“Good words that I chronically underuse”– a good line that comes from the About page on this blog, and it was one of the many things I promised to include here on Vocabat. However, I think that the posts on underused words have, if anything, been underwritten. I tend to write about things I think other learners may not know and would probably find useful, things I personally find cool or interesting, things I’ve just learned, and, occasionally, my mistakes. Well, let’s fix that. My underused word of the day is armar. It’s about time he got to be in the limelight.

It all started last week with the Great (and Far Too Short) Internet Shortage of 2013. As I mentioned, among other activities, I did a puzzle to try to while away some of that abundance of time. My passion for puzzles actually predates my passion for Spanish (Spanish was close behind it, though, nipping at its interlocking heels). I used to be able to entertain myself with puzzles for hours on end as a kid, but I couldn’t even tell you the last time I did one. Probably when I still wore pigtails. After finishing, I read a few things in Spanish about puzzles, and I came to learn that in Latin America, you don’t do (hacer) a puzzle, as I would have guessed; instead, it’s armar un rompecabezas.

Ah, armar! Now there’s a verb that I don’t use nearly as much as I ought to. It just doesn’t come to mind frequently, but I know that I would sound much more fluent were I to use it more. The only times I ever say armar are in one of the following three situations:

1. armar una carpa – to put up a tent, pitch a tent

2. armarse de valor – to pluck up courage

3. armar un parche – to get a group of friends together, Colombian slang

Well, that’s not completely it. Skimming old emails and chats, I saw that I have used it for other things as well, even recently, but it’s one of those words that I can just feel slipping away from me. Its existence in my active memory feels more and more tenuous by the day. It just doesn’t occur to me as often as it used to, and that’s because I’m not hearing nearly as much Spanish as I used to, so I’m losing the naturalness I used to have. Noooooooo!!!! I won’t let this happen! Armar is mine, and I’m not letting go of him without a fight. Maybe you never even had him to begin with, in which case, let’s study him closely and redouble our efforts to use him effectively.

Armar can be to assemble something, to put it together, to set it up. Hence, armar un rompecabezasarmar una carpa. Think of a furniture store like IKEA– their trademark is muebles armables. Furniture you have to assemble yourself. To put up or put together your Christmas tree is armar el árbol de Navidad. To roll a cigarette or joint, you can also use armar. Same thing with a playlist. Even intangible things like ideas or sentences. Armar ideas or armar películas are common ways to say that you’re letting your imagination run wild and imagining things, going so far as to create elaborate dramas or movies in your head (there’s a great word for this in Colombia: empelicularse). Note that armar is used with the end product, not the components– you armar the puzzle, not the pieces (las piezas). To undo what you’ve made, you simply desarmar it.

Vamos a necesitar de la colaboración de todos para armar el muro.

We’re going to need everyone’s help to put up the wall.

Jamás había visto antes un porro tan mal armado.

I’d never seen a joint rolled so badly before.

Similarly, armar is also often used to talk about putting together plans or activities: un plan, un horario, un itinerarioun viaje, una ida, una fiesta, una salida, un torneo, un paseo de olla, un partido and so on and so forth.

Armemos una rumba bien buena este finde que viene. 

Let’s throw a really good party this coming weekend.

You can also use armar for forming a group of people for whatever purpose: un equipouna caravanaun parche, un combo, un duo, un grupo, una tertulia, etc.

Está armando un equipo para el torneo, ojalá me invite.

He’s putting together a team for the tournament–I hope he asks me.

Armar also gets used when you talk about things getting noisy and/or problematic due to 1. someone creating a fuss, 2. some noisy, boisterous activity going on, or, 3. things going haywire for whatever reason. In this sense, you’ll see it with things like jaleo, polémica, lío, relajoescándalo, problema, bulla, (tanta) alharaca, bullicio, broncadesmadre, and the like. For whatever reason, the adjective tremendo is often used with many of these nouns. With some of these nouns, the article is usually used; with others, it’s not. You can look into it. Armar un show is to make a scene.

¡Menudo relajo el que se armó en la clase hoy!

All hell broke loose in class today!

Teresa amenazó con armar un tremendo escándalo para salirse con la suya.

Teresa threatened to throw a big fit in order to get her own way.

Of course, Armando is a popular name in Spanish-speaking countries. Contrary to appearances, it doesn’t come from the present participle of armar but rather Germanic roots. Here’s a little comic I made to show a potential snafu a gringo could run into if they ever met an Armando. What do you think?

Armando gringo comic, ser y estar

For most of these ideas, yes, you could also use hacer. But wouldn’t you rather sound more natural and use something with luster than just reach for plain old hacer? The fact is, while you could just use hacer (or formar, organizar, montar, etc.), people tend not to for these ideas, especially in colloquial speech. It’s just another one of those little things that, when added to a million other little things, will make you sound significantly more natural and like you didn’t learn your Spanish from a textbook. When (not if) I write my book for Spanish learners, I think I’ll title it that: A Million Little Things.

Can you think of any other uses of armar that I missed? Obviously it also means to arm in the sense of weapons. What kinds of colorful phrases have you heard armar in? Let’s all help reinforce the word for each other and not give it short shrift.

My favorite bit of knowledge I stumbled across while researching armar? Learning that Mr. Potato Head in Latin America is Señor Cara De Papa (Señor Patata in Spain). Mr. Potato Face! I just know I’ll have to say this in one of my sessions one day. Armar al Señor Cara de Papa.

Sr. cara de papa


14 responses to “Armar

  1. Armaste un buen blog con el tema ;-)


  2. Your idea for A Million Little Things is a great idea. Even though I have studied Spanish for years, I still come across new words that should have been very familiar words to me, e.g. armar. I came across it just a few weeks ago, when a family migrating from Mexico to the USA many years ago, were able to borrow a tent, and the lender helped them -armar- it.

    Again, a book that discusses the meaning of a lot of helpful words that are never used in the Spanish lesson books or in the classroom would be a great addition to many students’ libraries.


    • Wow, thank you so much for your kind and encouraging feedback, Harlan! I won’t forget it.

      Glad to hear that you were able to learn and understsand armar from context– I’m sure you won’t forget it either.


  3. loopingpensamientos

    Gees, that was a very extensive post all from just one verb! Very insightful. But I also learnt a new English word thanks to your post. Snafu! That’s a new one for me, I’ll have to try and slip it into conversation somewhere and see if it’s readily understood.


    • This blog (and, by extension, blogger) is nothing if not exhaustive!!! That is, thorough :D :D :D

      The way I see it, I’d rather write everything I can about a topic so that I NEVER have to revisit it. I also try to anticipate questions and just provide all the info I’d want if I were reading the post and learning.

      You didn’t know snafu? Where are you from? I can’t remember, sorry. It’s a fun word to say :)


      • loopingpensamientos

        Yes, you are very thorough indeed!
        Yea, it’s the first time I’ve heard it. Is that bad? I’m from New Zealand


        • Oh, New Zealand. No, of course it’s not bad. Perhaps it’s an Americanism? I wouldn’t know. It apparently was originally a military term, standing for Situation Normal, All F’d Up. It’s informal, but not super common. I’m sure there are just loads of words from New Zealand that would have me scratching my head, so no worries!


          • 1) I heard SNAFU was an military word, either WWII or Vietnam.

            2) There are tons of kiwi words that left me shaking my head; my friend and I devised a “seven second rule;” i.e., if you don’t understand what we’re saying think for seven seconds before asking… other wise I was asking ALL THE TIME. Of course, when he said it, it sounded like the “sih-vuhn sick-und ruyl.” There were very few American words that stumped my kiwi friends.

            3) I miss my kiwi friends!


            • It’s really good to know when to ask and when not to. Sometimes questions can help you, but, at the same time, you never really get anywhere conversation-wise if you get bogged down in non-stop questions. All that to say, good rule!


  4. I read a short story about bullies, and the bullies always promised “si no, te voy a armar una.” Una what? I was never sure. They were also going to “darle de veras” to the poor kids.

    Also, a couple years ago Budweiser started that “Here we go!” campaign. The Spanish version was “Ya se armó!” which I thought was a brilliant translation. There were signs on buses and in trains. I’m pretty sure I rode in a Ya se armó train!


    • Ay, JP, I worship you!! You know EVERYTHING about Spanish!! How could I ever hope to catch up to you?? And all your examples are from real life. Very cool.

      Very nice examples. Thanks.

      In Colombia, bullying is matoneo and bulín/bullying. I can’t remember what they call bullies, though. What were they in your book?

      Where were you living when that campaign was going on? Yes, great translation :)


  5. Ay por favor, I’m just a garden variety high school teacher… the kind that worships translators like you, and people who get to spend time in the target culture! En serio! Btw, I think we should be friends in real life.

    The Budweiser campaign, that was 2010 in Manhattan, New York. People ask me if I’ve ever been to the Dominican Republic, and I say yes, I lived in Manhattan! ;)

    I don’t know any good words for bully, but I found you the cuento: Bernardino by Ana Maria Matute



    • Garden variety, my foot! Nice try. Believe me, I am not to be worshipped– maybe I’ve given the impression that I’m more impressive than I really am. I think you’re way cooler, though. And I got to spend time in the target culture, but not anymore. Maybe I’ll move back, though.

      Thanks so much for the story!

      Yes, we should be friends. I think we’re definitely kindred spirits :)


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