Language is the key to understanding any culture. It is a gateway to understanding how people communicate with each other, it allows you to unravel the emotional foreground of a culture and the historical legacy left behind in the everyday colloquial expressions.
Communication is a two-way street which should be embraced and not ignored. Of course, misunderstandings happen. But, the inability to communicate on a level playing field when we live or spent time in a country which is not our own, in my opinion, results in the loss of a great opportunity for developing intimate relationships, both professional and personal, and discovering an important part of ourselves. There is also the aspect of not wanting to appear dumbfounded when spoken to.
With this is in mind, here is a quick guide, including simple phonetics, words and expressions in context as well as the etymology of slang that you will hear time and again during your stay in Mexico.
Doesn’t mean: “Hey”
Does mean: “Dude” (US) / “Mate” (UK)
In context: Ay güey! Los tacos de la Doña Trini están bien lejos, güey / “Dude, tacos from Doña Trini are too far!”
Etymology: Derived from the term buey, a castrated bull (an ox), used for meat, sacrifice and for plowing and sowing fields. It had come to mean “fool” in Mexico and was applied to both men and women, but due to its high frequency and use in various contexts it has lost its offensive character.
Phonetics: /kai on-dah/
Doesn’t mean: “What wave?”
Does mean: “What’s up?” (US) / “You alright?” (UK)
In context: Qué onda güey? Nada, aquí trabajando / “What’s up dude?” “Just working”
Etymology: Its use and popularity in colloquial Mexican sayings came about in the 1970s with the hippies. They basically meant to say “What’s in the atmosphere?”
Descriptions and directions
Doesn’t mean: “Sheila” or Steve Irwin’s reference to the female of the species
Does mean: “Beer” (International)
In context: Dos chelas, por favor / “Two beers, please.”
Etymology: Derived from the Mayan word chel which means “blue”, originally people with blue eyes and white skin were known as chelas, it was later applied to all those who were blonde. This was then associated with lager, which in Spanish is known as cerveza rubia, i.e. “blonde” beer.
Doesn’t mean: “Samba” as said by someone with a lisp
Does mean: “Work, Job” (International)
In context: ¡Tengo mucha chamba! or Voy a chambear este sábado / “I have a lot of work to do” “I’m working this Saturday”
Etymology: “Chamba” is actually said to come from the 1940s when a wave of Latin American workers immigrated to the US. Back then, most latinos worked in the fields and these jobs were given to them by the “Chamber of Commerce” of the area. Since the latinos at the time spoke little English, they deformed the “Chamber” to chamba.
Doesn’t mean: “Mirror”
Does mean: “Exact, Precise” / “Nearly, Soon, Almost” / “Main, or Important, or Dead center” / “Right on”
In context: Ya mero acabo, esperame or Coco Bongo está en el mero centro de Playa / “I’m about to finish, wait for me” “Coco Bongo is in the very center of Playa”
Etymology: The origin of the use of the word is unknown, although the root of the word mer- in Indo European times was used to describe something shiny or brilliant. It is also derived from the latin merus (pure, not mixed) it was used to describe things without importance. Similar to the English “The mere, or, very fact that…” Over time it has been used in a number of context, each use taking on their own meaning.
Doesn’t mean: Strawberry
Does mean: “Preppy” (US)/ “Posh” (UK)
In context: Ella no come tacos en la calle porque es muy fresa / “She doesn’t eat tacos on the street because she is too preppy”
Etymology: It was common in the 1960s in Mexico to describe very conservative teenagers who wouldn’t drink and were respectful of family traditions. In the 80s the meaning changed to define yuppies.
Doesn’t mean: Popular snack covered in orange dust
Does mean: “Cool, Awesome” (US) “Nice, Great” (UK)
In context: ¡Este carro está bien chido, güey! or Vamos a comer tacos, güey. ¡Chido! / “This car is cool, dude” or “Let’s eat some tacos, dude” “Awesome!”
Etymology: The most accepted theory is that it came on the migratory waves of the 19th century from Asturias in Spain. In Asturian, the word xidu means beautiful and nice.
Phonetics: /noh man-chez/
Doesn’t mean: “Don’t stain!”
Does mean: “No way!” (US)/ ”You’re joking?” (UK)
In Context: ¡Viene Madonna a Cancún! ¡No manches güey! / “Madonna is coming to Cancun!” “No way, dude!”
Etymology: First used on Televisa as a more politically correct form of a vulgar expression with the same meaning.
Thanks for reading,
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina