¿Cómo Se Dice…?

In Mrs. Perriera ‘s 7th grade Spanish class, we learned that the translation for “cool” was “chévere”. In all the time I’ve spent in Spanish-speaking countries (Spain, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Cuba), I’ve never heard anyone use that word. Until now! People of all ages use it in Ecuador and they use it with the same variety of meanings that “cool” has in English. I feel relieved by this, and oddly vindicated, even though I’m the only one who ever questioned myself on this knowledge.

Something else my teacher was right about (or maybe that was Miss Smith in 10th grade), is the Ecuadorians have the most clear and precise Spanish, making this country a great place to practice, with the exception of the Galápagos. People there swallow a lot of letters. I find this is often the case on islands, though I’m not sure why. Also, listening through masks and plastic barriers sometimes presented a challenge, especially in noisy places or when the person was facing away from me, like a taxi driver.

In Quito, I used Spanish all the time since I didn’t live in a tourist neighborhood. In Cuenca, which has a large expat population in a concentrated area, I mostly used Spanish as well, though a few people defaulted to English when they saw me. In touristy places, most people would ask what language I preferred. Guides were always happy to speak Spanish to me when I said that was my preference. When I was with larger tour groups, though, the language was generally English, and, as when I was in China, I was also super impressed with my guides’ ability and wide vocabulary. It was clear they took pride in their ability to explain everything they knew in English.

Sometimes they had charming linguistic quirks. Like one guide on the Sierra Negra volcano hike who always said “friends” at the beginning of any sentence to the group, and one-on-one would say “lady”. As in “Friends, this is a guava tree” or “Lady, where do you come from?” Or one guy who began every single English sentence he spoke with “Well,…” I find these habits endearing. Hopefully my unusual Spanish usage made some people smile too. Here are some notables from Spanish practice during my two months in Ecuador.

  • Some basic words I definitely know but couldn’t bring to mind again until I asked someone for the translation:
    • canasta (basket)
    • reto (challenge)
    • empinado (steep, to describe a road or mountainside, very useful in Ecuador)
    • media (for sock, instead of calcetín)
    • grueso (thick)
    • vino tinto (for red wine, which I kept translating literally as vino rojo)
  • Some very basic words that I could only think of in other languages for some reason. Not sure if this happens to you too, but whenever I start using one language regularly, other languages I know start creeping in:
    • orgulloso (proud, which I could only think of in the French fier)
    • limpio (clean, which I could only think of in the Russian chisti)
  • Some words are new to me:
    • funda (for bag, like a plastic bag in a grocery store, instead of bolsa, which I only heard one person (an airport employee) use)
    • sánduche (for sandwich, instead of bocadillo)
    • arista (ridgeline)
    • zigzag (switchback. makes sense!)
    • bastón (hiking stick, instead of palo)
    • menestra (stew, as in the meal)
    • chifa (food that is a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cuisine. very popular in Ecuador!)
    • jodida la vida (fuck my life. you have learn some curse words when you travel!)
    • cepa (strain/variant, as in COVID variant. but yes you can also say variante)
    • recibo con datos (itemized receipt, which I needed for my Christmas fiesta when my company gave us $100 each to spend on whatever food and drink we wanted. I went to a really fancy restaurant and ordered a bunch of Ecuadorian delicacies, including the traditional cuy, or guinea pig. That’s something else I learned about in 7th grade Spanish!)
    • lobo (for sea lion, instead of león marino. unclear if this is specific to Ecuador/Galápagos, but all the guides called them lobos)
    • aforo (capacity)
  • Some words I completely forgot about, but hearing and using them again made feel like a real Spanish speaker:
    • mande? (to ask “what? say that again” when you didn’t understand something. But according to this article, the word has a unfortunate origin. I only heard two people use ¿cómo? regularly, which is what I use)
  • Words that don’t exist, which I already knew but couldn’t stop thinking about:
    • to lock (cerrar is to close but cerrar is also to lock. you can clarify cerrar con llave (close with a key) if needed, but there is no separate verb)
    • tortoise versus turtle (both are tortuga. this drives me insane. they are not the same thing!)
    • safety versus security (both are seguridad. this doesn’t drive me insane so much, but I spent way too much time thinking about why we have two words in English and exactly what the distinction is between our words)
  • Some preferences that stood out to me:
    • todos los días (my instinct is to say cada día for “every day” but no one else says this. I’ve only heard Ecuadorians use todos los días. I suspect this might not be so much preference as that I am simply grammatically wrong.
    • hasta luego (for goodbye, the overwhelming preference over adios or ciao)
    • ticket (for ticket, obviously, even though there are already so many Spanish words for ticket that I’m used to: boleto, billete, pasaje, entrada)
    • the informal tú form (the formal usted seems to be uncommon. I get called by most people, but my years of training to use the formal usted makes it difficult for me to reciprocate)
    • a preference for the singular (buen día instead of buenos días, for example)
    • Feliz año (instead of feliz año nuevo; They drop the “new” in Happy New Year.)
    • Muy amable (instead of gracias, as in what customers says to service people who bring them something)
    • A la orden (instead of de nada to mean you’re welcome, like what a service person says to you after you say muy amable)
  • Some charming linguistic habits:
    • vecinita (little neighbor, which all the local shopkeepers call their customers when they walk in the door. Welcome, little neighbor. Come again, little neighbor.)
  • Words that are unique to Ecuador:
    • Like every area and culture, Ecuador has many slang words, a number of which come from Quechua, or Kichwa as it is commonly spelled here. The one I learned right away was chiva, which is a party bus. I arrived in Quito during the Fiestas de Quito, a weeklong celebration of the founding of Quito. The chivas went around the city all week long, in addition to dozens of other celebratory activities. I was told this year was bigger than ever since the festivities were cancelled last year because of COVID-19. And next year will be even bigger because it will be the 200th anniversary year of the Battle of Pichincha, a key event in Quito’s history as the South American rebels, led by Simón Bolívar, beat the Spanish invaders.

You probably know several Kichwa words already: quinoa, llama, guano, alpaca, puma, and poncho, for example. For another throwback to middle school Spanish, I remember learning that in some countries wawa (or guagua) means “bus”, while in other countries it means “baby”. I’ve only encountered the former, but here, as another Kichwa word, it definitely means “baby”. And many of the place names in Ecuador come from Kichwa. My tongue definitely tripped up over some of them, like the beautiful volcanic crater and geobotanic reserve Pululahua.

By the time this hits my blog, I’ll already be in Argentina where they have a special variety of Spanish. And why not? We have so many varieties of English. When I taught English in Russia, I thought it was so silly that some people dropped out of my class because I wasn’t a British English speaker. When I was learning French, I learned from French people, Montreal folks, and Caribbean French speakers. I’d rather hear, learn, and use it all!

Part of the sprawling metropolis of Quito, as seen from El Panecillo

5 thoughts on “¿Cómo Se Dice…?

  1. Speaking is always the hardest part of learning a language. Reading and listening are so much easier, but with speaking, it’s hard to get over the feeling that you’re going to make a lot of mistakes and sound dumb. I say a lot of things that I realize after the fact were incorrect, but usually people understand me anyway. Just gotta go for it!


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