Tag Archives: Language

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.

Colaborar, redux (The Bogotá Post)

In the window box of my new apartment, there’s a pigeon and her two pidgelets. I’ve watched over them since they were wee little eggs, and now I watch their growth and increased plumage (and poopage) every day, several times a day. So when the mama pigeon seemed to disappear for around a 12-hour period, I panicked. It didn’t help that there are always these sleazy-looking cats slinking around the interior of the apartment building. I was certain the two little chicks were now alone in the world, and I was going to Google what to feed baby pigeons, how to keep them warm, and, potentially, how to teach them to fly when the time inevitably came. (And maybe ask my parents to look around and see if they still had our VHS version of Fly Away Home) Just as I had fully mentally assumed my new role as Mother Pigeon, I heard their frantic cheeps/píos píos and looked over to see the real Mother Pigeon back. Did she meet a man? Just need some me time away from her needy little wards? I’ll never know, but I was relieved to see that she hadn’t been eaten, nor had she abandoned her helpless kiddos. She looked a little guilty, but all was well.

Did you like the story? I tell it to say that, in the same way, I haven’t abandoned the blog. I just didn’t really have Spanish on the brain for a while, there. A month passed where I seriously felt like the only new word I learned was how to say funnel in Spanish. (Embudo) Blazing new Spanish trails, I was not. There was a lot of English, a lot of silence, and a lot of Spanish that more or less consisted of the same ol’ same ol’. And new relationships, dwellings, work, activities, and studies that kept me away from the blog. Oh, and there hasn’t been internet at my apartment for almost three weeks now, thanks to a real gem of a Spanish gentleman who took it upon himself to cut the cable because he suspected us of stealing from his connection. But, just like Mamá Paloma, I’m back and ready to be Spanish blogger extraordinaire again, hitting the books, so to speak, and teaching you how to express your rad self in Spanish. Before I share something new, let me (re)share something old: my second column from The Bogotá Post. I first wrote this post in October 2011, but this version is revamped, improved, and definitely more accurate than the first go, thanks to a sidekick who’s helping me out. And you guys? How’s the Spanish going?

Let’s make a collaboration! 

At first glance, colaborar and collaborate seems to be one of those translation pairs we like best. One means one thing, the other means the same thing, and everything’s hunky-dory, right? But then you come to Colombia and you start hearing colaborar used left and right, whereas in English it’s one of those words you hear rather infrequently. What’s going on? Are Colombians just a particularly collaborative bunch? Are they renowned for playing well with others?

In English, “collaborate” gets bandied about in power breakfasts between businessmen, trade deals between governments, and newspaperese. Not being a company bigwig, politico, or journalist largely exempts me from using this word in my day-to-day parlance, though. Spanish, however, does use this word quite often, and Spanish speakers will often reach for colaborar when we would use a more run-of-the-mill word such as plain old “help,” “work together,” or even “volunteer.”

What does this mean for you, oh-so-diligent Spanish learner? Well, make sure you realize that it’s used much more in Spanish, meaning you should be using it more often. Don’t worry; you won’t sound excessively fancy. Whereas in English it generally means working together on some kind of intellectual effort, joining forces and brainpower to attain mutual goals, in Spanish it just means two or more people co-laboring on . . . well, just about anything.

As you can see, it’s often used with the more watered-down meaning of “to help.” To whittle it down even further, Colombians like to dispense with the prepositions. Thus, people regularly say the Spanish equivalent of things like “I collaborated her” or “Will you collaborate me?”, treating the word as if it acted like “to help,” instead of “I collaborated with her” or “Will you collaborate with me?”.

¿En qué le puedo colaborar? ¿Le colaboro en algo?

Can I help you? Be prepared to hear this from ten different salespeople when you walk into stores. Note that in these constructions the phrase is colaborar en, but it’s otherwise colaborar con.

¿Te colaboro?

Do you need help? Here, let me give you a hand.

Con mucho gusto les colaboro con las traducciones.

I’d be happy to help you with the translations.

If you’re the one in need, a smooth ¿Me podrías colaborar? will be sure to elicit the aid you’re looking for. As the word is so vague, context and body language will convey the nature of the favor you’re looking for.

¿Usted me podría colaborar acá con una empujadita?

Would you mind helping me out and giving it a push?

Image by Omega Man, from Flickr Creative Commons

Oye, ¿me colaboras un momento con estos libros?

Could you hold these books for a second?

Mona, ¿me colaboras con una monedita?

Hey, blondie, can you spare a dime?

The noun form -colaboración- is also very common.

Cualquier colaboración será bienvenida.

We appreciate each and every donation, no matter how small.

Necesito su colaboración para poder entregar los documentos a tiempo.

I’m going to need everyone to make an extra effort so we can turn these documents in on time.

Rather unkosher, but the word colaborar also tends to show up when, say, someone tries to dodge a ticket from a police officer.

Uy, ¿y será que usted no me puede colaborar con eso?

Isn’t there a way we could work this out between the two of us?

Or, when you’re just a few decimal points shy of passing your class and need to beg your teacher for some leniency.

Uy, profe, colabóreme ahí, por favor.

Come on, please help me out! Just this once!

You generally use colaborar with a stranger or with someone with whom you speak formally (like a boss, for example). It’s a kinder, softer way of phrasing things, and it slyly includes the listener in the action so you’re not just asking for a favor point-blank. It’s also A-OK to just use ayudar. To use colaborar with someone you’re close to could sound a bit cold and formal, as if you’re trying to signal distance all of a sudden. When you’re annoyed with someone you’re close to and want to let off some steam, it’s an ideal word to use.

Oiga, pero colabóreme porque llevo todo el día haciendo aseo y usted en un segundo llega con las patas cochinas a ensuciarme todo.

Hey, how about a little help now and then? Here I am cleaning all day, and then you just track mud in and make it all dirty again.

When pressed to explain why one would choose colaborar over ayudar, an old boyfriend once told me that ayudar sounds more formal around here. Sure, you could just say ayudar, but wouldn’t it be more exciting to collaborate, as if you’re working together on the problem instead of you just looking for a handout?

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.

Is Mata Taylor a spammer?

Yes, yes she is. So, have fun with her! This is revenge, translator-style.

This post falls outside of Vocabat’s usual purview, but it does have to do with languages. It also had me in stitches for the better part of last night, and who am I to not include you in the funny?

Yesterday morning I got an email asking me about my translation services. It was awkwardly and sloppily written and reeked of spam. I smelled a rat from the first. But . . . I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance it was real. Like .0001 %. And what did I have to lose? Also, and this is so embarrassing, but I think her cheap flattery must have gone to my head at least a tad. Here’s our exchange.

From: Mata Taylor <matataylor000@gmail.com>
To: Vocabat
Sent: Thursday, July 24, 2014 2:16 AM
Subject: Translator Needed

Hello, I am Miss Mata Taylor, I got your e mail address from a online forum that you are an excellent translator, I guess you would have worked for them. I will like you to translate an article for me, but first i need to know your language combination because it was not stated. I will be very happy if you can reply my e mail ASAP.

Thank You
From: Vocabat
To: Mata Taylor <matataylor000@gmail.com>
Sent: Thursday, July 24, 2014 5:13 AM
Subject: Translator Needed


Thank you for contacting me. I translate from Spanish to English.

From: Mata Taylor <matataylor000@gmail.com>
To: Vocabat
Sent: Thursday, July 24, 2014 6:50 PM
Subject: Translator Needed

Thank You very much for the reply, that is the language combination i was looking for. I have attached the document to you, i want it to be translated into Spanish. Please let me know the total cost of translating the article

Thank You.

[sends a 13-page document on terrorism]
From: Vocabat
To: Mata Taylor <matataylor000@gmail.com>
Sent: Thursday, July 24, 2014 7:14 PM
Subject: Translator Needed


I only translate from Spanish to English; I don’t translate into Spanish. However, I can put you in touch with an English to Spanish translator whom I trust and recommend. I looked at the document and the word count, and the translation would likely cost you around $300, perhaps more. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll be happy to pass along his information.

From: Mata Taylor <matataylor000@gmail.com>
To: Vocabat
Sent: Thursday, July 24, 2014 7:14 PM
Subject: Translator Needed

I will be happy if you can help me confirm


And then I sent it over to my friend John, a local translator. And I said that, yes, it smelled incredibly fishy, but who knew? In any case, I’d definitely have her pay upfront, if I were him. He then responded with this link: http://www.blogseitb.us/basqueboise/2014/06/30/spam-handling-101-how-to-break-down-a-scammer/

Turns out, Mata Taylor sent the exact same email a few weeks ago to another translator who decided to “have a little fun with these idiots and turn the tables on the nasty scammers until they break down.” Her revenge looked like: stating that her language combination was Klingon to Dothraki (of course, this was the language combination Miss Mata was looking for); saying her rate was 279.70 euros per word (but first she’d need the English document translated to Klingon, a service her friend offered at $1,230 per word), so over a million dollars for the whole thing; warning that it could take her a cosmological decade to complete; and signing everything as Tyrion Lannister. Hilarious! Now, that is how you talk to a spammer. “Mata” finally broke down and could do nothing but LOL in her final communication. She got ya, Mata.

spam náufragos

Well, that inspired me and got me thinking. You know how on the WordReference forums you’re supposed to submit your own translation when you ask for help? Like, you can’t just ask strangers to do all the work for you and translate your paragraph without making your own attempt first. In that spirit, I want to share with you my last email to Mata (no response so far).

From: Vocabat
To: Mata Taylor <matataylor000@gmail.com>
Sent: Thursday, July 24, 2014 8:20 PM
Subject: Translator Needed


OK, I am going to send you his information. However, I realized that I forgot to tell you that I can’t help you until you first submit your best attempt at the translation yourself. I look forward to seeing your work and apologize for any inconvenience.


Heh heh heh. Heh heh heh. It’s just so ridiculous. 13 pages! And some translator saying that you–the client–have to translate it first, presumably so that it’s “fair.” Heh heh heh. I can’t stop giggling. If any other translators stumble on this page wondering about Miss Mata Taylor (I doubt there are any others naive enough to give this spammer the time of day, but just in case), create your own silly response for this silly spammer (I think she’s harmless)! And then share.

Also, what does this kind of spam even achieve? She wasn’t going to get any money from me, just a pointless translation. I guess she confirmed that my email is real, but why keep up the exchange? Mata, are you reading this? Why do you spam, dear? Or, as you would likely write it: why do you spam deer?


. . . la naturaleza crea sus pro­pios pentagramas . . . 

Nature creates her own pentagrams? While working on a translation yesterday, that’s how I first translated this fragment while doing a slapdash run-through. Making a mental note, all the while, to go back and look into that, because pentagrams just sounded off and the reference to Satanism or Wicca was out of left field. (This symbol has strong historical ties to many other religions and cultural traditions, but I feel that these days its associations with the occult are best known.)

Nope, it was a false cognate, a falso amigo. It turns out that pentagrama in Spanish almost always refers to a music staff (US) or stave (UK). You know, those five lines where you see the clefs, time signature, and notes. It’s masculine: el pentagrama. I know this would never happen, but I like the thought of someone getting a tattoo of a pentagram in a Spanish-speaking country, only to be crestfallen when they see five lame-o lines on their body instead of the fierce symbol they wanted. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to make a point of thrusting a reference to music staffs into a conversation sometime soon. I wouldn’t want to keep the word pent up.

music staff stave pentagrama

How do you say pentagram in Spanish? That is, the 5-pointed star inside a circle. You have two choices: pentagrama or pentáculo. (Reminiscent of this word.) Technically, pentagrama is just the star, and pentáculo is when said star is encircled. (If we were sticklers, we’d call this a pentacle in English–the word exists.) A pentagram can also be called an estrella de cinco puntas, which you might have to say to the uninitiated. Like yours truly: a little embarrassing, but I didn’t know the word pentagram in English until a few months ago. And from what I’ve read, the vast majority of Spanish speakers only associate pentagrama with its musical meaning. The 5-pointed stars need to step up their PR campaign in both languages. Here I am doing what I can to help!

The translation made sense with pentagrama as music staff because the artist took pictures of birds and vegetation clusters on overhead power lines, then transcribed them as if they were notes on a staff. And then she turned it into music for a musical trio and a music box. One thing I love about translation: I get to see the world through such diverse sets of eyes on a daily basis.

pentagram pentagrama pentáculo

With beginners’ false cognate snafus well behind me, it’s not too often that I run into new ones. But when I do, they’re always really interesting. Say, complaciente and complacent, or condescendiente and condescending. Have you tripped over or dodged any tricky false cognates lately?