The latest edition of The Bogotá Post, Bogotá’s finest English-language newspaper, has come out, and once again yours truly had a piece on the world’s finest language: Spanish. I was commissioned to write about local work vocabulary and phrases, so I put my nose to the grindstone and made it happen.
There was one hiccup, however, with what I submitted: several of the phrases had decidedly racist overtones, and these ended up getting nixed. I totally understood the decision, and I’d felt a little squeamish including them myself. As well as just downright unsure of how offensive or inoffensive they really were, so shame on me, then, for not asking around. I got help and feedback on the column from three Colombian friends, but none of them are people of color, if that designation even lends itself to being used accurately in this very blended country. I simply pointed out the racial and historical connotations of the phrases in question, withholding any further judgment or admonitions. In the future I’d definitely do due diligence and make sure to ask a more diverse group. The editors at TBP are great, though, and they asked me what I thought of their edits and let me make my case for a few other changes. The phrases were:
trabajar como negro pa’ vivir como blanco (or pa’ ganar como blanco) (to work like a black in order to live/earn like a white)
trabajar como esclavo (to work like a slave)
and, muy negrero (an employer who pays slave wages, exploitative)
The most concerning phrase was the first one, and you can certainly see why. I’d heard and read it, but had never used it and never would. The second phrase isn’t even very common, and I’ve always felt unsure and iffy about the last one (though it is very common). Part of me did want to keep them just because I’m more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist with language, fascinated by what is used, right or wrong, and trusting readers to use their best judgment and ask their own questions about tactfulness and appropriateness. But, I too care about always being respectful and inclusive, and I’m careful with the words and phrases that I include (which, like it or not, becomes to teach) in this blog. I can’t just assume that readers will ascertain in what contexts certain phrases are OK, if ever. Or they may simply lack the means to do so. I felt that the editorial rephrasing of that section was very tasteful, and I’m at peace about it.
So, with no further ado, here are ways to talk about work in Colombia, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m interested in hearing about other people’s inadvertent toe-steps when wading into the waters of language and race (or other touchy topics), and, as always, I welcome any and all contributions to the vocabulary.
Maybe you teach English, maybe you work in a Colombian office, maybe you do freelance internet stuff from home–whatever your situation, odds are you do some form of work in Bogotá. And at some point or another, you’re going to need to know the basics of how to talk about your job. So, let’s take a look at some very common work-related vocabulary here in Colombia.
Every country seems to have its local word for to work: currar in Spain, laburar in Argentina, chambear in Mexico. Here in Colombia, we say camellar, and work as a noun is frequently el camello. As you can imagine, camellar conveys the idea of working hard.
Estuvimos camellando todo el día, ahora toca descansar. We were working hard all day–now we can take a break.
Tengo que dejarte, es que tengo mucho camello. I have to go now–I have a lot of work.
¡Necesito conseguir camello! I need a job!
There are a lot of ways to express that someone is working like a dog, some of which–as in English– have racist connotations and are probably best avoided. Much better to stick to expressions like trabajar como un burro and trabajar que da miedo.
Colombia has a different and slightly poetic way of naming resumes/CVs: hoja de vida. The leaf of life, or the page of life, as hoja is also a sheet of paper.
Pásame tu hoja de vida, a ver si te puedo ayudar en algo. Send me your resume, and I’ll see if I can help you in any way.
Work always seems to be characterized by one headache after another, and it’s common to hear problems called chicharrones. Yes, chicharrón, as in that deep-fried belly fat that comes with your bandeja paisa, which you’d think would be a good thing.
Tengo que quedarme hasta tarde hoy porque se nos presentó un chicharrón terrible. I have to stay late today because a huge problem came up.
Estar embolatado is a very Colombian way of saying that you’re busy or tied up with something.
Estoy embolatada ahora, pero dame media horita y te llamo. My hands are full right now, but give me half an hour and I’ll call you.
If you want to complain that your boss or company worked you to the bone, you can use the phrase sacar la leche–they milked you for all you were worth, plus a little more. There’s also sacar el jugo, or exprimir.
Hoy fue un día muy agotador, nos sacaron la leche. Today was really exhausting–they worked us like slaves.
One verb that you can get a lot of mileage out of in the workplace is rendir with the meaning of to yield. This is used to talk about a certain amount of time or an event yielding productivity (or not).
Trabajé duro en el proyecto y me rindió mucho. I worked hard on the project and made a lot of headway.
Mañana vamos a empezar bien temprano para que nos rinda la jornada. We’re going to get an early start tomorrow so we can get a lot done during the workday.
¡Que te rinda! Hope you get a lot of work done!
Whether you love your job or hate it, knowing how to talk about it in an über-Bogotano way and deftly slipping in references to camels, milk, and fried pork rinds might just make it that much more interesting. Certainly more colloquial!