When it comes to Colombian slang, oftentimes there is no one definitive translation of a given term that will fit all situations and all contexts. Confusingly enough, the meaning of many of these words shifts about a lot depending on the situation in which they’re used.
This is especially true of the word “, which has (at least) five completely different meanings that alter according to the conversational context.
The same is also true of “vaina”; a highly versatile and multipurpose Colombian slang word that is generally held up as the most widely used and most typical of all “colombianismos”. We’ll look at how to use the term here.
Meanings of “Vaina”
In most instances when Colombians say “vaina” its meaning is very close to the English words “stuff” or “thing”. Yet, as we’ll see in a moment, this is not always the case.
Below, you’ll find a few separate uses of the word, together with some sample sentences to illustrate the kind of contexts in which it is heard.
Use #1: A Generic Word for a Situation or Object
As just mentioned, “vaina” is generally intended as a Colombian version of the English words “thingy”, “stuff”, “thingamabob”, and other similarly vague words. In conversation, you might hear this used as follows:
Oye ¿qué coctél pidiste al final?
No sé. Una vaina con piña
Translation: 1. “Hey, what cocktail did you order in the end?”; 2. “I dunno. Some pineapple thing”.
In a different conversation, a Colombian is talking about a new shop that has opened in town and says:
Allá venden comida, ropa y un montón de vainas más
Meaning: “They sell food, clothes, a whole load of other stuff there”.
Use #2: To Talk About Small Problems
Less frequently, “vaina” is heard as a description for problems or difficult situations. You’re most likely to come across this usage in the phrase “¡Qué vaina!”, like in the following exchange:
Tenemos que llegar hoy a Cartagena, pero el último bus ya salió
In English, this would be something like 1. “We need to get to Cartagena today, but the last bus has already left” 2. “That sucks!”.
Another example of this same meaning:
Uy qué vaina, se me olvidó traer la comida
This would translate as “Ah no, what a pain – I forgot to bring the food!”.
In addition, you can describe yourself as having got into difficulties by using the verb “envainarse”. Equally, when you manage to get out of this tricky situation again, you can talk about this with the verb: “desenvainarse”. The elegance of Colombian Spanish.
Use #3: To Refer to Irritations
The phrase “echar vaina” is also occasionally used to mean “to be irritating or annoying”, in a way not dissimilar from how “molestar” is used in standard Spanish. For example:
Déjame en paz y no me eches vaina
A Colombian way to say “Leave me alone and stop bothering me”.
Use #4: To Say “Not a Chance!” / “No Way!”
A final expression using “vaina” is the local phrase “ni de vaina“, meaning “under no circumstances” or “no way!”. For example:
¿Vas al cumpleaños de tu ex este finde?
¡Ni de vaina!
That is: 1. “Are you going to your ex’s birthday (party) this weekend?” 2. “No way!”.
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Quick Tips for More Natural Spanish
We’ve all seen those language courses which guarantee that you’ll be speaking “fluent Spanish in 60 days”. Sound great don’t they? Yet — in common with ‘get rich quick’ schemes or ‘effortless’ weight loss programmes — these courses, more often than not, promise much, but deliver little. To obtain real fluency in another language there is, regrettably, little substitute for hard graft.
English Words That Colombians Love
Speaking natural-sounding Spanish is all about learning how to use the exact same words that locals do, in the exact same contexts. Your teacher or textbook might tell you the correct way to speak, but on the streets of Bogota or Cali, many of these phrases just won’t cut it. Rather than obsessing over how to say things in a technically perfect way, my advice would be to embrace the local variations and imitate them as far as possible.