Category Archives: Informal

World Cup Spanish questions

Colombia has won all four of its first four games at the World Cup (Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan, Uruguay), and the excitement here is extreme, to say the least. Led by Argentinian coach José Pékerman, the national team has impressed big time. The midfielder James Rodríguez (pronounced HAH-mez, not James)–the so-called breakout star of the World Cup–has scored five goals in the four games and had two assists. His first goal in the game against Uruguay has been lauded worldwide as a thing of sheer beauty and genius. Oh, and Costa Rica has also made it to the quarterfinals under Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto, the first Colombian coach to make it that far. If your team is out or never quite made it to the drawing board, I respectfully suggest Colombia as a great team to follow. And I’m not the only one: here are some excellent reasons via photos and video to convince you to pull for Los Cafeteros.

Post-goal team happy dance

Post-goal team happy dance

I’ve watched so many games recently–not just Colombia, but many others as well–that I need a break this week. Just like the players need to rest before they face Brazil on Friday, I’m sure that many fans also need a hiatus so that we can recharge our batteries for the big match. The drama, nail biting, and jubilation are getting to be a bit exhausting! So, in lieu of watching soccer, I’ll do some blogging on World Cup vocabulary. If you don’t know what’s going on, here’s the best way to fake it. Brought to you by an expert faker, the best of the best: Vocabat.

A deft, well-timed question is really all you need so that it appears that you have a clue. If nothing else, you know what questions one’s supposed to ask, and you’ll likely then be politely left alone. Additional commentary is not only unnecessary, it also requires that you have at least a slight understanding of what’s going on. And that’s easy to screw up, believe me.

What’s the score? - ¿Cómo van?

I’d say that this is far and away the most useful, all-purpose, and colloquial way of asking who’s winning and who’s losing. I hesitate to even share any other options, just because this is the one you really should reach for. But, in case you ever feel the need to switch things up or need to be able to recognize a variant on ¿Cómo van?, here are equally acceptable ways of asking the score. As always, mileage may vary depending on the country.

During the game: ¿Cómo va el partido? ¿Quién va ganando? ¿Cómo va el marcador? ¿Quién gana? ¿Cuánto van? ¿A cuánto van? 

After the game: ¿Cómo terminó el partido? ¿Cómo quedó el partido? ¿Cómo quedaron? ¿Cuál fue el marcador? ¿Cómo fue el resultado?

Confession time: With my tail between my legs, I have to admit that I didn’t know the word marcador for score before the World Cup. Now I’m hearing it left and right, but it just wasn’t on my radar before. In fact, if pressed, I would have fumbled and offered up puntuación, but it turns out that that’s usually not the word you want for the score of sports events. It’s more like the score on a test. So, puntuación OUT, marcador IN. I’m clearly a fair-weather sports fan.

To answer this question, you can say something like:

Colombia le va ganando a Brasil, van 4-0.

Gana Costa Rica 2 a 1.

Va ganando Estados Unidos 1 a 0.

Van 5 a 1 para Holanda.

And now you know where my sympathies lie, roughly in that order, too!

james rodríguez selección colombia

James Rodríguez

Time for the next crucial question.

Who are you rooting for? Who do you want to win? – ¿Por quién vas?

Again, I think ¿Por quién vas? is the only one you really need to know, but there are little tweaks to this construction that you might hear.

¿Con quién vas? ¿A quién le vas? ¿A quién le haces fuerza? 

To answer:

Voy por Colombia, ni más faltaba.

¡¡¡Vamos con Holanda!!!

Él le iba a Camerún, ahora a Francia.

No sé a quién le voy a hacer fuerza, estoy entre Estados Unidos y Alemania.

Any more questions? Practice these, and I’ll have some more vocabulary soon so you can make astute, spot-on comments in Spanish while watching the World Cup. Go USA! ¡Y vamos Colombia!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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.

Getting lucky in Colombia

Did you experience the Beanie Baby craze of the ’90s? I remember the first one I got was Lucky, the ladybug. I counted her spots and then consulted a book to see if she was valuable (ixnay), and was later crushed when a pet chewed one of her legs, rendering her a worthless invalid. Much better luck has come over the years, though, especially when I lived in Colombia. I swear, I was so incredibly lucky while in Colombia. But maybe it was just people’s generosity. Maybe I took more risks and needed (and noticed) the luck more. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time. Maybe I got luck I shouldn’t have. Maybe I don’t give myself enough credit and really earned that bounty of blessings. No matter–it’s over now. Here’s how to talk about luck in Colombia, but first a joke I just heard on the radio.

Yo conocí a una ovejita que era alérgica a la lana. Muy de malas. 

I once met a sheep that was allergic to wool. Talk about bad luck!

In Colombia, de buenas means lucky and de malas means unlucky. I remember learning this while waiting forever for a taxi one time with my friend Dayana in Bogotá. As taxi after taxi passed by and it seemed like we’d never get where we were going, she commented that we were muy de malas. Of course, I nodded vigorously and concurred, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was concurring with. For some reason, I was never able to find the answer on the internet, but repeated usage afterward made its meaning clear.

¡No auditaron mi departamento! Estoy felizzzzz. Qué de buenas. Te dije que ibas a estar bien. 

They didn’t audit my department! I’m so happppy. Lucky duck. I told you you’d be fine.

Uno no escoge la familia, ¡pero yo sí fui muy de buenas por la que me tocó!

One doesn’t choose their family, but I definitely lucked out with the one I got!

¿Más de malas que sentarse en un hijueputa chicle? No lo creo.

More unlucky than sitting on a freaking piece of gum? I don’t think so.

No es que seas de malas para el amor, es que no has encontrado a la persona correcta para darle ese privilegio.

It’s not that you have bad luck in love; it’s that you haven’t found the right person to give that privilege to.

De buenas en el juego, de malas en el amor.

Lucky at cards, unlucky in love.

Four leaf clover

The phrase ¡De malas! is used to mean, Too bad! It makes me think of the Colombian word paila.

¿Así que perdiste tu vuelo y ahora quieres desquitarte conmigo? ¡De malas! Yo no tengo la culpa de que hayas decidido alistar tus maletas a última hora.

So you missed your flight and you want to take it out on me? Well, too bad! It’s not my fault you decided to pack at the last minute.

¡Soy como soy! Si no te gusta, de malas.

I am who I am! If you don’t like it, tough.

The phrase de malas como la piraña mueca means unlucky/screwed like a piranha without any teeth. Just imagine that poor toothless piranha having to slurp on some algae purée while his friends are all digging into a juicy steak. Meanwhile, there’s probably some piranha out there who was born with an extra set of fangs. ¡Tan de buenas!

Of course, there’s getting lucky and then there’s getting lucky, most recently hailed in that catchy song you’ve surely been hearing on the radio as nonstop as I have, Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky.’ Maybe another post.

Take luck! If that means nothing to you, go look it up and change your luck now.

¿Se te cayó una calza?

In Medellín, I knew this really wonderful woman named Uva. Her full name was Uvaldina, but most people seemed to call her Uva. And, believe me, her name was the least interesting thing about her. That woman was a trip. Very dicharachera, she was full of the most colorful (and frequently off-color) and wild expressions. As her speech was crackling with idioms, sauciness, and playful wit, there was never a dull moment by her side. She would relentlessly create double entendres where none originally existed and make a scandal out of everything. Boisterous, over-the-top, ribald: these are all great words to describe Uva. She was also incredibly warm, loving, and generous. She made me feel like family from the start (and still does), even though I was lucky if I could understand even half of what she said. Actually, I was probably pretty lucky that I was spared many of her groan-worthy comments. Still, Uva was a lot of fun. I know I’ll never meet anyone like her.

I remember once being out with her, and I must have said some big word in Spanish. Who knows what it was– maybe retroalimentación, maybe envergadura, maybe pernoctación. (She surely would have had a heyday with all of those words, especially envergadura.) Whatever the big word was that I struggled to spit out, she then looked at me and said: ¿Se te cayó una calza? Huh? I had to request clarification. It turned out that a calza is a filling. (usually called an empaste) In very informal speech, caérsele una calza a alguien means that you struggled so much to pronounce a big, fancy word that a filling plum fell out. I’ve scurried hither and thither on the interwebs to find you some more examples, and here are my loose, idiomatic translations. I assume this phrase is very Paisa (Medellín and surroundings), and, oh man, I really wish you could hear this question asked in a thick, beautiful Paisa accent. I’d record myself saying it, but my accent just isn’t what it used to be–alas!

Juemadre, se me cayó una calza pronunciando interdisciplinaridad.

Geez, I cracked a tooth trying to wrap my mouth around interdisciplinaridad.

Hola Stavrula: (Casi se me cae una calza tratando de pronunciar tu nombre!)

Hi Stavrula: (One of my fillings almost fell out as I tried to say your name!)

¿Ya pusieron el video de nuestro presidente pronunciando Djokovic? Casi se le cae una calza.

Did they already put up the video of our president pronouncing Djokovic? He almost choked in the attempt.

Si en español podemos decir multitareas y no se nos cae una calza de la dentadura, ¿para qué decir multitasking?

If we can say multitareas in Spanish and keep all of our dental work in place, what would make us decide to say multitasking instead?

Image by Christiann MacAuley at

Is there a more natural way to say this in English? The only one coming to me right now is to say that something is a mouthful. Anyway, the takeaway is that you have to be careful with those big words in Spanish! If you’re not cautious, you’re liable to lose not only your pride but also a few fillings in the process. Maybe dentists in Medellín send patients with new fillings home with instructions to avoid caramel, avoid hard candies, and to strictly avoid all foreign words (especially of English and Slavic provenance) and words over six syllables. As I don’t have any fillings, though, I have no excuse for being timid about pronouncing the big words. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to effortlessly say programaremos (a tricky word for me) sin que se me trabe la lengua.

¿Te lo explico con plastilina?

Did you catch the play on words in my last post’s title? I grilled three friends on it, and none of them got the allusion. Hmm. I’m generally a person devoid of snark, but for the sake of education I’m going to employ some major snark right now and use a Colombian phrase that’s apropos: ¿Te lo explico con plastilina? Should I break it down for you using Play-Doh? Would some clay figures help you get it? Do I need to spell it out for you? Here, see if this helps.

Amanecer for all seasons

Get it? A man . . . amanecer. Ahhhhh, ya caigo. We see what you did there, Vocabat. Nothing ingenious–I know–but not too shabby either, right?

Now, back to the phrase of the day: ¿Te lo explico con plastilina? Plastilina is putty-like modeling clay. Its official translation to English is Plasticine®, but I’d never heard that word before. I guess I should have, though. Plasticine is what clay animation features like Wallace and Gromit, and Gumby are made with. There’s also a reference to Plasticine in the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With Plasticine porters with looking-glass ties.

In Spanish, the word plastilina is also frequently used for Play-Doh, even though there’s a world of a difference to the discerning fingers and noses of children. Play-Doh has a base of flour, salt, and water; is totally edible; and it hardens. Plasticine, on the other hand, is derived from clay and is oil-based. It’s not edible, and it never gets hard. In some countries Play-Doh is known as just that: Play-Doh. 


Explicar algo con plastilina, then, means to have to explain things in very basic terms to those who might be a little slow on the uptake. To put things so simply that even a child could understand. It’s like when we say, Do you want me to draw you a picture? in English, though you can also say ¿Te lo dibujo? in Spanish.

It appears that explicar algo con plastilina is a Colombian phrase, with possibly some usage in Venezuela as well. Thanks to the internet, I now possess an equivalent phrase: it looks like explicar algo con manzanas expresses the same idea in some other countries. Personally, if I was having trouble grasping something–say, how the Federal Reserve works–I’d much rather have it explained to me via Play-Doh than apples. More power to you, though, if you could look at the cross-section of an apple and instantly understand monetary policy.

Ese tipo no entiende que no quiero nada con él, toca explicarle con plastilina.

That guy just doesn’t get that I’m not interested in him; you have to come out and make everything so obvious to him.

¿Quedó claro o tocará explicarte con plastilina?

Does that make sense, or do I need to dumb it down for you?

Bob Willey explica con plastilina el posmodernismo.

Bob Willey explains postmodernism to us in layman’s terms.

I learned this phrase in Bogotá from my friend Carolina, who currently lives in Tokyo. She grew up in the U.S., and she had a time of it trying to learn Spanish when she moved to Colombia 10+ years ago. She told me that she would have to ask ¿Cómo? ¿Cómo? ¿Cómo? so many times that her friends would gently tease her and say, ¿Te lo explicamos con plastilina? In anticipation of these insincere, smart-aleck offers, I would love to carry around a small tub of Play-Doh in my purse. Then, when I inevitably draw a blank at some point in a conversation, I could take out the Play-Doh, hand it to the other person, and say, ¿Dizque guarilaque? Qué pena, pero no sé qué demonios querrá decir eso. ¿Será que me lo puedes explicar con plastilina? Or when they say, ¿En serio que no sabes qué significa eso? ¿Te lo explico con plastilina?, I’d whip it out and say, Bien pueda. Hágale. Their expression would be so priceless.