A Cuban Glossary

Anyone who speaks a language foreign to their own knows what an embarrassing, ego-crushing, confusing and even dangerous proposition it can be. If you’ve poked around my blog a bit, you know I’ve had my share of missteps, malapropisms, and foot-in-mouth moments. Trust me: it sucks.

I figure I suffer more than most in this foreign-language-learning struggle for three reasons: 1) there’s a lot of static in that part of my brain wired for music and language (luckily I make up for lack of natural ability with pure tenacity); 2) as a writer, words are my medium and I’m spoiled in English, where I have many and varied options to express myself clearly and precisely (not that it always works). When you’re learning a foreign language, for instance, it takes time to learn how to say sneaker, stiletto or ballet flat, obligating you to default to the generic ‘shoe’ in the meantime; and 3) Cuban Spanish is far removed from the español I learned in university, Guatemala and the streets of NYC.

I often advise native Spanish speakers to prepare themselves for a different linguistic experience here, adding that they may encounter problems understanding Cubans. Clearly, asking directions, exchanging pleasantries, or ordering a meal/drink/bit of fellatio will be (or should be) straightforward enough for hispanoparlantes. But once conversations get cooking, seasoned with slang and dichos, oblique (for non-Cubans) historical/cultural/political references, and island particular vernacular, it can get tricky. Few people believe me, let alone heed my counsel (see note 1).

I can hear some readers scoffing across the World Wide Web. But take this exchange for example:

“¿Que bolá asere? Tengo pincha y me hace falta una botella. Tírame un cabo y te doy un pescao.”

Very simply, this translates to: Hey man. I have to get to work and need a lift. Help me out and I’ll give you 10 pesos.

See what I mean? Tricky.

Of course, every country has its own terms for this, that, and the other thing. Vocabulary varies from region to region and between cities as well. For instance, I recently took a straw poll amongst friends from across the USA, asking what they called the type of sandwich sold at Subway. In New York, we call it a hero. In other parts of the country, you’ll hear it referred to as a submarine, a sub, grinder, or po’ boy (which really is in a class by itself, as anyone who has feasted in New Orleans will tell you).

But although we have regional differences on the island, it’s much more complex. This way-with-words business goes beyond variable regional vocabulary since Cubans pepper their Spanish with terms of African origin (like the aforementioned asere); many American English words are in daily use, including lager, homerun, and brother, all uttered in a sultry accent; and entire syllables are regularly dropped (e.g. ño), while other words are contracted (e.g. equivoca’o). Needless to say, this complicates matters, as does Cuban-specific vernacular. Some of these words may be used in other Spanish-speaking countries, but probably not in the same way Cubans use them. Have insights? Drop me a line or submit a comment.

Almendrón – Old US car; almendra means almond. Almendrón is a big almond, which these cars resemble.

Bala, bata, petaca – Cigarette

Caña, fula and tabla – Every day terms, these are used to denote CUC or ‘kooks,’ the hard currency here. Other terms include chavitos (which I hear infrequently in Havana) and morrocota, used exclusively for the 1 CUC coins. ‘Fula’ has other meanings as well; see below.

Curda – Alcohol; can also be used as an adjective for someone who’s drunk.

Faster – Bicycle; also called a chivo.

Fula – Screwed up, twisted, somehow malevolent or damaged. Used to refer to situations or people: “¿Ella? Tremenda fula.”

Gabo – Slang term for house or home; also a diminutive of Gabriel, used most famously for García Márquez.

Guagua – Bus

Jama – Food; grub

Jeva/o – girlfriend/boyfriend

Nescafé – Nothing doing; no way, as in ‘did you two hook up?’ ‘¡Nescafé!

Pincha – Work, job

Run run – Word on the street; rumor; grapevine. Synonyms include radio bemba and la bola.

I could go on (and on), but I’ve got other work to do, deadlines to meet, and dreams to realize.

Me voy en fa’.

Notes
1. Anyone planning a visit here will benefit from learning a few phrases and sayings with the Cuban dichos app.

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23 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad

23 responses to “A Cuban Glossary

  1. Rob Belyea

    Sounds like talking with someone who mixes Yiddish with English.
    What a Schemozzle, eh?

  2. Nayma

    Buenos Dias Conner.

    Que cambió ha dado el idioma que aprendieron mis padres y al que yo aprendí que fue igual. In Miami I feel lost communicating with our people who were educated after the exiles left in the 60s, to the ones educated and came over during Mariel to the balseros and even more recent. But such is the beauty of language that it is an ever changing, evolving way of life adapting to new thinking. I just wish a new English/Spanish (Cuban) dictionary were published. Thanks for the new phrases. I’ll get it one day. Keep it coming!!!!

    Your friend in Miami

  3. maudiaz

    EXCELLENT, as always.

    Being a Spanish native-speaker from Mexico, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

    Speaking/hearing “cubano” is not that easy.

    Here are some that always jump at me:

    Java/javita: plastic bag
    Saya: skirt
    Carmelita: brown!!!
    Bemba: lips
    Menudo: small change ($)
    Jines: pants
    “Tírame una foto”: (throw me?) “Take a picture of me”
    Paladar (for a cuenta-propista restaurant): hey! “Paladar” is the roof of the mouth or palate

    And last, but not least: PINGA :-)

    • Thanks for the input! Also for jeans: mezclia and petusa.

      For me, a plastic bag is a jaba with a b (and Ive had a couple of Cubans complain to me recently how people are more frequently mixing up v and b)

      and pinga – one of my all time faves and one I use often!

  4. Caney

    Regarding “faster”… I’ve also heard “fasten” for travelling by plane (as in fasten your seatbelts”)

    “Gabo – Slang term for house or home”. It’s “gao”
    ;)
    Good job. Keep it coming!

    • Thanks for reading and writing in Caney. Never heard ‘fasten’. That IS rich – do you spend a lot of time in the Oriente?! (joke a la habanera).

      Seriously: Your insight (and corrections!) always welcome.

      • Caney

        You’re more than welcome. And no, Santiago I only visited twice in 93 and since then, just Havana, my dear Havana. Ask around for “fasten”, you’ll see.

        Two more corrections (sorry!): mezclilla and pitusa.

        (BTW, I love to see Cuba Libro page, so many great things happening! Congratulations! :D

  5. I love seeing how Spanish is different in every country. I remember being in Chile and explaining to my Spanish coworkers what the Chilean slang meant- and having no clue how any of their Spanish idioms made any sense at all.
    P.S. In several South American countries, guagua means baby (like infant). That’d be a mix-up indeed!

  6. In addition to Radio Bemba, there’s Tele Chisme (literally “Gossip Vision”)

    And Que Bolá? which means “what’s happening”. I know a pizza place by that name on J street just below 23rd.

  7. tony

    Cuban is becoming a different language:
    Last month I learned a few new (for me) expressions: “sin mariconeria” (without gay behaviour) and “tirame” (Phone me)

    • ‘Mariconeria’ does literally mean ‘faggot-ness’ but people here use it more generally to mean without any slippery moves, trickery or waffling. Homophobic? Yeah. I should probably stop saying it.

  8. LuisC

    I’m Cuban, but a lot of those terms/phrases are new to me, as if they were foreign . They were not in used at the time I lived there, decades ago. However, some like pincha I knew, asere too. Although when I lived there, asere was not used as much as it is today. Of course, guagua is the traditional word for bus, not only in Cuba, but in the Canary Islands and the Dominican Republic as well. Jeva is old as well, used in some other Latin American countries too. Almendrón, bala, petaca etc are new words. No idea they used the word pescao, actually pescado (fish) to mean 10 pesos, or tabla in connection with money. I still don’t know what fa means, as in Me voy en fa. Those are completely new phrases. Of course, the last time I lived in Cuba was 43 years ago. I visited twice after that, for three weeks each time, the last time over 15 yrs. ago and did not have enough time to get acquainted with the new vocabulary. I’m sure new words/phrases have been created in the last 15 years.

    • Hola Luis. Yes, always evolving down here, however slowly. Thanks for your comment. Me voy en fa refers to do, re, mi, fa….as in, Im out of here in 4 seconds. Have you heard: vamos echando?

  9. LuisC

    Hi Conner,
    Yes, I’ve heard vamos echando, that’s an old one. Thanks for the info re fa. So that’s what it means! Is No es fácil still used a lot? When I visited, everyone used that for everything, even for ending conversations.

  10. viajerauk

    Conner: it’s a never-ending story, all right. I think at least 75% of the expressions in my much-beloved and well-thumbed edition of EL HABLA POPULAR CUBANA DE HOY (Rogelio Santiesteban) are now derelict, and the book only came out in 1987! What the world really needs is a Cuban equivalent to urbandictionary.com, maybe.

    PS my understanding of ‘tabla’ as applied to money is that it means 100 (whether CUC or CUP or euros or US$ or whatever).

    One other favourite of mine though I don’t know how exclusively cuban it is: CHAMA for baby, child, kid, junior in the family.

  11. Yemaya

    The word for jeans is ‘pitusa’ not ‘petusa’.

    The story I heard was that when the very first batch of blue denim showed up in Cuba, every pair had a label on the back saying ‘PITT USA’. Hence Pitusa!

    It’s like ‘Panda’ in Cuba means a Chinese TV rather than the animal….

  12. dany

    I left in 2006 and my sister who is here on a visitor’s visa, tells me phrases and words that I don’t understand, slang on the street is changing super fast.
    My Spanish is quite proper (mom is a Spanish teacher and I love to read) and people don’t think I’m Cuban when they hear me but I love Cuban slang (like Pinga, of course forbidden at home growing up, or carajo, the only curse word my mom allowed was caramba)
    Someone mentioned Carmelita above, another Cuban friend of mine had a Dominican friend laugh at her over the use of Carmelita and told her she needed to learn Spanish. Then I looked it up on the diccionary of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española and this is what I found:
    carmelita.

    (Del it. carmelita, y este der. de Carmelo, monte de Israel).

    1. adj. Se dice del religioso de la Orden del Carmen, fundada en el siglo XIII. U. t. c. s.

    2. adj. carmelitano.

    3. (Por alus. al del hábito de los carmelitas). adj. Bol., Chile y Cuba. Se dice del color pardo, castaño claro o acanelado.

    4. f. Flor de la capuchina, que se suele echar en las ensaladas.

    So, Bolivia, Chile and Cuba make regional usage of the word, it exists :)

    Philology was my fav subject in school :) and defending Cuban Spanish is a hobby :)

    Glad to have your blog back, I’m going to Cuba in August after 8 years, I’ll try to stop by at your libreria

  13. Yusi

    How about: “vamos a descargar” which means let’s go party. If I remember correctly the word/slang “descargar” was around 2009? Maybe it isn’t anymore….

    Another one is “morocota” which is the 1 CUC coin. And when dollars used to circulate in Cuba (before the CUC), “fula” was the word for dollars…

    • Hola!

      Descargar is still heard once in a while; also used for venting/cathartic bitching. Ive been hearing ‘esta quemando’ lately for partying.

      Love morocota (mentioned in the post) – it’s a great word.

  14. sarah j

    Hello! I realized this is a longshot of a question here, but do you know of any apps or websites that offer cuban spanish phrases with a verbal recording to listen to? I downloaded the app you recommended but since I don’t speak Spanish, I also don’t read it. Was hoping the app would have verbal recordings — perhaps I missed something? Thank you in advance! I’m looking forward to my first visit soon!!

    Cheers

    • Hi there. Unfortunately, I dont but since Spanish is phonetic and Cubans are pretty gracious with people at least trying to speak their language (although I STILL get made fun of frequently, after 12+ years!) if you throw out a couple of the dichos on that app, you’ll get barrels of laughs and help. have a great trip!

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