11 Spanish Words That Don’t Transalate to English

Mexican bingo cards on wall

photo by Jenny Hannah Roche

My daily thoughts are peppered with Spanish words because sometimes Spanish just says it better. You can translate these words to English but they end up as phrases or weakened by qualifications. Andale pues!

Cabron—Literally means a male goat and is sometimes translated as “cuckold.” That said, this word is widely used and can range from a playful greeting among friends “Hey Cabron!,” (like “Hey Fucker!”) to an insult akin to “asshole.”

Chingar—Typically translating as “fuck” but meaning much more than that. When used as a serious insult chingar is actually nastier than fuck. That said, there are probably a hundred variations on the word chingar, from chingada, which means a screw-up, to chingon, which is a compliment, as in “El es muy Chingón,” or “He’s very badass.” As Octavio Paz writes “The word chingar with all its multiple meanings, defines a great part of our life and classifies our relations with the rest of our friends and fellow citizens.”

Desvelado—The feeling you have after a sleepless night.

Estrenar—To use or wear something for the first time. “Estoy estrenando mi falda.

Madre–Literally means mother but is also a complex slang word that, depending on context and usage, can mean anything from worthless to superlative. For more information on usage see these examples.

Mande?–A more polite way of saying  “what?” when you don’t hear or understand someone. This distinctly Mexican usage implies “I’m at your command.” More on this here.

Pendejo–Literally “a pubic hair.” In usage, more like “asshole” or “dumbass,” as in “That pinche pendejo stole my lighter.”

Pinche—Translates to “a chef’s assistant” but I’ve never heard it used this way. Pinche is typically used as an adjective and sometimes translated as “like the adjective form of fucking,” but this isn’t quite right because in Mexico the adjective “pinche” isn’t as offensive as the adjective “fucking.” Pinche could be translated as “lowly” or “worthless,” and is used to describe anything that sucks or is a pain in the ass. Pinche is almost always used in connection to a noun, as in “Pinche cabron!” or “Dónde están mis pinche calcetines?

Pues–Can mean “well,” “since,” “because,” or “then.” For example, it can be used like “Well…” to begin a sentence as in “Pues, no se.” It is also used as “then,” as in “Pues vete a dormir. (Then go to sleep.)”

Provecho–In Mexico when you leave a restaurant and a friend or stranger is still eating, you say “Buen Provecho,” which literally means “good profit,” as in “I hope you benefit from your meal.” I was amused to note that if you ask Google translate for the English translation of “Buen Provecho,” it comes up with Bon Appetit.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Susannah Rigg at Mexico Retold for calling my attention to desvelado and estrenar. And an eternal shout-out to Cabo Bob for providing the definitive dictionary to Mexican slang, Mexican Slang 101.

10 Responses to “11 Spanish Words That Don’t Transalate to English”

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  1. James says:

    All my favorites. Use at least one everyday.

  2. eddie says:

    My birth-name is ‘Simón’….which is slang and means, ‘right on’ or something like that….I always thought that was cool. Hey, Churpa!

  3. Tina Rosa says:

    Loved this!

  4. -El Codo- says:

    Try explaining MISMO in less than a half dozen words, Or the name of my parrot CHINGUS. The name was given to the foul mouth bird by a crusty widow.

  5. Dobie says:

    A few of my favorites: coraje as in me dió coraje – it pissed me off. Then there’s corajudo (grouchy). And apapachado, a fun word to say meaning spoiled (as in kids, not food). But the English translations really don’t cut it.

  6. Jaimetown says:

    A couple of oft-heard expressions I love are “Qué onda, güey?” and “No mames”. Neither of which translate well to English. “Qué onda, güey?” literally translates to “what wave, ox?”, but is typically used to mean “what’s up, dude?” among close friends. Be careful though, as with many spanish words/expressions, it can have different meanings depending upon with whom you are speaking or the tone in which you use. It can easily mean “you got a problem, asshole?”. So, if you want to start a fight with a stranger in a bar, this would be a good way to go about it.
    As for “no mames”, it translates to “don’t suck”, but is kind of a catch-all expression that can mean many different things. Mostly, it’s a vulgar expression used amongst friends to mean anything from “no shit?” to “fuck off”. It’s a pretty a versatile expression that’s handy in just about any situation.

  7. Felisa Rogers says:

    Good call! No mames is one of my favorites.