Bogotá doesn’t have an official zoo, but who needs a zoo when you have a language? Spanish is teeming with creatures great and small. Except for the other week when I held a dog named Parchita tethered to her leash while trying not to fall off my bike for a few minutes, I’ve yet to spend time with animals here. (Also fleas: jeans, seamstress, animal hoarder.) Yet, there’s been no shortage of critters in my speech. Here are a few animal-themed words and phrases I’ve learned in the past three weeks as well as old ones that might be new for you.

I had a killer neck cramp all day yesterday. I knew this was called tortícolis (turtle neck), and the only upside to the crick was getting to say this word for the first time. But then I was told that another way of calling tortícolis in Colombia is tener el mico al hombro. That is, to have a monkey on your shoulder. (In Colombia, monkey= mico.) Just imagine an organ grinder with a small befezzed monkey perched on his shoulder all day and how sore his neck would be by the end of the day after constantly twisting it to address the simian. Getting this monkey off my shoulder will be an enormous monkey off my back.

I was talking to someone on Sunday who’s from Caquetá, a department located in the Amazonas region. I asked her about typical dishes there, and when she struggled to come up with some, I ran to get my Gran libro de la cocina colombiana. Which is this incredible cookbook I received as a housewarming gift in 2009 that meticulously documents the dishes typical of all 32 of Colombia’s departments. I’ve also discovered that it’s found in many Colombian kitchens, sort of their The Joy of Cooking. As I flipped through the section on the Amazonas region to see if any of the dishes were favorites of hers, I came across a recipe for Manatí.

gran libro de la cocina colombiana

Manatí (Amazonas)
(Vaca marina)

Mamífero poco común, alrededor del cual el indígena ha tejido una nutrida y a veces extravagante mitología. 
Es muy apreciado por su carne. Tiene en su lomo 4 tipos de carne de sabores, color y textura perfectamente definidos: cerdo, res, pescado y tortuga. Se cocinan por separado, fritándolos, cocinándolos en guiso o asándolos a la brasa sólo condimentados con sal. Los huesos guisados o en sopas son también muy apreciados.

I’m fairly certain I would never eat manatee, but it fascinated me that the recipe was in that book. Sans judgment, a cookbook that was descriptive and not prescriptive. I was also surprised to hear the words for an endangered species flow out of my mouth, something I didn’t realize I knew how to say: en vía de extinción/en peligro de extinción. 

I think I’ve heard two people now call those jaw clips for hair un caimán. Which is an alligator. Also, I read this line a few days ago in a book: The sporting children were receding in a distant crocodile, pale and navy blue, winding their way back to their school and lunch. Which made no sense to me. Then I realized it might have been British English. Sure enough, crocodile: Brit, a line of people, esp schoolchildren, walking two by two. There’s so much English I don’t know.

I heard a fanny pack called a canguro, a kangaroo. I knew the word but wasn’t certain that it was used in Colombia. The word I remember from before for fanny pack is riñonera–kidney bag. So unsavory.

Talking about working out, I confirmed that push-ups are lagartijas–small lizards.

Another animal-related word I’ve learned of late is the word for (the art of) bullfighting: tauromaquia. Somehow, I didn’t know this one before.

To discuss cheapo off-brands, I’ve always said marca pato or marca patito. Lately, though, I’ve heard two different people say marca pajarito and marca gato. Keep your ears perked and you’ll hear lots of other animals used to sully brands, which kind of makes you feel bad for them.

Those are all the animals I can think of that have come up since January 1! Below are a few more common words and phrases you might hear in Colombia.

If you go out to drink with friends, you might decide to order a jirafa (de cerveza), which is a beer tower from which you dispense beer for everyone. I think this is a Colombian word.

jirafa de cerveza

To order that giraffe, you and your friends might decide to hacer una vaca. This is when everyone chips in, everyone pools their money together to buy something. This bovine phrase is very universal.

Want to talk about your work and sound Colombian while you do so? Refer to your work as your camel, that is, camello. The verb is camellar. Just like Mexicans have chamba, Chileans pega, Spaniards curro, and so on and so forth, Colombians have camello. I think they say it in Ecuador and Venezuela as well.

Hacer el oso (to do the bear) is to make a fool of yourself and it’s used in many, many countries. ¡Qué oso! How embarrassing! How ridiculous! What a loser!

If you’re in Colombia, you might order a hot dog or hamburger and then notice a funny little egg on top. When you ask what kind of egg it is, you’ll be told it’s a huevo de codorniz, but I don’t think you or anyone should be expected to know what a codorniz is off the top of their head. That would be a quail egg, my friend. Protein! If anything, I might prefer to eat that egg and leave the rest–my mouth is not a sauce depository. I drown.

Colombian hot dog quail egg perro caliente colombiano huevo de codorniz

I’ve written before that abeja (bee) and avispado/a (wasp-like) mean slick, clever, and these words can have good and bad connotations.

To flirt with someone in Colombia and several other countries is echarle los perros. Sic the dogs on them, release the hounds.

You might hear a thief be called a rata or ratero. Rodents’ besmirched reputation is slightly redeemed with the phrase ser un ratón de biblioteca, which means to be a bookworm. These are all universal terms.

In Colombia, a sapo/a can be a snitch/tattletale, a suck-up, or a nosy person. A regular toadie.

Lobo/a in Colombia is trashy. Which means that El lobo de Wall Street is aptly titled. You can be a billionaire and still be a low-class yahoo.

You probably won’t hear this if you’re just passing through Colombia, but it’s one of my favorites: cusumbo solo. A cusumbo solo is a coati, and male adults are usually solitary creatures. Thus, a person who is described as a cusumbo solo in Colombia is one who is essentially lonely, withdrawn from society. Often a man who passes long periods alone, without a partner, be it by choice or otherwise. Though you can be in a relationship and still be a loner, of course.

cusumbo solo

If you’d come to Bogotá sometime in the last few years, you would have learned that the people who drove horse-drawn carts around town to salvage garbage and transport small loads were called zorreros and the horse and cart were zorras. And if like me, you would have thought, huh, a female fox (a vixen!) and left it at that. Today, for the first time, I looked it up, and it has nothing to do with foxes. According to the DRAE, zorra can also mean a low, strong flatbed cart to transport large loads. They’ve recently been outlawed and decommissioned, so you’re unlikely to see one now. The end of an era.

There are many more zoo terms and phrases. Which ones can you think of?


16 responses to “Animalia

  1. Zorra en México significa algo completamente diferente… ;)


    • Oh, it’s the same here. Puta, golfa, perra. But there’s also that other meaning. So I guess you would have thought a headline like Desde hoy, no más ‘zorras’ en calles de Bogotá meant something very different :)

      I’m not positive that the name comes from that meaning that I found in the DRAE, but it makes sense. I wonder if it’s used commonly elsewhere?

      Here’s a picture of a zorra:

      From what I’ve heard, they’re gone, but maybe there are still a few out there. I’m glad I was here while they were still a presence. I almost hired one once to help me move some furniture a few blocks, but ended up carrying it with a friend. Lots of huffing and puffing.

      I think they were outlawed for so-called animal rights, but it was probably so the city didn’t look so third-world. No horses where you are in Mexico?


      • No working horses in the centro, but there are still working burros around in the suburbs (I am in a secondary city in central mexico). I did see someone leading a riding horse into a house the other day.. not sure where they were going to put it though ;)


  2. Ir de pato: go to a party uninvited.
    Hacer conejo: leave without paying the bill.
    Dar una paloma: give someone a (free) ride, as when a bus driver allows you to board without paying.
    Hacer operacion tortuga: an intentional slow-down at work.
    Va como el cangrejo: when a person’s performance deteriorates (goes backward) instead of improving.


  3. whatwhileweslept

    Love “crocodile” and lagartijas! And dislike “kidney bag” even more than “fanny pack,” if possible. :) Great post.


  4. anoche hablaba con una amiga y usó “Que Oso” y si no hubiera leído tu post no podría entender lo había dicho, entonces muchísimas gracias Vocabat :)

    tmb encontré “es solo un medio perro” if something is not too far away (esta puebla es solo un medio perro de aquí)


  5. Interesting post.

    Largitijas and ¡Qué oso! are used in Mexico as well, with the same meaning.


  6. You rode a bike in Bogota???


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