I already did an entire post on the myriad translations for boy in Mexican Spanish. However, since Mexican is not the only Spanish variant out there, it’s time I balanced the scale lest you accuse me of being too Mexico-centric. If the Mexicans have at the very least 11 different words for boy, the rest of the Spanish-speaking world has no less than 10. And that’s just scratching the surface because I’m reasonably sure there are plenty more that I, as an outsider, am not even aware of. Nevertheless, nine should be a good enough number for a start. So, let’s get going.
Chibolo is the most commonly used term for teenage boys in Peru. I have no idea where the word came from but it’s certainly not something you’ll hear much elsewhere. Not in this sense, leastwise. You may hear chibolo in parts of Central America and the Andes but not for boys. In those parts, the word refers to a bump or a swelling of some kind.
The word can often be heard used as a vocative exactly the way you’d use kid to address a, well, kid in English. Feel free to use the word as you please while in Peru as it does not have much of a stigma attached to it. Calling a kid chibolo isn’t going to make you look uneducated or uncivilized, not at least to my knowledge. Just be sure to switch to chibola in case it’s a girl.
Why did chico even make the list? I mean, isn’t it universal? Yes it is. But the reason I included it anyway is that the word is particularly favored over niño in Argentina. In standard Spanish, chico can also be used as an adjective and when it is, it translates into small, little, or young. In some parts of the very creative Spanish-speaking world, the word can also refer to a game of cards or snooker!
Chico, as a word for boy or kid, also enjoys quite a currency in Spain (except in the Canaries and the south) and Cuba. Although not terribly polite in those regions, the word isn’t gonna get you crucified either.
I have also heard girls use chico for their boyfriends, a more standard term being novio. Of course, men can do the same for their novias with chica. Alright, I digress. What you should take away from here is that chico is better than niño when you’re in Argentina.
Oh and remember muchacha? That’s feminine for muchacho, one of the myriad terms for boy. In most parts of the Guatemalan highlands and in Peru, muchacha is often heard being used for a live-in maid. But I would strongly advise you against following suit because it’s not considered terribly polite. A more polite version would be chica. So there you go, another good use for this word.
This one is from El Salvador and, occasionally, areas around it. Cipote is mostly used while addressing a kid exactly like you’d use the very word kid in English. This usage is also not uncommon to the Caribbean although El Salvador is where it enjoys the highest usage. If you’re any bit familiar with the linguistics of the New World, you would probably guess the word isn’t exactly Spanish and comes from one of the several indigenous languages of the region.
Other than this, cipote has a whole range of other meanings as an adjective that might interest you. For example, in familiar settings in the Caribbean and the Andes, the word can mean stupid or dumb. In Central America, where El Salvador belongs, the word can also mean chubby or plump.
Yet another peculiar use, which also happens to be one of my favorites, is as the set phrase cipote de meaning great. For example, a great book could be un libro estupendo or cipote de libro. This usage is, however, confined to the Andean regions. What takes the cake though is what they did with the word in Spain where it’s a very offensive slang reference to a penis!
In standard Spanish, enano translates into dwarf or midget. Think Tyrion Lannister. The Imp. And often, the word carries a pejorative vibe. However, in Argentinean colloquialism, enano also refers to a kid. The usage is same as that of rugrat, tyke, or kid in English.
Enano can also be used as an adjective for dwarf, e.g. planetas enanos (dwarf planets). Speaking of Argentina, have you ever heard of this band called Los Enanitos Verdes? The name literally translates into The Green Dwarves or The Little Green Men. Note that enanito is just a cutesy diminutive of enano. They are my absolute favorites when it comes to Rock en Latin (Latin Rock) and you can check out some of their masterpieces here.
Here’s a fun idiom using enano: Pasárselo como un enano (to have a great time or to enjoy). The boringly standard term for this would be disfrutar. But who uses standard Spanish when you have such cool colloquial alternatives as this one? Granted it’s a bit of a mouthful, but you can’t deny its “cool quotient” when you want to sound as native as possible.
This is Guatemala’s answer to Mexico’s escuincle. In case you’re wondering, escuincle is what many Mexicans refer to a bratty kid as. This is exactly how Guatemalans use the word ishto. Do bear in mind though that the word is not used all over the country and even when it is, doesn’t always carry the same intensity. If it’s a girl, you’d obviously use ishta.
Speaking of ishto, here’s a fun trivia for you: In Guatemala, the word features as a first name too. One example is Ishto Jueves, a popular musician from Guatemala. You might not have heard of him if you’re not much into Guatemalan music but he’s good. Give him a listen, you might actually like what he does.
Remember cipote from El Salvador? Well, pibe is its Argentinean cousin. More specifically, the word belongs to Buenos Aires and can refer to any kid as long as they’re under 20. In case your subject is a girl, you use piba instead of pibe. Being immediate neighbors, Uruguayans are also often heard using this term. If you happened to use the word further up north, say, in Central America, they might understand what you’re implying but will immediately assume you’re from Argentina. On the other hand, if you try it in the Caribbean, they wouldn’t even know if you were speaking Spanish!
Pibe has an interesting origin. Although the word is so closely associated with Argentina, it originally came from pebete which itself is a corruption of Catalan pevet! This is perhaps why Argentineans also use pebete as an alternative colloquialism. And that’s not all. You can also hear words like purrete, nene, and enano, all referring to the same thing – boy.
Tipo is also quite common in parts of Mexico. It’s very much like how you’d use guy or fellow in English. Goes without saying, tipa is the feminine version. The reason I mention tipo here is not because it enjoys heavy usage throughout Latin America. I mention it because it’s not a very polite word to use when you’re in Guatemala. In fact, if you have watched enough telenovelas, you’d probably notice that whenever they use the words tipo or tipa for someone it’s often accompanied with something sarcastic or disdainful.
The word, as far as I can tell, is also recognized in Spain. However, just like in Guatemala, it carries a less-than-polite connotation and is best avoided. By the way, the Spaniards have another variant of tipo that’s even more offensive. It’s tipejo. Do remember, though, that tipo has other legitimate meanings as well and in those contexts, it’s perfectly safe to use it. For example, it can mean type. Or figure. Or rate. These meanings are also universally understood and accepted.
This one is more Spain than Latin America. Typically, chaval refers to a kid. However, you can also use the word for someone much older as long as you’re both the same age-group. The English equivalent could be anything from lad to dude and from buddy to kid. If it’s a girl, the word is chavala.
The word is said to have its origins in Romani chavo and is related to the English word chav. Romani is the native tongue of the millions of Roma gypsies scattered throughout Europe. In Spain, they’re called los gitanos. If they could give us Flamenco, I’m pretty sure they could have given us chaval too.
Tío? Aren’t we talking kids and youngsters here? Doesn’t tío mean uncle? What gives? Relax, this is just how colloquialism works. In Spain, it’s common to use tío for young men and tía for young women in various casual contexts. It’s just like you would use fellow or dude in English. Bear in mind, though, that this usage of tío is not common anywhere outside of Spain; so, calling your Mexican friend tío might sound a tad awkward.
Do also remember that the word is going to sound a bit derogatory if used in formal settings. Just limit to casual conversations with friends and acquaintances and you should be safe.
So that would be it for now. These 9 words are by no means all that there is. But these are certainly the most common ones in use. If you’ve ever traveled to a Spanish-speaking country and have come across anything fun not listed here, please tell us about it in the comments below!