Colloquialism is what sets a natural, organically-developed language like Spanish apart from something like, say, Klingon. Colloquialism is what makes a language fun to learn and even more fun to use. Every language learner who has attempted to memorize a list of cuss-words in their target language even before they got to the basics of grammar would vouch for this. I certainly stand guilty. It’s somewhat of a forbidden fruit – non-standard expressions are bad and that makes them fun to learn right off the bat!
But colloquialism plays a much bigger role than just that. Much as the purists love to shun them, slang expressions stay inevitable and lend the language a distinct character. Slang is the reason a language feels alive and not synthetic. Besides, what’s slang today will, most likely, be standard tomorrow. Don’t believe me? Go back a century and you’ll be surprised with how much English itself has changed.
Colombian Spanish, like all other variants of the language, is rich in expressions only the locals get. Of course, now you will too. These expressions, although Spanish, are not very familiar to non-Colombians even if they speak Spanish themselves. This might come as a surprise to those who arguably believe that Colombian Spanish is the Spanish version of Queen’s English but then, even Londoners have their colloquialism.
1. ¡De Una!
This is the most enthusiastic of affirmations you’re ever gonna hear in Colombia. It’s like the Valley-Girl “totally” in Spanish. Well, that’s the closest you can get trying to draw an exact English parallel. Other interpretations include right now, let’s go, and let’s do it – all with a clear tone of excitement. Goes without saying, this is one of the most commonly heard expressions among friends and must figure in your vocabulary if you wish to sound closer to Colombian.
You might be scratching your head over how this expression translates into what it does. I did when I saw it first so am gonna assume you’re in the same boat. actually, de una is a lazy contraction of de una vez (at once). Regular usage, however, is more along the lines of yeah totally. Here’s an example to illustrate this:
¿Vas a salir a rumbear este viernes? (Are you going for the party this Friday?)
Claro, ¡De una! (Yeah, absolutely!)
So just to reiterate, de una indicates a strong and enthusiastic, a very strong and enthusiastic, agreement. That’s all you need to remember.
2. ¿Qué Más?
This one looks fairly easy to guess – Qué means what and más means more, so qué más as a question must translate into what else without a fuss. Easy-peasy! Except that it’s not. You are close, though. Qué más is a very common set expression – i.e. its literal translation is not the actual translation in use – and is the Colombian equivalent of wassup.
Your Spanish teacher and that phrasebook you picked at the airport for a couple of bucks taught you cómo estás, but that’s rarely what the natives say to each other. Almost every Spanish-speaking part of the world has a colloquial flair to this question that uniquely identifies its speakers as natives. When it comes to Colombia, it’s qué más. So the next time you are asked this question, do go on an incessant rant about how you’re doing great as is your dog and your neighbor instead of pulling a blank.
You can also hear chévere at times; actually, the distribution is 50-50. Both words directly translate into cool, as in nice, awesome, or kickass. Bacano was first heard around late 70s and hasn’t lost its edge ever since. Dime-store phrasebooks would teach you something like muy bueno but that’s hardly gonna sound bacano, you see. This is what phrasebooks and classrooms do to your Spanish – they always teach you things that are “safe” and “neutral” instead of what’s actually useful and practical. Muy bueno will make you sound like a tourist; bacano will make you sound like a local – well, at least somewhat. Take a look at the following usage examples for some ideas:
Esa camisa es muy bacana (This shirt is very nice).
Parce, ¡qué carro tan bacano! (Dude, what a cool car!)
Chévere is similar in usage and connotation; however, it can sometimes also be ever so slightly less emphatic than bacano. Some say the word originated in Cuba, others pin it on Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, the good news is that chévere has currency in not only Colombia but also Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Here’s how the word can be used in less-than-enthusiastic tones:
¿Terminaste tu tarea? (Did you finish your homework?)
Sí señor (Yes sir).
Pues chévere (Okay good).
Other than that, it can also be synonymous to bacano. Both uses are equally common.
Dizque is a clever Colombian contraction of se dice que which literally translates into they say. Other interpretations are it is said that, is supposed to be, supposedly, and apparently. It’s not hard to see a clear logical thread connecting all these translations. Here’s an example to illustrate its usage:
Dizque vendrán hoy (They’re supposed to be coming today).
¿Vas a ver esta película? (Are you going to see this movie?)
Dizque es chévere (Apparently it’s great).
Dizque can also be used as an adjective and when it is, the closest translation is so-called. This shouldn’t give you any trouble as it doesn’t look much different from other translations discussed above. In English, so-called is often used with a tinge of sarcasm to mean fake or phony. The same can be, and is, done with dizque too. Let these examples break it down for you:
Condenamos a la gente a morir por medio de dizque testimonios expertos (We’re condemning people to death on the basis of phony “expert” testimonials).
¿Esto es tu dizque trabajo? (This is your so-called job?)
More universally, the word means tired, fed up, or full. But in Colombia and some other countries in Latin America, it can also mean a lot of or many. Harto can also be used as an adverb and in that usage it translates into very or extremely. Here’s a couple of contextual sentences to help you understand:
No pude venir porque tuve harto trabajo (I couldn’t come because I had a lot of work).
Lo sé harto bien (I know that all too well).
Although harto is common throughout Latin America, there’s one curious anomaly that sets Colombia’s harto apart from the rest. The word begins with an “h-” which is always silent in Spanish no matter where you go. However, throughout Colombia, you would hear the letter pronounced quite clearly, especially in harto! Thus, harto of Colombia often sounds like jarto. But don’t let that fool you and you’re better off sticking with the silent variant unless you wish to pass off as an uneducated Colombian. That’s because educated Colombians never pronounce their “h-”, even in informal settings.
Parce is Colombian for dude, buddy, friend, or partner. Although now common throughout Colombia, the word still primarily belongs to Medellín. Parce is mostly used when directly addressing someone, or at least that’s the way I have heard it used. The word is essentially an abridged version of parcero, which refers to inseparable buddies in Colombia and Ecuador. The female version, of course, is parcera. A fun derivative of parce is parcerín which translates into dear friend! Here’s an example for you:
¡Parce! ¿Cómo vas? ¿Todo bien? (How’re you doing, bro? All good?)
For the curious minds, parce and parcero, both derive from parcelo. Parcelo is Spanish for landlord or owner of a parcela (plot or parcel). Originally, parce referred to cellmates as a metaphor for people owning the same plot, i.e. sharing a cell. That’s how it was used throughout the 70s but with changing times, the word came to gain currency outside the criminal demographics too. Juanes, a well-known Colombian singer, has named one of his albums P.A.R.C.E. after this very word.
No, this is no typo. Parche is a legit Spanish word and is understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world as the word for patch – could be a patch of rubber or fabric, could be a poultice, plaster, eye-patch, or even a metaphor for temporary solution. That’s exactly the way we use patch in English, right? However, the Colombians have other ideas. To them, parche is a bunch of friends hanging out together – a social gathering or reunion, if you will. Other that the gathering, parche can also refer to the gang itself. That should explain the following usage:
Estoy con mi parche (I’m with my gang).
As long as there are social butterflies, there will also be reclusive hermits whose social calendar is a blank slate. When you have nothing much going on in the way of socializing, you’re said to be desparchado. It’s easy to see how desparchado derives from parche with a familiar prefix and an equally familiar suffix slapped to it. In case it’s not already obvious to you, desparchado is someone without a parche.
Speaking of parche, there’s a cool derivative you’ll love to check out: Dañaparche. Dañar is Spanish for damage and you already know parche. So when the two come together, you’ve got a spoilsport, someone who ruins it all for the rest of us. Every party worth its booze has one, doesn’t it? A more non-vernacular equivalent of this term is aguafiestas, someone who throws agua (water) on your fiesta.
Latin America is all about partying. That’s what underscores their very identity which is why nobody has more words for the act than they do. There’s ir a fiesta, ir de parranda, parrandear, farrear, irse de juerga, irse de pachanga, and a whole lot more. Colombians prefer rumbear. The verb derives from the name of a famous dance form from Cuba which is why the verb is also commonly used in that country. Since Rumba is a dance and dancing is partying, the correlation is fairly easy to make.
On an interesting side-note, rumbear is also heard in Mexico but with a different meaning. There, it means to clear a path through the undergrowth. The rest of Latin America sides with Mexico on this one because to most Latin Americans, rumbear means to follow a direction or get one’s bearings. Only Cuba and Colombia use it for partying.
Vaina is the Spanish equivalent of thingy in English. Both are equally vague, overused, and with a gazillion context-driven meanings. Other ways to translate it would be stuff, thing, or matter. The word is understood throughout Latin America but Colombia is where it enjoys the maximum usage. Vaina has got to be one of the most versatile of all Colombian expressions. Let these examples illustrate this versatility:
Leo una vaina sobre Pablo Escobar (I’m reading some stuff about Pablo Escobar).
Dame esa vaina (give me that thingy).
Saliste de esa vaina (you’re now out of this mess).
¡Qué vaina! (What a disaster!)
Some say, vaina is the one word that identifies Colombian Spanish better than any other. You might agree once you notice how often it’s used in every conversation you come across.
This is yeah in Colombian Spanish; notice the sí in sisas. Although very commonly heard, try to avoid any temptation of using it in your speech because the word doesn’t belong in educated circles. Usage of sisas identifies the language of the uneducated lower-class Colombian. So sticking to sí is a good idea. But you ought to be familiar with sisas should you hear it spoken which you will, all the time.
On an unrelated note, sisas also figures in Quechua, an indigenous tongue from Ecuador and Peru, as the word for flower. Of course, that’s not the usage you’re ever going to encounter in Colombia but it’s a fun trivia, no? Oh, and sisas also happens to be the singular second-person conjugation in the present indicative tense for the verb sisar (to steal, rob, or pilfer). But don’t worry, context will always tel you which meaning to interpret.
Needless to say, Colombian Spanish is not limited to these 10 words and the entire lexicon would warrant a dictionary of its own. But having these down, you can be well on your way to start exploring the rest. Besides, these are the ones you’ll hear the most so it makes sense to use them as a starting point.