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Spanish Words That in Colombia Mean Something Completely Different Than You’d Think

Updated on September 28, 2016
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia has a bachelor's degree in Spanish and English literature.

So you are in Colombia enjoying una caña (on the first sip you realise it’s actually rum, not beer as in Spain) and the latest update on town gossips. You listen, laugh and nod your head with the knowing face of a true local. But inside you’re a bundle of nerves as you’re coming to a realisation that the Spanish you’ve mastered comes from an altogether different planet.

Why is someone being referred to as un armario (wardrobe) or una boleta (ticket)? What is calentado (heated) and what does it mean when a neighbourhood is described as caliente (hot)? Does the verb caramereal have anything to do with caramel? And why, on earth, would someone in their right mind refer to every child as chino (Chinese)?

Travelling to Latin America knowing only European Spanish can be a confusing experience. You thought you knew the language, but it suddenly turns out that every Latin American country boasts its own linguistic idiosyncrasies and a rich array of colloquial words. You discover you need to broaden or change your word definitions, learn a heap of new vocabulary, and avoid other. Here is a handy list of words that can have completely different connotations in Colombia.

ala – an exclamation used to call someone’s attention, also a Colombian version of hola

alberca – in Castilian means a cistern, in Colombia also a washing machine

alternativo – a person that dresses themselves extravagantly

amarga – beer (the adjective amargo means bitter)

armario – used to describe someone old

aterrizar – normally means to land, but in Colombia can also signify come to one’s senses

avión – a bold or astute person

ayudado – helped, but in Colombia specifically used to refer to someone who have a pact with the devil

bandera – in Spain a flag, in Colombia also an ill-bred person

barro – the basic definition is clay, mud; in Colombia also a disloyal, false or egoist person

blandito blando means gentle, soft; in Colombia blandito is a shy person

bobo – normally means simple, fool, simpleton; in Colombia also a watch

boleta – ticket, in Colombia also a malicious person

bonsai – a very small person

brujas – gossiping women

caballo – horse, in Colombia an attractive woman

calentado – heated leftovers from the previous day

calidad – normally quality, in Colombia sometimes used to refer to a stranger on the street (friend)

caliente – hot, in Colombia also dangerous

campeón – champion, in sarcastic use an idiot

cancer – a cigarette

cantar – sing, to confess that someone did something illegal

caña – in Spain beer, in Colombia rum

caramelear – to say fibs in order to convince someone to something

carbon – a person with dark skin

catorce – fourteen, in Colombia also a favour

chino – niño

chocante – in Spanish mainly shocking, in Colombia also unpleasant

chorizo – not only a kind of food, a time unit of 50 years

churro – not only a kind of food, but also a pretty person

corbata – tie or an easy well-paid job

cruce – in Castilian a cross or crossing, in Colombia also a favour

diablo – a libertine woman

disparar – shoot or fire away (in a conversation)

eminencia – in Castilian expert, height, eminence, in Colombia also talented

encargar – the basic meaning is put in charge, in Colombia also the connotations of procreate

entierro – normally funeral, but also used to mean a sexual act

fama – a butcher’s shop

florido – flowery, also connotations of vulgar

fundamentoso – used to refer to a sensible person

galleta – biscuit, sweets, also a homosexual

gargajo – in Spain phlegm, in Colombia also an ill-bred person

guapo – in the basic meaning handsome, but also angry or brave

huevo – egg or a great quantity

intense – an insufferable person

lana – wool or money

llave ­– key or a friend

madre – is used to refer to an indulgent tutor

mariposa – normally means a butterfly, but can refer to a homosexual person

mascota – pet, used to refer to a lover

mono – monkey, but in Colombia also pretty

naranjas – in Castilian oranges, in Colombia also a no

ocho – eight or chaos

olimpico – idiot

pelar – peel, skin, but also to kill

pelota – ball, in Colombia an ignorant

sal – salt, bad luck

tirar – to have sex

toastado – an irrational person

zapato – shoe or an ugly woman


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