Even accomplished Spanish speakers can be perplexed by some of the conversations between Pablo Escobar (pictured) and his criminal associates in the popular Netflix series ‘Narcos’.
Based, as it is, mainly in the Colombian city of Medellin, most of the characters speak using the distinctive local brand of Spanish. This features a liberal sprinkling of parlache; a specific strand of slang which originated among Medellin’s criminal underworld, before gradually migrating into the mainstream.
Today, these terms have become a staple in informal conversations between people from all sections of society – not just the small proportion that are mafiosos.
When seeking to understand the Spanish in the series, we have some assistance from the good people at Netflix who have been kind enough to subtitle all the local slang.
Sadly, no such assistance is available in real life conversations with paisas (as residents of Medellin and the surrounding region are called), meaning you might struggle with this Spanish outside the context of watching online episodes.
To remedy this, I present some brief explanations of some of the unique areas of Colombian Spanish and slang which you’ll come across in this series, and probably in real life too.
Let’s start with some of the everyday slang expressions that can be heard in a whole range of different situations, not just those involving criminal types:
A word with a variety of different meanings, but in ‘Narcos’ it is mostly used when talking about someone particularly talented or exceptionally able. “¡Usted es un berraco!” means something like “you’re a legend!”.
An extremely popular word that means anything in the area of “yes”, “OK”, “good”, “right” etc. Basically, an affirmative response to something or to indicate that you’ve understood. Where in Spain they would say “vale” for these purposes, in Colombia they are infinitely more likely to use “listo”.
It works as a response to so many things, but here are a few examples:
- 1. “Saca las cosas del carro” 2. “Listo”; (1. “Get the stuff out the car” 2. “OK”)
- 1. “Nos vamos a las 8” 2. “Listo”; (1. “We’re going at 8pm” 2. “Cool”)
- 1. “Si te parece, vamos a comer más tardecito” 2. “Listo” (1. “If it’s OK with you, we’ll eat a bit later” 2. “Fine”).
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Another very common slang phrase, especially in Medellin. This expression doesn’t have an exact translation, but means something like “sure”, or “OK” or “go ahead”.
It’s similar to the above, but slightly more enthusiastic. So, if your friend asks if you want to go drink a few beers, for instance, you can respond by saying “¡hágale!”. This would be more like say “yea, let’s do it!”, as opposed to “Alright” or “OK” which would be the rough translations of using “listo” as your response.
Used to describe “chilled” or “relaxed” people, but it can also be heard as an alternative word for “tranquilo” i.e. a way to tell someone to be calm.
- 1. “me preocupa que todavía no haya llegado la mercancía” (“I’m concerned that the goods still haven’t arrived”)
- 2. “Fresco, está que llega” (“Relax. They’re just about to arrive”).
A popular way for guys to address each other. Short for “mi hijo” or “my boy”. If thrown into greetings, it makes them sound extra Colombian e.g. “¿Quiubo m’ijo?” is the local equivalent of “Wassup bro?”.
Like the above, “’ome” is another term used when talking with your buddies. It is short for “hombre” and is heard in that most paisa of exclamations: “¡ave maría pues ‘ome!” (a tricky phrase to translate that one, but its equivalent might be something like “Jesus Christ man!” or “Lord, help me!”).
This is the slang word Colombians use for referring to “friends”. It is basically the local version of the word “amigo”. (A few example sentences of how to use can be found in this post.)
The English word “man” is used by Colombians to mean, you guessed it, “man” or “dude”. So the question: “¿Y ese man, qué?” would be “What’s the deal with that guy?”.
For some unknown reason, the word “peeled” can also mean to a (generally young) person.
A word not unique to Colombia, but which is nevertheless heard a lot, both in ‘Narcos’ and in real life. It literally means “little mum”, but is almost exclusively used as a (not entirely respectful) way to talk about attractive girls. A bit Freudian perhaps, but there we go.
A bit of slang that is heard throughout Latin America. It is technically just used for people from the US, but it in reality it is the word that locals will use for almost anyone who is white, and from outside of Latin America.
I’ve previously heard a handful of international visitors complain that this is an offensive or even racist term. That has never been my impression of the way that Colombians use it — it is simply a way to refer to certain a sort of foreigner.
In some parts of the world, the “pink zone” is the Spanish version of the “red light district”. Not so in Colombia. Here it is a – not overly fashionable – way to refer to the areas of the big cities where most of the bars and clubs are concentrated.
In Medellin, this would mainly be the area around Parque Lleras in the city’s upmarket Poblado district.
”¿Sí o qué?” / “¿sí o no?”
Two beautifully Colombian ways of: 1) turning a statement into a question; or 2) encouraging whoever you’re speaking with to agree with what you are saying.
The literal translations sound pretty funny: “¿sí o qué?” is “yes or what?”, while “¿si o no?” is “yes or no?”. To understand them properly, it is best to give an example of the context in which they are used.
Get into a taxi in Medellin, for instance, and your patriotic taxi driver is all but certain to talk about their beloved Colombia by saying things like: “La gente es muy amable aquí, ¿sí o no?” (“People are really nice here, don’t you think?”) or “Las mujeres aquí son muy bonitas, ¿sí o qué?” (“The women are really beautiful here, aren’t they?”).
A shorter version – just “¿…o qué?” – makes a frequent appearance in Narcos as a way to emphasise that a question is being asked e.g. “Don Pablo, vamos a hablar con ese man ¿o qué?” (“Don Pablo, are we going to speak to that guy or what?”).
Vos and Usted
While not technically slang, the unusual uses of “ and “usted” are aspects you might also pick up when watching Narcos. Basically, in Medellin, these two terms are often preferred as the word for “you” over the more internationally common “tú” form.
This can sound a little odd, especially as we’ve probably all been taught that “usted” should be reserved for formal situations, while “tú” is for use with friends etc. In Colombia, you’ll find that a dad might address his daughter using “usted” and a guy may talk to his girlfriend in the same way.
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The reality is that the three terms (“vos“, “usted” and “tú“) are all pretty much interchangeable in Medellin and locals flip between them fairly frequently. The main exception, as shown in Narcos, is that guys tend to avoid addressing other men with “tú” as they claim that “el tuteo” is too intimate for use with another man.
Hopefully, you won’t have much cause to use some of the below terms in your own life, but they may prove a useful reference source in any case.
Note that these words are mainly heard among mafia groups so are not representative of the speech of the population as a whole.
The name of the show itself, as you may well already know, is shorthand for the Spanish word “narcotraficantes“, meaning “drug dealers” / “drug traffickers”.
The (mob) boss. Those lower down in criminal gangs have given alternative names, such as the term “traqueto” given to street level dealers.
A disrespectful term for a policeman; similar to referring to them as “pigs” in English. Best not used within earshot of one. Another word used for the same purpose is “aguacate” – the Spanish word for “avocado”.
Literally, a “toad”, but in ‘Narcos’ it refers mainly to informers and is much like the term “rat”. The verb “sapear” is to “rat someone out”.
A “hitman”. Not generally the highly trained type featured in the movie Leon, but rather a couple of teenage guys firing wildly from the back of a motorbike.
The verb “quebrar”, meaning “to break” is also used by the criminal underworld to mean killing someone. Generally, “quebrar” is used in this way only when talking about killing another gang member.
“Tumbar” is another euphemism for killing someone heard in the series. It’s English equivalent would be something like “to take someone down”.
Darle plomo / plomazo
“To give someone lead”; not a gift you’d really like to receive as it means you’re going to get shot.
Plata o plomo
A threat that was regularly used by the Medellin Cartel in real life, meaning that you could either accept their money or they’d kill you. Either way, they’d get what they wanted.
It literally translates as “silver or lead”, with “plata” being the way that Colombians refer to “money” or “cash” in everyday situations (e.g. “tiene mucha plata” is the most common phrase to say that someone is very rich). A better contextual translation of this expression might be “cash or a coffin”.
A term generally used in Colombia to mean “an errand”. In the criminal context it is a kind of code word for a “job” or a “hit”.
A large amount of money. So, “se ganó un billetico con esa vuelta”, would be “he got himself a serious payday from that hit”.
Technically just the name for a sub-district of a Colombian city, but often used to refer only to the poorer districts. Maybe similar to saying the “projects”.
Colombian Curse Words
Mafia types are not famed for minding their language. Swear words litter their conversations. Here’s an explanation of a few of these:
A swear word often used by the criminal types in this series. In its literal translation, this word doesn’t actually sound all that bad – it comes from combining the words “mal” or “bad”, and the verb “parir” or “to give birth”. So, it technically just means “badly born”.
However, to a native’s ears, this sounds much harsher and is, in fact, one of the strongest curse words found in Colombian Spanish.
The term “gonorrea” (v.) is used for the same purpose, both in the Netflix series and in real life. Unlike being described as “badly born”, however, no English speaker is ever going to think that being referred to as a venereal disease is anything less than terrible.
When used in anger, “güevón” (also spelt huevón) is an insulting term that roughly translates as “asshole”.
Strangely enough, though, if said between (mainly male) Colombian friends, this same word becomes a synonym for “dude”, “mate” or “buddy”.
Me importa un culo
Not much additional explanation for this one is needed beyond the rough translation of “I couldn’t give a rat’s ass”.
A slightly more Colombian version of the internationally used swear “hijo de puta” or “son of a bitch”. “Hijueputa” is essentially the same expression, except some of the syllables are run together when pronounced.
A swear word that literally translates as “eat shit”. An alternative is “come mierda“, which uses the conjugation in the more familiar “tú” form, rather than the polite version of “usted“.
Well, I guess if you’re going to tell someone to “eat shit” you might as well treat them respectfully while doing so.
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Colombian expressions explained: ‘Pelar el cobre’
Inspired by a recent reader query, I thought I’d add some new posts explaining more advanced local expressions, which you may come across after talking with Colombians for a longer period. One is “pelar el cobre” or “mostrar el cobre“, which is broadly similar in meaning to the English “to show one’s true colours”.
How to Speak Colombian Spanish
Latin America’s friendliest inhabitants – the Colombians – have long claimed that theirs is the most ‘neutral’ Spanish on the planet. Ah, if only that were so. Chat to the locals during your stay and you’ll quick find that this beautiful sounding version of the language contains as many funny linguistic quirks as it does bits of local slang.