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.