Saturday, February 8, 2014

Slang Blade

The other day a neighbor who is trying as hard as I am to improve her Spanish asked me if I knew what changuitos means.

Elizabeth told me some while back that chango means monkey, and since "ito" often turns a noun into its diminutive, I had my answer. "Little monkeys," I said.

Not bad, but not quite right. Some word player in the dim past noticed that two crossed fingers looks like a couple of tiny monkeys, and today changuitos in the right context is slang for "crossing my fingers," or "I hope so."

There's language for you. You might think after you've got 100 "power verbs" and the past and future tense under control that you'll be mistaken for somebody who really knows how to speak it. The fun hasn't even started.

Actually, I already had some vernacular for "I hope so." Around here and no doubt throughout the Spanish speaking world they say "ojala" -- accent on the last syllable and the j pronounced like a guttural h -- to express "a wish for a future event to occur."

That's quoted from the Wiktionary definition of the Arabic "inshallah," which translates more or less as "if God wills it." So ojala descends from one of the cultural fragments left behind when the Spaniards evicted the Moors, and now they've all got millions saying it in Mexico, including expats like me.

Basic Spanish is certainly pleasing to the ear, but like any other language its real richness lies well beyond the scope of any conversational course.

Browsing a list of slang I came across online, for example, I found a cluster of expressions involving the egg. The word "egg" is used among other things as a stand-in for cojones or balls, which I am guessing is why the phrase "a huevo" can mean "by force."

In polite company, you can substitute "a producto de gallina" (by hen product) or even "a producto avicola" (by avian product) to use the same crude metaphor.

Mexicans are at least as good at euphemism as we are. Reading Noticias Puerto Vallarta, a local online news site, I came across a story last week about a drunk arrested on the beachfront malecon after he had disrobed in broad daylight, treating onlookers to a full frontal view of his partes nobles.

Like "egg," the words for mother (madre) and father (padre) are powerfully symbolic and have produced their own families of slang expressions, some seemingly at odds with each other.

"A toda madre", for example, means great. But "una madre" is "a nothing, a zip, a zilch." I picked up the commonly heard "que padre" from a Spanish classmate last year and feel bold enough to use it now and then. It means "how cool," and if you're really enthusiastic about whatever it is, you can say "padrisimo."

I found a lot of speculation but no authoritative last word on why the street likes adapting words like these so often for so many purposes. But there are plenty of other expressions that are obvious.

For example, the phrase "ponte las pilas" translates literally as "put on your batteries," but the better translation is "get a move on."

Borrar means "to erase." Making it reflexive turns it into borrarse, which translates as "to erase oneself." You might use that verb to mean "to make oneself disappear" or in the equivalent English slang, "to split."

I found another infinitive in the newspaper the other day that appears in the dictionary as an ordinary verbal citizen, but my theory is that it started long long ago as slang.

The news story was about the wreck of a small plane and the death of its two passengers. The verb is "estrellarse." The word estrella means star, so the verb seems to mean literally "to star oneself." In the dictionary, however, it means to crash or smash into something, i.e. to go splat.

That seems disrespectful of the feelings of the bereaved, but I'm practicing etymology without a license and had better stop now.

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