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16 Spanish Words That Have Different Meanings in Different Countries

Updated on October 4, 2016
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia loves learning languages and travelling, and is interested in a range of social issues.

Spanish is often a recommended option for people who want to acquire a second language. It is second in the world with regard to the number of native speakers (about 470 million people), losing only to China, the argument goes. Spanish opens the door to almost one entire continent!

Or does it?

Precisely because Spanish holds sway over such large territories and in so many countries, its diversity is incredible. It means that talking one variety of Spanish in a country with another variety is full of traps. Oftentimes, a perfectly innocent word in one place has vulgar connotations in another. Even native speakers of Spanish sometimes find themselves at a loss when travelling outside of their motherland, let alone all those poor souls that made a conscious effort to learn the language from scratch!

Bagre, for instance, in Guatemala and Honduras means clever. But beware this word in Colombia and Costa Rica: in the former it means a very ugly woman and in the latter it’s a vulgar way of referring to a prostitute. Never, ever use this word to compliment a woman’s intellect in these countries.

In Spain, Guatemala and El Salvador you can say chucho to refer to a dog. In Guatemala it has additional connotations of someone who eats too much, whereas in El Salvador it also signifies a stingy person. In Colombia chucho is a type of instrument, in Argentina cold, in Chile prison.

A Colombian colino is someone who smoke marijuana, but in Mexico it means a nude person.

Take extra care with chimbo. Whereas in Spain it has a perfectly innocent meaning (a name of a soap brand), in Colombia it’s used to refer to male private parts. It’s best to give your chimbo washing routine a break while in Colombia. In Argentina this word signifies an out-of-wedlock child, in Ecuador and Venezuela something false or of low quality, in El Salvador, curiously, a container for gas, oxygen, or liquid.

In Argentina the word cojudo means brave. But Bolivians and Peruvians say cojudo about someone stupid, an imbecile, a person that is easy to cheat.

In Argentina, Chile and Peru chocho means happy, content. In Colombia, Costa Rica and Spain – female private parts. In addition, in Colombia it may refer to a young person that behaves like an old one, in Costa Rica to something that doesn’t function, in Spain it also means senile. In Nicaragua chocho conveys surprise and is a way to describe a bit crazy person, whereas in Panama it’s a name of a commercial centre. The Venezuelan chocho means old.

Ruco doesn’t seem to have any semantic consistency across the countries. In Chile it is an improvised shelter made by people living on the street, in Colombia, El Salvador and Uruguay an old person, in Costa Rica a horse or trousers, in the Dominican Republic an ugly person, in Ecuador sleeping. So there you go.

In Chile and in Argentina the word zorro has positive connotations of someone astute or shrewd. But in Argentina it can also mean female private parts or a person who prefers polygamy. In Costa Rica a promiscuous person, and in Ecuador a homosexual.

In Mexico and Colombia maraca is a type of instrument. But in Argentina the word is used to denote a homosexual, in Chile to a woman who mingles with too many men or deceives them, in Guatemala a Spaniard born is Spain.

In some countries chichi has affectionate undertones. In El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic it is a recently born baby. In addition, chichi in Bolivia and Honduras is used by boyfriends to refer tenderly to their girlfriends. Beware though and never use this word to win over a girl in Spain – it can win you only a slap in the face, as it means female private parts there.

Camarón in Costa Rica and Panama means a temporal job, in Ecuador a person that can’t drive very well, in Spain a mollusk, in Mexico it means sure, of course, and in Venezuela to sleep a short siesta.

In Chile seco has positive connotations of an able person. In Ecuador, however, the word denotes someone boring without social skills, as well as a certain dish. In Argentina seco is a blow, in El Salvador thin, without any fat, and in Uruguay a homosexual.

Cuero in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico means a prostitute, and in Costa Rica an easy woman. Interestingly, in Nicaragua the word has the opposite meaning – a virgin woman, whereas in Mexico it’s used to denote a man who is handsome and/or is a gentleman. In Panama it’s a word you use to express agreement.

Pepa has an interesting mix of anatomical meanings. In Chile it’s the anus, in Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and Uruguay the female reproductive organ, whereas in Puerto Rico it signifies a bicep. Other than that, in Colombia the word means an intelligent, able person, in Ecuador and Venezuela something cool, great, and in Peru it’s used to refer to someone’s pretty face.

Whereas gil in most Latin American countries (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay) means an idiot, imbecile, a person without education, in Mexico and Costa Rica it’s simply a diminutive of the name Gilberto. Be careful not to use it outside of these two countries, though.

Macizo in Colombia means a robust, big fat person. In Guatemala something strong and resistant, in Honduras good, excellent, in Mexico someone who uses drugs, especially marijuana.

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