Saturday, March 31, 2007


I know what you´re thinking ; I can see it in your eyes. You´re thinking, when the hell is Paddington going to get his pseudo-Marxist shit together and give us the eagerly-awaited fourth installment in his series on Capital? A fair question - I know your lives must be sparse without it. Well, the answer is : not for a while. In my defence, I am still reading Marx, only the book is not Capital but The Paris Commune. In Spanish. So far, I have learned the words for "crook", "embezzlement", "treacherous" and "that monstrous dwarf" (his description of Adolphe Thiers, the provisional President of France after the suppression of the Commune).

Mainly though, my amazing Spanish skills have been lately employed in learning lunfardo, the slang of Buenos Aires. Like most forms of slang (cf. especially polari), lunfardo is a linguistic code, invented by people to evade capture from the authorities. Its rise is synonymous with tango, another phenomenon which began in the less reputable barrios of the city, and which has now achieved a rather more "official" cultural status.

The etymologies of many lunfardo words demonstrate the cultural diversity of BA´s immigrant population at the beginning of the twentieth century. Words derive from Italian ("cuore" = heart), from English ("sangwich"), from Arabic ("arrabal" = ghetto, and "arraballero" is a person from the slums), from Quechuan ("pucho" = cigarette) etc etc. But lunfardo is far more ingenious than simply taking words from other languages. People from different countries would exchange words and spin metaphors from them, so that "fungi" (Italian for mushroom) means hat in lunfardo, and "cana" (French for cane) is policeman, because early twentieth century cops all carried them. Castellano words are used metaphorically too : "campana" (the word for bell) describes the guy who would watch out for the police while a crime was being committed ; "marron" (brown) means anus ; "palmado" (deriving from the Spanish for palm-leaves) means sick or dying ; and "vento" (castellano for wind) is the lunfardo word (or rather, a lunfardo words - there are many others) for money, because it flies out of your hands as quickly as it flies in.

While the majority of countries in South America are Spanish-speaking, there is considerable variation in accent, grammar and vocabulary, and each major city will have its own unique slang. But none that I have come across compare with the inventiveness of vesre, another component of lunfardo, which works in a similar way to backslang. Vesre (itself a vesre word for "reves") means swapping syllables, so that "noche (the Spanish for night) becomes "cheno", "macho" becomes "choma", "hotel" becomes "telo" (which specifically signifies a pay-by-the-hour motel, much in demand by horny porteños - and gringos - in search of a couple of hours of twilit passion). And, most ingeniously or ridiculously, depending on your point of view, "cafe con leche" becomes "feca con chele".

And, inevitably, things get even more convoluted the deeper we get into the criminal underworld. Originally, a pimp went by the lunfardo word "cafichio". But, when the authorities decoded the word and discovered the prevalence of pimps, they outlawed the profession under Statute 840. After the Statute, a pimp became known as an "ocho cuarenta", and when that phrase got roused, the term changed again to "nueve menos veinte" (nine-minus-twenty, or 840 expressed on the clock). My research has not stretched to interviewing pimps as to what they call themselves today, but no doubt the lingo is still changing as necessity demands.

This is the great thing about lunfardo - it is alive, well and as fluid as ever. Despite being some of the most beautiful and elegant people on earth, porteños (from pimps to grandmothers) have mouths like sewers. "Pinche" is traditionally the castellano word for fucking (the punctuation word, not the action), but you´re more likely to hear Argentinians today throw the English word "fucking" liberally into their questions and exhortations.

My plan is to move to BA in 2008, and no doubt, in trying to use lunfardo in my everyday life, I will sound like a foreigner trying to use cockney rhyming slang. This could, of course, have unexpected results. Porteños often use the word "" instead of "muy" for very, and there is a story of an enthusiastic North American lunfardo student going to a restaurant wanting a big plate of chicken. When the waiter asked him for his order, the American asked for a "ré pollo, por favor". He was surprised, twenty minutes later, when a huge plate of cabbage was delivered to his table.


Anonymous James Haselip said...

Hi, I came across your blog while searching for a bit of background on Lunfardo. Then I started fishing around, read some more (not something I usually do with random blogs to be honest)and thought I'd leave a little note to say how much I like it. As it happens, I've lived on and off in BsAs since 2003 when I jumped on the neoliberal-bashing bandwagon, but your approach and understanding of the country is very familiar. Possibly since I've not moved in english-speaking circles out there, its strangely comforting to read the views of somebody also from London talking about BsAs and thinking similar thoughts. Anyway don't mean to wank off, but I'd be interested to know more about what you plan to do out there next year. There's a chance I may go back, work depending. Please do get in touch - you'll find my address on the internet somewhere. Chau!

1:52 AM  

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