

As you can see, you have lots of wiggle room to play around with the word order.

Now, what about the change you get after a transaction? Or telling someone to keep the change? Ay ay ay, this book–I mean, post–is getting long. I’ll write about that in the next post.

Also, I gave the KISS acronym a few vueltas, and I came up with an equivalent for the Spanish BESO that fits the topic.

BESO: Billetes En Sencillo, ¡Obtuso!

Keep it BESO, keep it sencillo, and carry on!

Pizza boy

You might have missed it, but I made a brief mention of a pizza boy in the last post. How do you say that anyway in Spanish? I don’t want to lose the final round of Jeopardy someday because of this egregious ignorance.

Best supporting/delivery actor: the pizza man

Best supporting/delivery actor: the pizza man!

If you tuned in to watch the Oscars a few weeks ago, you saw Ellen order pizza on a whim for the stars. The pizza delivery boy was reportedly given a $1000 tip. My favorite satirical news site here in Colombia is Actualidad Panamericana (fine, the only one I know of, but so good!), and they did a local riff of this extravagant gesture soon after.

Repartidor de pizza de los Premios TVyNovelas recuerda haber recibido mil pesos de propina . . . Un repartidor de pizzas recibió la astronómica suma de mil pesos de propina . . . “Le entregué la pizza, y cuál no sería mi sorpresa al ver que me dio mil pesos de propina. Me dijo que era para el bus. Muy generoso el señor, ya que el bus cuesta $1400″.

Pizza Boy Recalls 1000-Peso Tip at the TVyNovelas Awards . . . A pizza delivery boy received the astronomical sum of one thousand pesos as a tip . . . “I handed him the pizza and to my astonishment was given a thousand-peso tip. He said it was for the bus, which was very generous of him, seeing as the bus costs 1400 pesos.”

1000 Colombian pesos is like a whopping 50 cents. I’m not quite sure in which direction this satire is aimed, but in any case a 50-cent tip for a delivery boy probably would be newsworthy here.

Repartidor de pizza was also the phrase I saw used as the story about Ellen was disseminated throughout newspapers in Spanish. Repartidor? Pizza passer-outer? Because, for me at least, repartir is when you divvy something up and then everyone gets a piece. Like a slice of cake, or a share of the booty. But, lo and behold, repartir can also mean to deliver, like mail or newspapers. It sounds so sterilized, like how job titles have changed over the years to make them genderless or make them sound more official. Pizza distributor. Pizza conveyor. Pizza dispatcher. Pizza destination coordinator. Pizza courier. Pizza transfer engineer. Pizza logistics manager. What a difference a change of perspective makes!

At a stoplight, who could resist reaching in for a slice?

At a stoplight, who could resist reaching in for a slice?

I was pleased to finally know how to say pizza boy/girl/man/lady/PERSON in Spanish, and then immediately crushed like red pepper flakes to be informed that no one actually says that, at least not in Colombia. Told that the phrase is always translated that way in Spanish subtitles on foreign movies, I assume that repartidor de pizza is standard somewhere. Speak up! The best alternative I could wrangle out was domiciliario, which is obviously all-encompassing for people who deliver orders, that is, domicilios. To domiciles. I’m not sure that I’ve ever noticed a delivery person on a motorcycle conveying anything pizza-shaped, but I do distinctly recall the surprise and charm I experienced when I first visited Bogotá in 2007 and saw fried chicken being delivered in little chicken coop-shaped containers atop motorcycle grills.

Repartidor de volantes, OK. A person who passes out flyers. That feels more natural for me. And here’s an old article on a repartidor de tinto.

I recently learned in my translation class that the classic movie Home Alone is known as Mi pobre angelito in Spanish. My poor little baby. In this clip in Spanish, you can watch the famous scene where Kevin has the Little Nero’s pizza boy go to the back door and then scares him half to death using clips from an old movie and sounds of a machine gun. “Keep the change, ya filthy animal” becomes Guarda el cambio, inmundo animal. Poor little pizza boy.

Fast food delivery boy is killed

Fast food delivery driver killed

Here you can get almost anything delivered to you, and I know that I am totally desaprovechando this laziness afforded me. To my shame, I don’t have any firsthand experience with repartidores/domiciliarios save for when a friend ordered pizza the other week. That should change, though. And you, what do you call the pizza boy?


How many phones do you have? Un fijo? (A landline?) Un celular? (A cell phone?) Pretty typical. Here in Colombia (and many other parts of the Spanish-speaking world), though, you get two more phones. But, don’t worry–no more numbers to memorize. Anybody got a dataphone? And where’s the closest citophone? They sound like something that must have been around in the 80s–some clunky device with big colored buttons and antennae out the wazoo– but in Spanish these are the names of very common objects. I’d forgotten them entirely, so we’ve been getting reacquainted.

Un datáfono is a credit card reader. If you’re at a restaurant and want to pay by card, they usually bring a small credit card reader to your table to swipe it. To ask if they offer this service, you can ask, ¿Tienes datáfono? Whereas I would say, do you take cards? Or you could say this when the pizza boy is at your door and you don’t have much cash on you. I see it translated as dataphone, but I’ve never heard that word. One website I found defined a Dataphone as an early version of a modem that was first released by AT&T in 1960. One look at pictures of this behemoth fuddy-dud and you’d see that dataphone is not an acceptable translation of datáfono. PIN pad, credit card transaction terminal, and credit card swipe machine are other ways of referring to a datáfono. Apparently, Datáfono was a brand name used by Telefónica in Spain in the 80s, and it stuck. The word is universal.

Just what you'd expect a "dataphone" to look like

Just what you’d expect a “dataphone” to look like

Though most are more along these lines

Though most are more along these lines

The missing ending: "en 2050"

Lo que no apareció: “EN 2050″

Un citófono is what is used in the reception areas of apartment buildings to buzz the residents to see if it’s OK to let visitors in. Or the buttons on the outside of the building that visitors press to call up to residents. In a word, a buzzer. (Which I always want to translate as buzón! But buzón is mailbox, or voicemail: buzón de mensajes) Or an intercom. The DRAE says that this word is Colombian, and it’s also used in Chile for some reason. Citofono is the word in Italian. The name comes from circuito (cerrado) + teléfono.

It’s normal to see signs on the doors of residential buildings that say something to the effect of, Todo visitante, sin excepción, será anunciado a través del citófono. All visitors must be buzzed in to gain access to the building.

Kids who grew up in cities had to play ding dong ditch (here called rin rin corre corre) with the citófono. More like buzz bozz ditch.

Probably best not to buzz this guy in

Probably best not to buzz this guy in

Of course, there are more phones (fonos) in Spanish, but they’re all phones in English as well. Megáfono (megaphone), dictáfono (Dictaphone, ie, voice recorder), micrófono (microphone), saxófono (saxophone, though saxofón is more common), and xilófono (xylophone). Also, I just learned during my nerdy virtual jaunt that homophone in Spanish is homófona.

And while we’re on the subject: French speakers get to be Francophones, and English speakers are Anglophones. And we Spanish speakers? What are we, chopped liver? Isn’t anybody going to give us a phone? Actually, there was one ringing for me this whole time, and I didn’t realize it: the Hispanophone. Rebuscado, yes, but it totally exists and I’m determined to use it at least once in this lifetime. And Lusophone exists for Portuguese speakers. Feel free to call me on any one of them.

So, with the addition of citófono and datáfono to your Spanish knowledge, it will now be that much harder to know which one they mean the next time someone yells at you, Pick up the phone! And your life gets decidedly more techy with these big words. I could almost imagine myself slipping them into my CV. Imagínate, TECHNICAL SKILLS: WELL-VERSED IN CITOPHONE AND DATAPHONE. Just remember, there is such a thing as being overqualified.