MAYBE YOU PICKED UP SPANISH in another part of the world, where pronunciation, slang, and tradition are completely different. Or maybe you’re coming to the language for the first time in anticipation of an epic trip through Mexico. Either way, here’s a quick and dirty introduction to 14 words and phrases you should definitely get familiar with before checking out all the awesomeness Mexico has to offer.
“Don’t say ‘what’, say ‘mande’” is one of those classic things Mexican moms tell their kids. Even if we’ve never really understood what’s wrong with asking “what” (qué in Spanish), this recurring instruction has stuck with us, and we commonly use mande as a more polite version of the aforementioned word.
So remember, when you think your waiter is asking what type of sauce you want on your enchiladas, but you didn’t quite catch what he said, don’t say “what,” say mande.
This is the first word you’ll hear whenever you make a phone call to anyone in Mexico. It isn’t really a salutation, more just a random word (bueno literally means “good”) we use at the beginning of every call. Only the person receiving the call will say it, and only once. If you answer back with another bueno, things will go all weird. Go ahead and try it!
Maybe the receptionist of your little hostel in downtown Oaxaca won’t answer ‘bueno’ by default… but if he does, you’ll know exactly what to make of that.
A time-based expression that depends entirely on the context and the speaker, ahorita is supposed to express immediacy, but we tend to use it as a temporal wildcard that could be referring to any amount of time between the next few seconds and the next few…let’s say minutes. Now you know what to say when your travel partner impatiently asks when you’ll be ready to hit the bars in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa, and you haven’t even taken a shower yet.
Our short, simple, and effective way to say “be careful.” We use it in situations where immediate action and quick reflexes are required, like when you’re about to step in dog poop, or when you cross the street thinking those cars are going to stop simply because you’re using a crosswalk.
Don’t get confused if your waiter says aguas when bringing you a delicious, but steaming hot, café de olla. He didn’t make a mistake (aguas literally translates as water), he’s just preventing you from a bad burn.
This is a tricky one. It’s normally used to express agreement, but depending on the tone and context it can also mean “hurry up,” “that’s amazing,” “let’s go,” “I wasn’t expecting that,” “it’s alright,” “come on,” “please,” “sounds like a plan,” “watch it,” or “yes.” Practice makes perfect, but remember we also abbreviate this expression to ora, which is also an abbreviation of ahora(“now”), and that there’s always ándale…which is mostly the same, but a little different.
Ready to run up the steps of Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun? Órale!
If your Mexican buddies start calling you güey, that’s probably a good sign. It means they consider you a friend, and you can refer to them in the same way. This is another confusing term that most of the time can be interpreted as “dude,” but can also mean “some guy” (un güey), “your boyfriend” (tu güey), or “you’re really stupid” (estás bien güey). Be careful not to confuseestás bien güey with ¿estás bien, güey? (“are you alright, dude?”).
In Northern Mexico, güey is normally replaced with vato (“dude”), primo (“cousin”), or compa (for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say this one means “dude” again). You’re not gonna hear anyone calling you güey while touring the world famous Baja beaches, that’s for sure.
A short version of con permiso (“excuse me”) that’s used exclusively to make your presence known to the people around you while you maneuver through tight spaces, comper is especially useful at festivals and markets where phrases like comper, ahí va el diablo (“excuse me, the devil’s coming through”) are ubiquitous.
El diablo in this context is not the Lord of Darkness, but the dolly used to transport goods in Mexican markets. And there are a lot of incredible markets in Mexico.
8. Provecho / provechito
Some people translate this expression as “bon appetit,” but this doesn’t seem completely accurate. Provecho is a strange greeting we use to acknowledge people who are about to eat, are already eating, or have just finished their meal. It’s not uncommon to say provecho to complete strangers, especially to every complete stranger you make eye contact with on your way out of that restaurant in Oaxaca where you just ate the best mole poblano of your life.
Provechito is a cute way of saying provecho…you’ll soon realize we have an issue with diminutives. A cute issue, but still.
9. ¿Qué onda?
One of our favourite greeting phrases, qué onda (literally “what a wave”) is the exact equivalent of “What’s up?” The wave can easily be substituted by a fart (qué pedo), a fraud (qué transa), a mushroom (qué hongo), or a roll (qué rollo) without altering its meaning.
Qué onda? Wanna go hit the waves at Puerto Escondido this weekend?
10. Chido / chilo / chingón
This is an easy one. All of these words express that something’s good. Simple as that. Chingón is the best of the three, but it denotes so much awesomeness that some people consider it extremely rude. Chido and chilo are the mild and socially acceptable versions, but still pretty awesome. Chido is used in Central Mexico, while chilo is mostly used in the northern states and is pronounced “shilo.” Wherever you are in the country, though, there will be ample opportunity to pull out this expression.
11. Bien padre
Padre means “cool”…well, it also means “father,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? If you wanna say something’s really cool, you can say está bien padre (“this is really father”) or está padrísimo (“this is super father”). Some other expressions used to say that something’s cool include está de pelos (“this is hairy”) and está con madre (“this is with mother”).
So, whenever someone asks you how was your trip to Barrancas del Cobre, you know exactly what to answer: Padrísimo!
Literally meaning “camera” or “chamber,” this is a common term used to show agreement. More adventurous speakers can substitute it for camarón (“shrimp”). As in:
A: “We should totally go swimming in a cenote after we check out the Maya ruins in Tulum.”
13. El mal del puerco
“The evil of pork” is the common state of drowsiness that overtakes your body after a copious meal. The evilness resides in its ability to dominate a person’s will completely, forcing its victims to take a nap, or coyotito (“a little coyote”), despite previous plans. Chilaquiles, tamales, tacos al pastor…yes, the evil of pork strikes often in Mexico.
Looks like a simple “thank you,” doesn’t it? You’ll eventually notice we use this word in contexts that don’t sound logical at all, like when we’re refusing the offers of street vendors or dealing with those bank employees that insist on providing us with an extra credit card. We’re not really thankful for their efforts…we’re just saying, “No, I don’t want that.” Think about it as a “no, thank you” without the “no.”
Diagnosis: We tend to be extremely polite, and have issues with denials. Don’t you love us already?
Thanks for reading,
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina