Tell Chileans you’ve moved to Chile to improve your Spanish and they’ll likely be incredulous. After all, Chileans are known for color, rather than precision or clarity, in their spoken Spanish.
Navigating a dialect so riddled with modismos, or slang, can prove a serious obstacle for many foreigners, including those from elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. Chilean slang runs the gamut from food, clothing, and class to reproductive organs, monetary units, and (naturally) all things scatological.
During the course of Chile’s 2010 bicentennial celebrations, a group of researchers compiled the Diccionario de Uso del Español de Chile (DUECh), or the Chilean Spanish Use Dictionary, which compiles a comprehensive list of lexical concepts not belonging to general Spanish vocabulary.
According to Chilean daily El Mercurio, the book was among the 10 best-selling non-fiction books in the country for two months after its launch, and sold out its first 5,000-copy edition during the International Book Fair of Santiago in October.
Coordinator of the Chilean Language Academy’s Department of Idiomatic Expression, Ximena Lavín, worked with a team of researchers to compile 9,500 lexical units, selected from diverse sources including the press, literature, and electronic media.
“Foreigners, especially those who are just arriving, usually ask about colloquial expressions,” Lavín says. “Many of them contain an element of humor, which require, beyond mere lexical knowledge, an advanced understanding of irony and double entendre, as well as a knowledge of Chilean Spanish phonetics.”
One sentence cited by Lavín translates as “more sewn than a gold button” (“más cocido que botón de oro”), which means “very drunk” (cosido or ‘sewn’ appears in the DUECh as a “state of drunkenness”). The humor of the sentence, and the meaning of this particular modismo, is derived from the similarity between the Spanish words cosido (sewn) and cocido (cooked).
Another DUECh editor, Darío Rojas, points out the preponderance of animal vocabulary in Chilean Spanish. As in English, the word chancho, or swine, is used in Chile to describe dirtiness, gluttony or obesity.
Others are more culturally specific: cabro (male goat) designates a young man; gallo or galla (rooster or hen) indicates a person; yegua (mare) is a malicious woman; sapo (toad) is an accuser; and buitrear (a verb derived from the noun for vulture) means ‘to vomit.’
Navigating the intricacies of castellano chileno can be a frustrating endeavor, but once you’ve learned the basics it can be one of the most rewarding aspects of a stay here. Just try out some of your new words on a Chilean. If you don’t get a smile, a laugh and a pat on the back, then you’ve probably said the wrong thing.