Creative Chilean Spanish

21 June 2006
5:55 PM


Chile is a relatively small country—16 million people. That hasn’t stopped it from producing two Nobel Lauerate poets. Gabriela Mistal received the Nobel prize in 1945, Pablo Neruda in 1971. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Chilean Spanish. Chileans are wildly creative with their language. Their linguistic innovation has produced hundreds of words and phrases unique to Chile. This causes no end of trouble for non-Chileans who try to penetrate the Chilean idiom. One frustrated foreigner even wrote How to Survive in the Chilean Jungle, a guide decoding the multitude of uniquely Chilean expressions.

For my part, I am continually surprised by clever Chileanisms. The other day a co-worker explained that someone who has la mano de guagua, a baby’s hand, is a stingy person. A mieser. A tightwad. A real Scrooge. At first, this seemed like another nonsensical expression with no obvious origin, just like duck and frog, which Chileans use to say that a person is clumsy or a gossip, respectively. Then my co-worker explained that the phrase references infants’ hands, which they often keep clenched tightly in fists. Similarly, a meiser holds his pursestrings tightly and is slow to let anything go.

I thought the phrase itself was rather ingenious, but I remained skeptical about how widely understood it would be, even among Chileans. Later that day, I slipped the phrase mano de guagua into a test conversation—it worked.

I have other Chilean phrases that I use when I can. One favorite: “when hell freezes over” can be rendered “when they pay the firemen,” which plays on the fact that firefighters in Chile are volunteers and aren’t paid. Sadly, I haven’t heard that one nearly often enough.

Sometimes I wish Chileans would just speak the simple, clear Spanish I heard in Bolivia. Others I appreciate the linguistic whimsy that colors speech here.


Re: duck and frog, I beg to differ. Those do make sense! Ducks just kind of waddle around, running into stuff, much like clumsly people do. (And I have experience in that department!) Frogs have giant mouths, which are frequently open and croaking—telling the whole pond every little thing that they know.

Kate Nienaber

on June 21, 2006 8:08 PM

Se te quema el arroz?

Ah, I can only imagine where Chile would be today if the effort spent devising sexual innuendo were invested elsewhere. At least learning some of the expressions can be entertaining.

“Se le quema el arroz”—he burnt the rice—is a way of saying that a person is gay. As is “le queda la pata para atras.” I think that it’s a little ironic since gay people in my culture are known for cooking well, certainly not burning the rice.

The list goes on: to say that a couple slept together before they married there’s “se casaron detrás de la puerta,” which is “they got married behind the door.” My friend Roy watched a chicken get killed down south in Osorno, but was met with strange faces when he told people that they “mataron la gallina.” (Ask Roy if you want the meaning.)

There are about a thousand others that routinely go over my head, but I just pretend that I know what’s going on.

As far as the question itself: seems a little personal for the comments section, no?

Mano de guagua??? jajaJaj …sorry; haHahah

Well, you might be correct with its origin, I always thought it was a very clever expression in the “image” sense of it: An adult person with an underdeveloped hand. A little giving hand that is. Quite close to someone holding the “ley del embudo” (funnel’s law), which means s/he behaves under the unfair law that things for her/him are bigger/better that things for others.

And I agree overall chileans are very language creative. Upon arriving to this country I started laughing with the witty “tallas” and I still do years after. Whereas at the country I came from (Spain) language is large and words are plenty, but lack something here Chileans have. Very much in the cheecky or twisted UK sense. …Something I have not witnessed anywhere else.

Not for nothing there are here thousands or would-be poets (particularly at universitary circles) and just a few novel writers…

About the burnt rice… cooking ways are changing worldaround, isnt it? just look under 23s everywhere, if you may hahah

Great blog