Category Archives: Informal

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?

Tengo un filo, que si me agacho me corto

We continue with our list of Colombian phrases, scrutinizing them to see which ones really cut the mustard when it comes to being uniquely Colombian. And speaking of cut, and speaking of mustard, today’s phrase is quite apropos.

3. Tengo un filo, que si me agacho me corto (Knew it. Uniquely Colombian.)

Literal translation: I have a blade, and if I bend over I’ll cut myself.
Translation: I have a hunger that’s so sharp that if I bend over I’ll cut myself.
Meaning: I’m starving, I’m ravenous, I’m dying of hunger.

El filo is the edge or blade of a knife. In Colombia, filo can also mean tremendous hunger. So, just imagine having a sharp knife in your stomach, blade-side up. You’d have to walk very upright to make sure the blade didn’t cut into you; if you bent over, it would slice right into your stomach. So violent! But it’s just a phrase.

But, wait, a quick internet search reveals, devastatingly, that filo means biting hunger in many countries! I had no idea. I just swallowed what I was told–that it was an out-and-out Bogotanismo. Not at all, though. They can’t claim the credit for this one. Filo also means hunger in Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, and Central America. And probably some other countries as well. Strangely, the RAE only recognizes El Salvador’s usage of filo as intense hunger. So, if there’s any country that could claim rights to the word, it would be them. Describe your filo with adjectives like atroz, enorme, tenaz, voraz, and tremendo.

Depending on the country, you might hear some variation of: Ando con filo, Qué filo tengo, Cargo un filo enorme, or Me dio filo.

Filo‘s not uniquely Colombian, but it appears that our colorful phrase is. Say something like, Uy, parce, tengo un filo donde me agache me corto (donde + subjunctive = si) and there will be no room for doubt regarding where you (are trying to) hail from!

Juiciosa, redux (The Bogotá Post)

I know, I know–enough with the reduxes! Long-time readers are getting lots of déjà vu lately, and even the fun of saying déjà vu with a sexy French accent isn’t making up for the flurry of retreads. I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, today I submitted a column that’s 100% new–no rehash. See the original juicioso post here.


Juicioso

When I came to Colombia in 2009, I arrived feeling that I had a pretty solid grip on Spanish. Oh sure, there were words I didn’t know, but I was certain that all my years of learning Spanish in school would be enough to confer me high intermediate or even low advanced status. How sadly naive I was.

The fact was I was seriously deficient in actual interaction with native speakers. This meant two things: 1) I could barely speak in a way that came even close to sounding natural, and 2) My ability to understand native speakers was even more abysmal. My inflated self-confidence took a dramatic nosedive.

Today’s word marked one of those crushing moments when reality began to sink in. One of those words that hammered in the depressing verdict that maybe I wasn’t such a Spanish hotshot after all. Maybe my Spanish was terrible. Now what?

It was my first weekend in Colombia, and I was at the house of some relatives of the family I was living with. An uncle, Orlando, jovial as ever, greeted me by saying something to the effect of, ¿Qué más, mi niña? ¿Juiciosa?

And I said, WHAT?

¿Juiciosa?

WHAT?

¿Juiciosa?

The meaningless syllables mercilessly ricocheted on my brain only to indicate that I had nothing. It was pitiful. Later that night, I turned to the dictionary for guidance. Now, the dictionary will tell you that juicioso means judicious. In Colombia, however, juicioso is used to mean hardworking, well-behaved, and responsible. As you can imagine, it’s often used to tell children to be good or to describe someone’s work ethic. It’s also frequently used in a less straightforward way to ask if someone’s been working hard recently or been a “good boy” or “good girl,” i.e., staying out of trouble. The noun form juicio is also used.

¿Qué más? ¿Cómo te ha ido? ¿Juiciosa? – Ah, pues, bien, gracias a Dios. Sí, claro, muy juiciosa con mis estudios.

How’s it going? What have you been up to lately? Staying out of trouble? – Oh, you know. Pretty good. Busy with school stuff.

¿Así que al fin no fuiste a la fiesta? – No, me quedé en casa cuidando a mis hermanos. – Ah, ¡tan juicioso!

So, you didn’t end up going to the party? – No, I stayed home to babysit my little brothers. – Well, aren’t you responsible!

¿Qué más? ¿Qué hace? – No, por acá juicioso en el trabajo.

How’s it going? What’s going on? – Just working hard over here.

When you notice your friend who’s typically a lazybones knocking himself out and being responsible, use this word to highlight your incredulousness.

Uy, ¿y ese juicio? – No, hoy me dio por asear la casa.

Well, check you out! Mr. Responsible! – Nah, I just felt like cleaning the house today.

As mentioned, it’s common to hear a parent or teacher use juicioso or juicio with children.

Hoy se quedan con la abuela, así que por favor pórtense juiciosos y me le hacen caso.

You’re staying with grandma today, so be good and do what she says.

Ojo, pues, mucho juicio.

Behave yourself!

I consider juicioso a sort of muletilla in greetings, one of those filler words that usually doesn’t mean very much at all. Are your friends really interested in checking to make sure you haven’t been up to mischief? Would anyone ever confess to not being juicioso lately? The asker is looking for a yes, so make sure you give them one, simultaneously confirming for them why they think so highly of you. A win-win.

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.