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AlwaysSpanish is Retiring!

After a long awkward silence, here's something to break the ice – all over again. I can totally see why you should be upset to see no action from the Burro for over a month now, but trust me, your wait was all worth it. The news here is that your beloved Burro has just moved into a brand new home – one that's a whole lot richer, swankier, and easier to live in. I'm talking about PeppyBurro. That's the name of the new website! Isn't that cool? At least it tells you all about the Burro's pepped up temperament right off the bat, right? This post is not about Spanish-learning tricks (although I will drop in a couple out of habit, I guess) or grammar lessons. This one's all about our new home!

The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Always Spanish has retired. Please visit the new blog at for all future articles.

Spanish In The Streets – Local Words For “Boy”

During my early days of learning Spanish, I would often wonder if there were any way to understand the various Spanish words for the English word, “boy”. Per my sketchy knowledge of this language at that point in time, niño was one way to refer to a male child. But then, it turns out there is a whole jargon of Spanish colloquialism that represent the regional and cultural variations in the way young men and women are referred to in different parts of the Spanish-speaking world, niño being just one of them. A study of these subtleties make for an interesting insight into how local culture impacts the language on the streets.

11 words in Mexico City alone!

Waiters of all ages are often addressed as jóven in Mexico
Waiters of all ages are often addressed as jóven in Mexico
Photo credit: Kris Keller licensed CC BA-SY 2.0
A dear friend of mine from Western DF (Distrito Federal, the local name for Mexico City) once explained to me the finer subtleties prevalent in her neck of the woods as summarized below:

niño – As expected, this word is often used for a male child here just as it would be elsewhere, but in Mexico City only, it is also used for grown-ups in quite a few contexts.

muchacho – This one is kind of outdated if used for a young boy; more often used for a male housekeeper (or muchacha for maid) in modern usage.

jóvenJóven is sometimes used for strangers out of respect regardless of his age and also used by academics while addressing pupils but otherwise, quite outdated; also used almost as a vocative for a waiter, again, regardless of age.

vieja/chava – These are the most commonplace words for women amongst youngsters regardless of the subject women’s actual age.

chavo/cuate/tipo – These are the most commonplace words for guys amongst youngsters, chavo being considered slightly sub-standard.

Escuincle is a bit dated and rural
Escuincle is a bit dated and rural
Photo credit: Arantxa licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
chamaco/escuincle – These, escuincle (or escuincla for females) in particular, are a tad outdated and rural but often used for bratty kids or street urchins. Escuincle comes from the Classical Nahuatl word for dog, itzcuīntli. That should tell you well enough that this is not the word to be used without due consideration.

chico – Although often used by non-Hispanics as a clichéd stereotype for a young Mexican boy or man, this word is hilariously dated, leastwise in Mexico City; only used by the members of the older generation.

güey – Now this one is iconic; nothing unites Mexicans like this alien-looking word, rich and poor alike. It comes from the word buey which refers to a castrated bull in Spanish. Originally intended as an insult (meaning “fool”), an extremely high frequency of usage in a wide range of contexts over time has meant that it has lost much of its offensive nature today. In case, you are still wondering, it roughly translates into the vocative “dude” or “buddy” of modern American English.

While the usage of güey transcends social and regional barriers, it is still considered uneducated and hence confined among friends and acquaintances. It is also considered in poor taste for a teenager to use this term for someone older. In popular culture, while Mexican television and cinema are replete with this slang, more formal programming such as news steer clear of words like güey.

Rest of Latin America

Outside of DF too, there’s an entire range of words Latinos use for boys and men, young and old alike. Here are some, if not all, of them:

cipote – Roughly means “kid” in “hey kid” in the streets of El Salvador

pibe – The Argentinean version of cipote, used for boys usually under 20; particularly commonplace in Buenos Aires

chico – Heavily used instead of niño in Argentina

chibolo – The most common Peruvian word for boys in their teens

muchacha – Mostly used for a live-in maid regardless of her age in parts of the Guatemalan Highlands and Peru and not considered polite, chica being the more polite version

In Guatemala, bratty kids are often called ishtos
In Guatemala, bratty kids are often called ishtos
Photo credit: justinknabb licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
tipo – In parts of Mexico, a “guy” or a “fellow” (usage: “Vamos a preguntar a ese tipo alto de la clase de cocina” – “Let’s ask the tall guy from the cooking class”), however, slightly offensive in Guatemala

ishto – A common Guatemalan term for a bratty kid, not different from the Mexican escuincle

It is no surprise that there are many more words that could make this list if I had the time and resources to research solely on this subject alone. Given that Latin America is home to hundreds of indigenous tongues with unique vocabularies of their own that have nothing in common with either Spanish or even each other, such richness should be a given. In fact, it is no surprise that this kind of regional variation can be seen in almost every aspect of the Spanish vocabulary – even something as inconspicuous as a “bus!”

And finally, Europe

Spain, too, has its own street lexicon used to express the equivalent of the English “guy”. The word, chico, for instance is more common in Spain (except for the Canaries and the south) than it is in Latin America, though still not very formal (not rude either). Chico is also heard in the streets of Cuba in the sense of “hey man” or “buddy”, similar to the way it is meant in Spain. Another word Spaniards are frequently heard using is chaval which essentially means “youngster” or “kid” but often refers to another person of the same age-group as the speaker who usually happens to be a youngster himself. Spain also used the Spanish for uncle, tío , to mean a range of expressions including “fellow” or “buddy” mostly referring to young boys.

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  1. For those who would like to similarly learn about the local words for "girl", there's no less than 41 over here:

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