Category Archives: Informal

Quick, quick, I need a placeholder!

Sometimes you just can’t cotton-pickin’ remember what something’s called. Sometimes it’s a lot of times. What do you do in these moments?

A. Rack your brain, get really flustered, berate yourself for being so stupid, and draw a lot of attention to your brain fart.

B. Confess that you can’t remember what it’s called and then vow to double down on your dictionary studying.

C. Deftly slip in a placeholder and keep on talking como si nada, like a boss.

D. This could never happen, because you’re committed to not speaking until you know ALL THE WORDS.

The Vocabat way is C, of course. Flustered? Self-berating? Dictionary reading? For the nerds. So, how to keep your composure and fake it when you draw a blank? It could be a word you know but that abandons you in the critical moment, or it could be a word you haven’t the slightest clue about. One way to keep your self-dignity and hide your ignorance is by using a placeholder. What’s a placeholder? It’s a nonsense term that you use when you can’t or don’t want to say something’s name. Think, thingy, thingamajig, doodad, gizmo, doohickey, whatsit, widget, or whatchamacallit. You know, those whosie-whatsies. Whenever you can’t remember how to say some noun in Spanish, just throw in a thingamabob. It’s convenient that C is our answer, because the most common placeholders in Spanish start with c. Use a placeholder, and your listeners will be none the wiser. If anything, they’ll marvel at your colloquial fluency, not realizing that you’re mentally panting after all the rapid detours you took.

I remember that back in college, I read this NYT article where readers submitted their favorite on-the-tip-of-my-tongue words (many were words invented by their parents, or clearly influenced by words from “the old country”). I laughed uproariously and gave top honors to Shadoobie Jackson. It just makes you want to use fun placeholders like thingamadoodle and whatintheheckin the rest of your life and never call a thing by its real name! Oh, and don’t let anyone tell you that placeholders aren’t prestigious. After all, it wasn’t for nothing that Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story titled The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq. In Spanish, placeholders are called comodíns.

In Colombia and many other countries, one of the most common placeholders is coso. Pásame ese coso. Or, even better, pásame el cosito ese. Of course, you could just say thing—cosa—but why say thing when you could say thingy? If we’re not to know a word, let’s not know it as colloquially as we can.

The placeholder king in Colombia, though, would have to be vaina. It’s also used in many other Latin American countries. Be careful with this one, because you might sound a little trashy if you use it every other word. Also, it’s often used when people are angry or annoyed. But so long as you use a normal tone of voice and no eye-rolling, you can fling it around without any risk of sounding ticked off. Vaina literally means a seed pod, and it can also mean a problem or messy situation. ¡Qué vaina!

Cacharro is a device or part, so it would be similar to gizmo or doohickey. A tool or thingamajigger in the kitchen or garage. Cacharro can also mean a piece of junk, like an old broken-down car. Not to be confused with the Spanish word for puppy, which is cachorro. Nor with cachondo.

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty; I’ve got whosits and whatsits galore. You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty! (English) Regalitos así tengo miles, aunque a veces no sepa qué son. Quieres, no sé, mapas, tengo veinte. (Spanish)

A similar word to cacharro is cachivache. I usually translate this word as knickknack, but it can also be a piece of junk. And it also works to hold our place when we need to reference some thing whose name we don’t know. Used a lot in the plural: cachivaches. Both cachivache and cacharro are more or less universal.

Two uber-Colombian words I’ve heard are cosiámpiro/cosiámfiro and cuchiflí, and they make me happy. Rather old-fashioned sounding and corny, from what I can tell. If you had a Colombian grandmother, you could probably expect to be very familiar with them. I once went out with a guy who claimed that his family had invented the non-word cosiampirutear. I don’t know about that, but there’s also cosiampirar and cosiampirular. And cosiampirulo for people. Cuchuflí is apparently the name of those long tube-shaped wafer cookies in many countries, and there’s got to be some connection to cuchiflí.

There’s also chécheres, which is yet another way to say things in various countries. A friend from the coast said checherear the other day for window shopping (I only knew vitrinear), that is, looking at things. We also have the local corotos, which I think is things in Venezuela, but in Colombia is more specifically the collective things you take with you when you move or go on a trip.

I got the idea for this post when I heard a guy in my class use chisme as a placeholder the other day. I’d read chisme with this usage in books, but I’d never heard it here in Colombia. He’s from a different region (Santander). In any case, chisme, in addition to a piece of gossip, means thingamajig in many countries, though it’s become somewhat old-fashioned and literary over time. Necesito que me recojas el chisme ese. ¿Ya tienes el chisme?

Look at all these c words! (Except for vaina) I wonder why that is. Note that a very common way of using placeholders is: article + placeholder + ese/esa. You’ll sound that much more colloquial.

What placeholders do you know? I discovered chirimbolo, madrola, perol, martingala, comosellame, comosedice, chuchería, deste, chunche, trasto, bolado, and asunto. One extremely famous placeholder for people’s names—fulano (along with mengano and zutano)—probably deserves his own post, so we’ll give it to that Joe Schmoe. In the meantime, tell us, what do you say when you don’t know what to say in Spanish? Learning to mentally circumlocute and reroute is a huge part of fluency! (Which just means knowing how to keep things fluid, not knowing every single word.) Cosa, coso, chisme, cacharro, chécheres, and cachivache, plus the regional words based on where you are, will help you keep your whatsit, I mean whatchamacallit, that is, Imacallit cool.

Colombian greetings, redux (The Bogotá Post)

There’s a new English-language newspaper in town called The Bogotá Post, and I have the honor and pleasure of writing a column for them on all things Spanish. It’s the same beat that I have here on the blog, so I plan to share some old posts and also write new material. I’ll share the columns here as I write them, and even if one is an old post the material will be expanded upon, improved, and double and triple checked with an expert. As always, I welcome feedback. What did I miss in this revamped version of this old post on Colombian greetings? I wanted to write about ¿Entonces, qué? and ¿Vientos o maletines?/¿Vientos o mareas? (though M., my Colombian proofreader, had never heard of that second set of greetings), but, you know. Word limits. And while these greetings are heard all over Colombia, I’m admittedly and inevitably Bogotá-centric, and I know there are some different greetings in Nariño, the Atlantic coast, and everywhere in between. Do share. My first issue (their sixth) came out today, so enjoy!


Bogotá Greetings

What’s one of the most useful things to learn in order to maneuver more smoothly in Spanish interactions? If I were to organize something with a large flag saying START HERE, where would I begin? I guess we’d have to start with greetings. Botch the greeting, and you’ve gotten your whole exchange off to a pitiful, clumsy start (not that these things can’t be recovered); ace the greeting, and that confidence will carry you quite far.

When you read, you begin with ABC; when you sing, you begin with do re mi; and when you run into a friend in Colombia you start with Hola, ¿qué más? Well, that’s certainly one of the most common ways. Let’s break it down.

You start with Hola. Easy. You probably also know Oye or Oiga for “hey,” but this is used to draw someone’s attention to something (as in, “Hey, did I give you my new number?”), not as a greeting.

Then you’re more or less socially obligated to ask the person how they’re doing, usually by stringing a few of these phrases together. In a very unscientific order of usefulness in Colombia, here’s a list of how to ask people how goes it:

  1. ¿Qué más? VERY Colombian and incredibly useful. Illogically, you absolutely can say this first. 
  2. ¿Cómo estás? ¿Cómo está? How are you? The most neutral, universal, and “safe,” so good for exchanges with people you don’t know or to whom you have to show respect. Certainly whenever you have to shake someone’s hand.
  3. ¿Cómo vas? ¿Cómo has estado? How’s it going?
  4. ¿Cómo te va? ¿Cómo te ha ido? How’s it going? How’s it been going?
  5. ¿Cómo va todo? ¿Cómo va tu vida? ¿Cómo van las cosas? How is everything? How are things?
  6. ¿Qué haces? ¿Qué has hecho? ¿En qué andas? What have you been up to?
  7. ¿Qué cuentas? ¿Qué me cuentas? How are you doing? What’s been going on?
  8. ¿Qué tal? What’s up? How’s it going?
  9. ¿Qué hay de nuevo? ¿Qué hay? ¿Qué hay de tu vida? What’s new? What’s happening?
  10. ¿Cómo me le va? Very polite, always hear this either from or directed to older people out of respect. This construction is called the ethical dative, and it basically expresses that I care about you so much that however you’re doing affects me and thus influences how I’m doing. 
  11. ¿Cómo estamos? How are we today? Like in English, this can have patronizing, paternalistic overtones. 

What you won’t hear in Colombia: ¿Qué pasa? ¿Qué pasó? ¿Qué onda?

saludos de colombia

All of the above essentially mean the same thing. Don’t get tripped up trying to translate them or come up with the perfect answer; just learn to let them slide out of your mouth fluidly. They’re all answered the same way: Bien. Todo bien. (If things are so-so, you can say Ahí vamos or Ahí, más o menos.) And then you return the volley.

-¡Hola nena! ¿Qué más? ¿Cómo estás? ¿Qué has hecho? ¿Juiciosa?

-Hola. Bien, gracias a Dios. Juiciosa como siempre. ¿Y tú, qué? ¿Cómo vas?

Then they’ll talk for a bit, and when there’s a pause, a lull in the conversation, it’ll start again.

-Ah, bueno . . . ¿Y qué más? ¿Tu familia, qué?

In this mid-conversation example, you can see that ¿Qué más? isn’t really used to greet so much as it’s filler to help move the conversation along.

Of course, Buenos días, Buenas tardes, and Buenas noches are used depending on the time of day, but these are more formal greetings. As in many countries, Buenas is often used instead of these phrases, a sort of catch-all. (Yes, even in the morning; you don’t say Buenos.) Very typical when you enter shops, as greeting the shopkeeper is just common courtesy here.

But no column on Colombian greetings would be complete without the ever-present ¡Quiubo! This greeting is special enough to not include in the list above, and it comes from ¿Qué hubo? It’s usually followed by another greeting, and it’s very informal.

Quiubo mija, ¿cómo estás?

Quiubo parce, ¿bien o qué?

Once you’ve already greeted someone, you can say ¡Quiubo! each time you run into them afterward, say, at the office. That way, you don’t have to go through the whole merry-go-round of greetings over and over again. You can also say ¡Quiubo! when someone knocks on your door: a casual way of saying, “Who’s there? What is it?”

As you could easily use a different greeting every day and almost never repeat a salutation in an entire month, there’s no excuse for letting yourself fall into a greeting rut. And if you don’t know what to say next, just keep adding more greetings to buy yourself time.

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.