About the benjamins

As a kid, I always loved to peruse my parents’ adult books. No, not “adult” books, just grown-up books about parenting and marriage (although, naturally, certain scandalous tidbits were especially intriguing to me). By spying on the playbook of the other side, I’d glean fascinating information about their motivations, sneaky tactics, and all the ups and downs of adulthood kept secret from us children. I’d also receive critical insights into myself and how childhood worked. One book I remember reading was The Birth Order Book by Dr. Kevin Leman. The book argued that our birth order (oldest, youngest, or middle child) determined many aspects of our personality. I’m the oldest of five, and supposedly this explains everything about me. Don’t feel sorry for me, fearing that I had a lost childhood–not to worry, I read plenty of Nancy Drew and The Baby-sitters Club and Encyclopedia Brown. Really, whatever I could get my little hands on.

In Spanish, if you’re the oldest, you’re el/la mayor; if you’re the youngest, you’re el/la menor; and if you’re a middle child, you’re el hijo/la hija del medio. I recently learned a few new words for these designations and recalled a few I learned eons ago. Because why take the easy way out when you could say something more colorful?

I have a friend who’s in the throes of an awful despecho, and he’s been letting his heart bleed a little bit online. Here’s a line from something he wrote a while back.

Yo no tengo dudas de lo que siento, y por eso lo expreso, solo te digo que si no soy el número uno en tu vida, no quiero ser un segundón.

There’s no question about what I feel for you, and that’s why I’m expressing it. I’m just letting you know that if I’m not number one in your life, I don’t want to be second best.

Segundón was a new word for me. Other ways of expressing it are to play second fiddle, to be an also-ran, a second-class citizen, second banana (?). A segundón can also be the second child or, by extension, any child who isn’t the firstborn.

A more or less equivalent phrase I’ve learned for segundón is segundo plato, especially in the realm of romantic relationships. If you know someone’s only with you because they couldn’t get their first choice or because they’re trying to get over their ex, you’re their segundo plato, their plato de segunda mesa. Someone who has to settle for whatever leftovers or crumbs are thrown their way. You’re merely the consolation prize for someone who didn’t get the person they really wanted.

Back to families: I remember learning another birth order word last year: el/la cuba. In parts of central Colombia, cuba means the youngest child, the baby of the family. Actually, I learned this when I wrote this post about the phrase estar borracho como una cuba. I made a mental note at the time, y ya. Today, though, I was looking up the word puayá, which I saw in a newspaper article comment, and I happened upon a Muisca-Spanish online dictionary (the Muiscas were the native peoples of Colombia’s present-day Eastern Range). In a list of Muisca words that can be found in modern Colombian Spanish, I ran into cuba again. The Muisca word was cuhuba.

A more standard, universal (though still kind of formal) word for the baby of the family is el benjamín/la benjamina. This comes from the Bible, where Jacob’s youngest son (the thirteenth) was Benjamin, the son of Rachel. The word benjamin also exists in English to mean a youngest and favorite son, but it’s archaic. Wikipedia says that benjamin is used for a youngest son especially when he’s much younger than his brothers; sometimes the name is chosen for a son born to mature parents unlikely to have more children, especially if he has several older siblings. Did anyone anywhere know this? I’m curious.

In Spanish, benjamines is also used to designate the youngest age category for sports and cultural activities, kind of like the peewee division.

elefante bebé baby elephant with siblings

Here are some of the other terms I found for the youngest child.

Mexico- xocoyote, tup

Colombialimpiabarriga, sute, cuncho, pechichón, vejé, limpiapiedra

Venezuela- natieco, cuneco, maraco

Central America- cume, cumiche

Chile- quepucho, puchusco

Spain- caganidoscabo (de) tripa

Honduras- guanjuro

Other terms whose use was scattered included secaleche, sacaleche, conchochulcotoñecobordón, zurrapa, and pucho.

There were also un sinfín of terms related to the verb raspar (to scrape): raspadura, raspa, raspado, raspado de la olla, and many others.

If you click on Colombia, you’ll see an interactive map that shows where many of the country’s terms are used.

How sad I now feel to be the oldest! I feel cheated– I want a nickname! Even if you have thirteen kids, everyone except for the oldest gets their turn at being the benjamínPrimogénito just can’t hold a candle to the fun of being the nest-pooper (caganidos), the runt piglet (sute), or the pinky finger (tup). I guess I’ll just have to content myself with recounting my lion’s share of the inheritance.

One very famous benjamín

One very famous benjamín

Many of the above terms refer to the youngest being spoiled, mimado. Others indicate that the youngest came along and ruined everything. Still others essentially call the youngest the last batch before the mother “closes shop.” The figurative meaning of cabo tripa and limpiabarriga is easy enough to understand, but I didn’t understand limpiapiedra. Then I read that when women make hot chocolate or other foods that require a grinding stone, they traditionally give whatever’s left over to their kids (like your mom letting you lick the cake batter spoon and bowl). So, the youngest is like those chocolate shavings.

Manuel Mejía Vallejo, a famous Colombian writer, had these strong words to say about limpiapiedras.

[Un limpiapiedra es] el que no sirve para nada sino para beber. Era el perdido de la casa, el bohemio, el que no quiso estudiar [. . .] no servía ni siquiera para el militar, era el que le gustaba el trago, el mujeriego, el bohemio de la partida que le gustaba ir de feria en feria, de carnaval en carnaval.

A limpiapiedra is someone who isn’t good for anything but drinking. He was the hopeless case in the family, the bohemian, the one who would refuse to study . . . not even the military had any use for him; he was the one who liked drinking, womanizing–the bohemian in the group who lived life as one endless succession of parties and carnivals.

This article that I read last week in El Tiempo featured the word cuncho.

Durante 20 años, mamá no tuvo descanso. Cada dos años venía un hijo. Fui el último de diez, el ‘cuncho’, como llamaban al menor.

For twenty years, my mother didn’t get a break. Every two years, there was another child. I was the last of ten, the “cuncho,”  as they called the youngest.

In Colombia, cunchos are coffee and hot chocolate dregs. How would you feel being called the dregs? The dregs of society are obviously pond scum– could the dregs of the family possibly be used affectionately? The ones who–gracias a Dios–made it out just in the nick of time? I’ll have to report back to you.

Youngest children, are there any words you particularly like? Any we should never call you (or risk a black eye)? Anyone know any other ways of calling oldest children? I can’t wait to estrenar my new word (cunchita) when I see my youngest sister, Hannah, very soon. Really, what’s not to love about youngest children? And middle children! Good grief, I just realized that I pretty much entirely skipped over them . . . predictably, they’ll say. ¡Se lo compenso! I’ll make it up to you.


3 responses to “About the benjamins

  1. Careful when you say “cunchita” to someone else; they might reply by calling you “cuchita” (old woman). Did you know that “benjamín” is also an “enchufe?” In particular, I recall an attachment that you screw into the socket of a light bulb and it will allow you to not only attach a light bulb but also it provides you with four regular plugs. Mostly used in a garage, or a similar place. I see that the word can be generalized to describe a multiplug connector, but these days we mostly use power strips with that.


    • Hahaha. Yes, I’ll be careful. Nope, totally didn’t know it could be an enchufe. One dictionary also gives the acepción of “half bottle,” but I don’t know what that means.


  2. Pingback: And another blog birthday! | Vocabat

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