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