Category Archives: Informal

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.

A typical hour in Colombia

What remains from my two years in Colombia? Memories, of course, as well as relationships. Physically, almost nothing. I was never one to accumulate souvenirs or mementos, and I forced myself to leave behind what I would have most liked to have kept. The most overwhelming tangible evidence of my time there and how I spent my days are the hundreds of little scraps of paper with words jotted down on them, revoloteando around me, alighting on surfaces, lodging themselves in my hair  . . .  The other day, one of the papers mysteriously made its way to my dresser. I don’t know how; I don’t know why. I thought I’d share it with you to give you an idea of the kind of Spanish you can learn on a typical day in Colombia, or at least a part of a day. For all I remember, I learned these words in five minutes of talking. It was one of my very last days in Medellín, in early December 2011. All of these words came from conversations.


1. arremedar - to imitate, copy; to ape, mimic, mock. The more standard version of the verb is remedar. As you can see, I first thought it was arremendar. So, who was it that aped me? I certainly gave people a lot of funny fodder to work with.

2. comisionista - an agent, someone working on commission. We were looking for a new apartment at the time.

3. farrear - to party–regional slang. This is the only word whose context I included, and I remember it well. I was in a taxi with my ex and his mom in Bello, and I saw some graffiti on a decrepit wall that said No farees, compre comida. (Don’t go out partying; buy food.) (Maybe I wrote it down wrong, seeing as the commands mix  with usted.) I could easily guess what farrear meant (as I know farra), but I thought it was such an interesting and strange exhortation to the pueblo from what I imagine was some average citizen. Was that a big problem there, people squandering what little money they made on drinks and clubs and not providing for their families? Who was it that decided that enough was enough and that eloquent graffiti could move people to do the right thing? I don’t think my curiosity was ever satisfied. Wish I could show you a picture.

4. pensum - curriculum, course requirements, syllabus. Basically, everything that a course covers. It comes from Latin. I’ve never heard or seen it in English, but the dictionary says “a task assigned in school often as a punishment.” I was looking for (and finding) work as a teacher at the time– maybe someone had asked me what I’d have to cover in my classes.

5. sonda - catheter, tube. I blogged about it here before. Both my ex’s mom and sister worked in hospitals, and many family members were in poor health at the time.

6. postrado/a - bedridden, confined to bed, prostrate. Like I said, conversations about health were common. Probably good preparation for what I do now.

7. Nanay cucas – No way, José; not a chance–extremely Colombian. I was still in the taxi with my ex and his mom, and I want to say that someone on the radio said this phrase. It was a phrase that I had read before but never heard, so I was happy and asked my ex about it. I then taught him the phrase No way, José in English. I think he was surprised that we would use a very Hispanic name in a colloquial phrase, and I responded by drolly telling him that it’s because we Americans are so diverse, international, and inclusive. Nooo, he quickly countered, it was a blatant example of racism. Just think about it. Oh, whatever you want, Kevin; absolutely, Derek; of course you may, Brandon; you didn’t even need to ask, Steve; NO WAY, JOSÉ. His comic timing and mock earnestness were perfect. It’s been an extremely long time since I’ve laughed that uproariously. There was no point in trying to explain my side-splitting laughter or the tears in my eyes to his mom; I’m sure I just told her that her son was muy charro and left it at that.

8. no estar ni tibio/a - to be way off the mark, to be crazy, to have another thing coming–Colombian phrase. I was way off the mark if I thought I still had much more time to be in Colombia.

9. lamber - to suck up, kiss up, be a teacher’s pet, be a brown noser–regional slang. Lambón/a and lambiscón/a are the noun forms. In some places, though, lamber is often used as lamer, and that’s why I put the star next to it, I think. Of course, I can’t be expected to remember the significance of every star.

Here’s the other side of the paper.


The first part appears to be either a brief shopping list or the ingredients for a recipe. APF is all-purpose flour. As there are no instructions, it’s probably a shopping list. Isn’t it funny to list that you need two eggs? (I don’t think I wrote that 2) Such a foreign, quaint concept to me now. Well, that was one of the great things about living in Colombia: huevos menudiados. Everything was close by, I walked everywhere within a 20-minute radius without even thinking about it, and I did most things on a smaller, simpler scale.

I’m guessing that the second part is a list of words that my ex learned that day. His English was very good, but sometimes we all forget basic words in the middle of conversation. I know he must have written that last word–I don’t dot my i’s. Unfortunately, I can’t piece together even the foggiest recollection of what we were doing when we said those words–it’s really only the Spanish that has stuck with me. Thankfully, almost everything was in Spanish.

God, I am missing Colombia today. Sorry to wax nostalgic. I love Spanish and words, but every one of those words is tethered to memories, emotions, and people for me. Speaking Spanish here just isn’t the same. I speak in Spanish, and for a minute there I recreate a world, reconjure up loved ones who are far away, and reembody someone I used to be. I know I was born into the wrong language; maybe I’m a fool to live so far away from it. Things that have been swirling around in my head lately.

If some stranger were to find this in the street, what ideas would they get? If I put this in a time capsule for someone to discover in 3013, what would they think they were looking at? What kinds of Spanish vocabulary relics do you have in your life? What sorts of stories do those words tell?

¿Dónde carajos estás?

Here are four, ahem, slightly more delicate ways to find out where someone or something is. Of course, sometimes it’s best to not mince words. Sometimes people drop off the map, and strong language might be your ally if you really want to know where they’ve been hiding. Although we, I mean they, may still refuse to tell you.

¿Dónde andas? 

This is a very common way of asking someone where they are, especially over the phone. I’ve unintentionally eavesdropped on countless phone conversations on buses and the metro in Colombia, so believe me. I know what I’m talking about. Of course, it literally means “Where are you walking?”, but as a phrase it’s the same as ¿Dónde estás? To me, it sounds more poetic. And more colloquial, probably.

¡Quiubo! ¿Dónde andas? Yo aquí en el bus, pero ya casi llego.

Hey! Where are you? I’m on the bus, but I’ll be there soon.

¿Por dónde andas? ¿Me haces un fa? Necesito que vayas a donde Jairo y le pidas los libros.

Where are you at? Can you do me a favor? I need you to go see Jairo and ask him for the books.


Quedar can mean estar, but daaaamn if I was ever taught this in, what, eight years of Spanish classes before I moved to Colombia–? Not once! And yet it’s so common and useful it’s almost painful to imagine not knowing it. Quedar is frequently used to indicate where something is–when it is something that does not change. So, the post office, your friend’s house, a city, Hogwarts, check. But you wouldn’t use quedar for something like your keys, the dog, or a person. Use quedar to tell the address of a place or its relation to nearby locations.

¿Dónde queda la pastelería que acaba de abrir? Se me antoja un milhojas. Queda en la carrera 54, al lado de la guardería y enfrente del paradero.

Where’s that cake shop that just opened? I’m in the mood for a milhojas. It’s on 54th street, next to the daycare and across from the bus stop.

Perdón, ¿usted sabe dónde queda el Consumo? Sí. Queda a cinco cuadras de aquí. Sube dos cuadras, cruza por el puente peatonal, voltea a mano izquierda y de ahí hay que subir dos cuadras más. Vas a ver un colegio militar y una floristería. Ahí queda.

Excuse me, do you know where Consumo is? Yes. It’s five blocks from here. Go up two blocks, cross the bridge, turn left and then you’ll have to go up two more blocks. You’ll see a military school and a florist’s shop. It’ll be right there.

Ubicado/a, ubicarse, ubicación

If there’s another location word as useful as ubicar, I’d like to meet it and shake its hand. This word really takes the cake, though, for usefulness. Ubicado/a means located, ubicarse means to be located, and ubicación means location. Yes, it’s an ugly word, but beauty is fleeting anyway. It even has an English cognate, believe it or not. Ubication. Check it out.

1. Obsolete, location or situation.
2. the state or quality of being located or situated; ubeity or whereness.

Ubeity? Whereness? I love it. Anyway, in Spanish these are definitely everyday words. Use them. Please do not say locación for location. Please. Actually, hmm. The more I think about it, the more I realize just how useful ubicar is. I’ll have to dedicate it its own blog post. Know that it does have more meanings and nuances, but for now I’m just focusing on the location of things.

Nos vemos en la iglesia. ¿Sí sabes dónde está ubicada?

See you at church. You know where it is, right?

Me fijé que alguien de Nueva Caledonia visitó mi blog, pero no tengo ni idea dónde se ubica ese país.

I noticed that someone from New Caledonia visited my blog, but I have no idea where that country is located.

Debido a la ubicación del tumor, ya no será posible que le hagamos la cirugía.

Due to the tumor’s location, it will no longer be possible for us to perform the surgery on you.


You’ll see this word a lot in the newspaper, especially related to kidnappings and disappearances. It means whereabouts, and it’s usually used when the whereabouts are unknown.

Por eso hay una recompensa de $150 millones para los que nos den información del paradero de alias ‘Escalante’.

That’s why there’s a reward of 150 million pesos for those who can give us information on the whereabouts of alias Escalante.

Pero se desconoce el paradero de su cuerpo, ya que hombres armados lo sustrajeron de la funeraria la noche del 8 de octubre.

But the location of her body is unknown, seeing as armed men removed it from the funeral home the night of October 8.

Can you think of anything else? There are, of course, oodles of words we could cover, but these were the first ones to come to mind. I think it’s a good roundup.

And where are you? Y tú, ¿dónde andas? Vos, ¿dónde andás? Did you know these words and phrases? What else do you consider useful for talking about locations? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with?