Thursday, January 06, 2005

Un Bicho Raro

If you are a native Spanish speaker, how you respond to the above title will depend ENTIRELY on what country you are from.

If you are Cuban, a bicho is a bug – the kind that flies through the air or scurries along the floor. You might also use un bicho raro (literally, "a strange bug") to describe someone as an odd person: El es un bicho raro; he's an odd duck.

If, however, you are Puerto Rican, you are probably shocked to see that word in print, and most likely would never use it in mixed company – because bicho in Puerto Rico means what we might politely refer to in English as a man's "manhood."

There are so many supposedly common words in Spanish that have an unprintable meaning in one Spanish-speaking country or another. The most famous example is probably coger, which in Spain and many other countries means to pick up something, or to take (as in "take a taxi, take a bus,", etc.), but in many South American countries means to have sexual relations. You can imagine the jokes throughout Latin America about Spaniards wanting to have relations with a bus.

To complicate matters even more, the word guagua means "baby" in Cuba, but it means "bus" in Panama. (I'll never understand how that happened.) So, depending on who is speaking and who is listening, coger la guagua could mean, alternately, "take the bus", "pick up the baby", or "have sexual relations with the bus." (I won't even write the last option.)

Other times you can meter la pata, or put your foot in your mouth, with seemingly simple and commonplace words are when you say papaya in certain countries (which can refer to a woman's private parts instead of the fruit), or even pájaro, which normally means bird (back to the "manhood" again)..... And don't even think of using the phrase ponerse la chaqueta in Mexico to mean "put on your jacket," even though that is the literal translation for that phrase and is, in fact, what it actually means in most countries. In Mexico, however, it refers to a solitary sexual activity. Try saying you want to do that as you're leaving a dinner party.....

Actually, the examples of potential linguistic faux pas in Spanish are even too numerous to count. One thing is certain: you will know that you have touched one of those linguistic nerves by the look on the faces of the people you're speaking to. If their eyes open wide, you see them catch their breath and briefly stifle a smile before politely continuing the conversation, you can be sure you've said something that has quite a different interpretation from what you intended.

Just consider it another lesson in how rich and diverse the Spanish language really is. There is always something new to learn, and always some surprise awaiting you.


Aleksu said...

And "bicho" in Mexico could be a cat or a kitten.

Also, try asking a person from Puerto Rico if she/he wants a "bollo" for the hamburger.

I had a Chilean coworker (they call babies "guaguas" also) that used to get in trouble a lot with the Mexican customers, I finally caught up to it, she would tell them "hablame al tiro", which for her meant "call me as soon as possible" and well, to the Mexican customers it meant "just cut the cr*p".

Oh, the beauty of Spanish.

Ramon said...

I just want to set the record straight regarding the posting.

As the child of Cuban parents, I can confidently state that "guagua" means "bus" for Cubans, not "baby." Guagua refers to "baby" in Chile where the word is used in an onomotopoedic sense because it sounds like a child's cry. I'm not sure if it is used the same way in Panama. Usually, latins use Chile as the example to counter the Cuban meaning of "bus."

And, in case you're wondering, yes, I refer to a bus in Spanish as "guagua" even with other latins if I'm not careful.

Ruth Kunstadter said...

Gracias, Ramón! I stand corrected. Can anyone else shed additional light on how "guagua" is used in other countries?