Everyone knows boy is niño in Spanish. You perhaps learned this bit within the first hour of your Spanish program. Easy, right? But this is what makes it less interesting. What good is a word that’s littered all over the place for anyone to pick no matter how bad they are at Spanish otherwise? We need something more fun. Something less well-known to the outsiders but at the same time something the native speakers prefer in their day-to-day conversations over the stalk word that we already know. This post is all about the ways them native speakers refer to their “boys” in the street, just so your time with Spanish never goes dead-beat.
One City 10 Words!
We’re talking Mexico City here. This came to me from a friend I once had from a western suburb of DF – short for Distrito Federal, Mexico’s answer to America’s DC – who, super-kind as she was, took the time to explain to me how the word niño had leastwise 10 other alternatives in her neck of the woods! It’s not that niño isn‘t used by the natives at all. It’s just not the term used for every kid in every context. There are subtle nuances that dictate which word you’d go with. One thing unique about DF (pronounced /day-effey/) is that this is the only place where you’ll hear niño being used for grown-ups as well! Let’s get acquainted with all the other options we have while in the good old Mexico.
Although you might come across this one in many Spanish-learning primers, I would recommend staying away from this unless you wish to sound at least a generation older. Chamaco is Mexican colloquialism for kid but also out of fashion these days. The word also refers to a boyfriend in casual contexts but even this usage is outdated now. Equally outdated is its feminine version, chamaca.
Now this here is an interesting word. Chavo is as Mexican as it gets. Chava is its feminine form. Typically, chavo refers to a guy but depending on the circumstances, can also be used for one’s boyfriend. The more standard term would be novio but chavo has better street-cred in Mexico at least in the circle of youngsters. The word enjoys currency not only in Mexico but also the rest of Central America. In fact, ageless as women seem to be in Mexico, chava can be used for any woman regardless of her age.
That being said, I must also warn you that chavo is considered a tad sub-standard and using it might betray you as an uneducated Mexican. Another interesting usage of this word is as slang for money. It’s like how you’d use dough, moolah, and a whole bunch of other cool words in English. So, a cool expression you could learn is no tener un chavo (to be penniless).
This one is again, not exactly slang. If anything, this is probably the most overused word for boy to non-native ears. Chico is essentially an adjective and translates into small, tiny, or young. That should explain its usage for young kids as a noun. However, despite how common the word sounds, it’s surprisingly archaic in Mexico and used only by members of the older generations! That being said, chico can still be heard a lot among the Spanish-speakers in the United States, where they use the word for anyone regardless of age – more like dude or buddy. Chica is the feminine version and I strongly suspect, the source of the English term chick, although not really sure.
Along with chavo and tipo, this is the most commonly used word for boy in Mexico. It’s a colloquialism comparable to buddy in not only Mexico but also Honduras and Guatemala. The feminine form cuata is equally popular for girls. The word can also be used as a vocative like you would use buddy in English while directly addressing a friend.
Another use of cuate is for fraternal twins. In this case the word can be used as both noun as well as adjective. So, your twin brother can be your hermano cuate or just cuate. In case you’re wondering, a more standard term for twins is gemelo.
Just like chamaco, usage of escuincle – escuincla for females – is also on the decline these days and can only be heard in mostly rural settings, if at all. Even when used, the word typically refers to bratty street urchins rather than other more sophisticated kids. The word also exists as an adjective meaning young.
Escuincle doesn’t sound much like your typical Spanish word and that’s probably because it isn’t. The word derives from itzcuīntli, Classical Nahuatl for dog. This is probably why escuincle can also refer to the runt of a litter in the context of animals. And this is also why you should be careful not to offend a parent by using it for their kid, however annoying they might seem.
Nothing defines Mexican Spanish the way this word does. Used exactly like you would buddy, bro, man, dude, or mate in English, the word enjoys currency all over Mexico and transcends all social and economic barriers. Güey derives from buey, Spanish for bull – a castrated one to be specific. Jeez, that sounds mighty offensive, right? Well, that’s what it was meant to be originally when the word directly translated into stupid or idiot. With time, however, much of its vitriol has been lost in translation and the word is as safe to use as any in Mexico.
Having said that, the word is still considered rather uneducated which is why you should limit its usage to friends and acquaintances. It is also considered poor taste for a youngster to use this word for someone senior to him. It’s like you wouldn’t use the word buddy, even though it’s not offensive, for a person your dad’s age, would you?
This one, again, should sound pretty familiar to even rookie learners. Essentially used as an adjective, the word means young or youthful. However, it can also be used as a noun and when it is, it means young boy. Well, that was a no-brainer, wasn’t it? But here’s the fun part. The word is often used for strangers regardless of their age out of respect. So you could call a 50-year-old joven even though he is anything but joven, age-wise! The word is also used in schools and colleges while addressing the students.
Yet another use-case is when you’re at a restaurant. There, the word can be used to address a server regardless of their age. The interesting bit here is that while in English it would be mildly offensive to address a senior as something like “young man,” it’s not only perfectly acceptable but rather the norm in Mexican Spanish! However, other than these scenarios, the word is not very commonly heard in the streets. By the way, the word stays unchanged in either gender. If anything changes, it’s the article – el joven becomes la joven.
I am pretty sure many of you are familiar with this term. Muchacho is as commonly heard on TV as niño. The word definitely refers to a young boy or a youngster. However, to many Mexicans that usage is rather dated. Incidentally, muchacho also refers to a male housekeeper or servant and this usage isn’t dated yet. The female version of muchacho is muchacha and is also very much in currency and refers to exactly what you’d expect.
Here’s some fun trivia around this word for you. Muchacho is also used in the Southern Cone where it can refer to a shoehorn! In Chile it’s a wedge while in the Andes it’s a miner’s lamp. To many Latin Americans, the word also refers to a clamp.
Tipo is as common as chavo and cuate in Mexico, which means extremely common. Technically, the word means type (duh). However, in the streets, it translates into anything from guy to dude and from bloke to bro. The feminine form, tipa, is used exactly the same way as chick is in English.
While we’re at it, let’s also touch upon other things this word means in non-colloquial terms. One meaning is figure when speaking of a woman’s body; or physique in the context of men. In the context of money, it can translate into rate, e.g. tipo de cambio (exchange rate).
Now here’s a funny one. Viejo directly translates into old. And yet the word is heavily used throughout Mexico for younger people as well! Of course, oldies are the primary subjects of viejo and that includes parents – much as you would use old man for your father. However, the word can often be facetiously used in reference to a younger person as well. This is particularly the case with vieja. Thus, you could use vieja for your mom as well as your novia!
Exhausted with all these options? Now, go slap the person who told you Spanish lacks variety. And this isn’t all – There’s leastwise as many more variants for this word in Spanish once you start venturing further south. But that’s a story for another day. Think I missed any? Please do let me know in the comments below if you have a favorite Mexican term that I forgot to include in this list.