Listen in to a conversation between Colombians and you are likely to hear quite a few references to a variety of animals. Outside of the countryside, however, such terms are not often used literally.
Rather, Colombians have incorporated a large number of animal names into colloquial expressions and slang, which have meanings quite different to how they initially appear.
Check out the selection below to see what I mean:
Mono/a – A Monkey
Look up “mono” in a dictionary and it will tell you that this is the Spanish word for “monkey” or “ape”. In Colombia, however, the word is used to refer to a blonde person.
Be advised that the definition of “blonde” hair is really very broad; hair colours which would elsewhere be considered fair or light brown will likely fall into the blonde category in Colombia.
To talk about an actual monkey, use instead the local term “mico”.
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Camello – A Camel
A term meaning “hard work”. It can also be used as a verb “camellar” (lit. “to camel”) meaning “to work a lot”. Perhaps a bit like the English colloquial phrase “to bust one’s hump”.
Perro – A Dog
As in other parts of Latin America, the word for “dog” is also used to described a man who is a bit of a player. There are a fair few of these types knocking around in Colombia.
The phrase “echar los perros”, which literally translates as “to throw the dogs”, is a slang way of saying “to come on to somebody”.
Chiva – A (female) Goat
In addition to being a term for a female goat, “chiva” is the word for a brightly coloured, wood-topped buses that were traditionally common in the Colombian countryside. Nowadays, they are mainly used in cities as party buses.
Gallo – A Rooster
The expression “mamar gallo” (lit. “to suck a rooster”) is, in much of the country, a very colloquial expression meaning “to wind [someone] up”. Be warned though, in parts of the Caribbean coast this same phrase has a significantly more sexual connotation.
Pato – A Duck
Sometimes heard a slang way to say someone is stupid, or has done something silly. The phrase, “Uyy, mucho pato“, as appears in the image above, would mean then “Oh, how silly” or “Oh, what a stupid thing to do”).
Vaca – A Cow
The word “vaca” is probably most common in the popular phrase “hacer una vaca” or “to make a cow”. The literal translation really doesn’t provide much insight into what the expression means. It describes the common practice of everyone “chipping in” for a purchase, or of “putting money into the kitty” for something e.g. buying a bottle of rum on a night out.
Conejo – A Rabbit
Like the above, “hacer conejo”, “to make a rabbit”, is also a money-related phrase. If a Colombian says this, they are communicating that somebody has used a service (or consumed something), but has then left without paying.
Pollo – A Chicken
In Medellin, “pollo/a” is sometimes used as means to refer to a young person or child.
More bizarrely, the expression “¿quién pidió pollo?” (lit. “Who ordered chicken?”) is heard throughout Colombia as a light-hearted way to say someone is looking good / is attractive. It is generally used in a jovial way, rather than as a serious compliment.
For example, if a man was dressed up in a nice suit on the way out to dinner, and he ran into a couple of female friends, one of them might say to him “uyy, ¿quién pidió pollo?” (maybe like saying: “Well hello there hot stuff!” or “Well don’t you look fancy!”).
Oso – A Bear
The phrase “¡Qué oso!” (lit. “what a bear!”) is popular in Bogotá as a way of saying “how embarrassing!”. So, for instance, if you’re telling a friend how you just fell over right in front of a girl you like, they may respond with this phrase.
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The whole time you’re in Colombia — studying, attending classes and practicing your Spanish out in the big wide world — you should be constantly improving. I’ve always found Colombians to be very tolerant of those still brushing up their Spanish. Between friends, however, the opinions expressed are more honest and verge on the brutal.
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I’m never entirely sure of the source of this claim, but I’ve been told on many occasions that Colombian Spanish is the world’s most ‘neutral’ sort. While I can certainly vouch for the fact that the Colombian accent is clear and undoubtedly pleasant sounding, the actual use of Spanish language is not 100% ‘neutral’ in the strictest sense of the word. There is a lot of slang. Chat to any local and you’ll quickly see what I’m talking about.