Que buena onda es…this look at Guatemalan slanguage.

A dictionary will only get you so far.

As you probably already know, Guatemala, like most of the countries in Central America, uses Spanish as its official language. However, as any Spanish major will tell you, each country seems to have “its own thing going on” in terms of how the language is used and what slang is incorporated. A cool turn of phrase you picked up on your study abroad trip to Mexico may sound completely loco to natives in Spain, for example. In this, Guatemala is no exception.

A major issue  that Americans who learn Spanish as a second language would run across in Guatemala is the use of voseo. Voseo is the use of  the word vos instead of as the second person singular pronoun, and it comes with its own verb forms. This is used in a number of Central and South American countries, including Guatemala. Unfortunately, many US teachers tend to skip over this form since it isn’t used very much in Mexico; and this becomes a problem for students looking to use their Spanish skills in the many places that do use voseo.

Guatemala, however, doesn’t use voseo exclusively but rather in tandem with the form. This may seem like a relief to American learners, but it actually further complicates the situation. Using one form when the other is more appropriate may send across an entirely different message, possibly implying a number of things from a lack of respect to homosexuality. Luckily, one of the advantages of being a non-native speaker is that people tend to be patient and understanding of your confusion with the language and will less likely take offense.

So what are some cool slang phrases in Guatemala? XelaWho, a Guatemalan nightlife and culture magazine, has many fun examples, and it’s my main source for all of these.

First, let’s translate the blog title. When a Guatemalan says Que buena onda es (something) or Que mala onda es (something), they’re saying that the (something) is either cool or uncool. Therefore, my title is saying (in a Spanglish sort of way) that this look at Guatemalan slanguage is cool. And it is, obviously.

Now for some more interesting examples:

  • Estar de malas pulgasLiterally, it means “to be of bad fleas.” In Guatemala it means “to be in a bad mood.”
  • Sacar las uñas: Literally, it says “to throw out the fingernails.” The expression means “to show one’s true colors.”
  • Costar un huevo: It says “costs an egg” according to a typical Spanish textbook. However, ” it costs an arm and a leg” is the equivalent English phrase.
  • Ser muy viernes: Translated literally, it’s “to be very Fridays.” It means “to be very old.”
  • No ser chicha ni limonada: “To be neither corn liquor nor lemonade” does not refer to a  Guatemalan mystery beverage. Rather, it’s a person without a religion.
  • Taparse con la misma chamarra: To say “they cover themselves with the same jacket” means the same as the English phrase “they’re cut from the same cloth.”
  • A cada coche se le llega su sábado: Literally translates as “to each car arrives its Saturday,” but it means everyone eventually gets what they deserve.
  • El que entre la miel anda algo se le pega: “Something sticks to those who walk in honey” means that people take on the habits of their associates.
  • Hasta el Quinto Infierno: To express this, Kentuckians may say “Way, way over yonder.” While it translates literally as “until the fifth Hell,” it’s used to express that something is very far away.
  • Andar a mostaza: Literally, “To walk to mustard.” It means, however, to be very drunk. And when you think about it, you’d have to be pretty drunk to declare you’re walking to mustard, right?
  • Taco de ojo: “Eye taco” may sound like a very strange dish when translated literally, but its English equivalent is “eye candy” which probably doesn’t sound very appetizing to Guatemalans either.

As a student of Spanish, I admit that if someone had said any of these to me before I’d looked them up, I’d have been very confused. I imagine that’s how people who take on English as a second language feel all the time when they first come to the United States, especially if they’re in an environment where they’re surrounded by young people, such as a university. Still, as difficult and humorous as comprehending slang is, it’s just one example of the many perils of intercultural communication.


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