The Bug: Far Out Lunfardo Terms

Lunfardo is an Argentinian slang that was born in the Buenos Aires ghettos in the late 19th century, but soon spread across the entire Rio de la Plata region. The product of Argentina’s highly stratified society, Lunfardo was an expressive vehicle for the lower classes that served a variety of purposes: 1.) Some speakers used it as a cryptolect to obscure meanings from both the police and outsiders. This usage comes out most distinctly in the slang’s vesres or back-slang (take this example: esquina, or corner, becomes naesqui). Also, a significant portion of the lexicon is devoted to criminal activities such as murder and prostitution (while this doesn’t mean that the speakers engaged in such activities, it does reveal how crime was a part their daily landscape); 2.) Immigrants & indigenous peoples imported bits & pieces of their languages into the Spanish that they were forced to adopt. This comes out in the slang’s lexicon which borrows heavily from Italian, Quechua, and some African languages. As a result of this importation, Lunfardo gives one a sense of the multilingual mishmash happening in those ghetto neighborhoods.

However, Lunfardo did not remain the word-terrain of marginalized speakers. Bits & pieces now circulate through all the speech communities of Argentina due to the tremendous popularity of the musical/dance form born within the very same neighborhoods: the tango. Later on, rock music would continue to borrow from the slang (the Argentinian equivalent to North American rock musicians continual use of African American Vernacular English?).

Linguists estimate that Lunfardo has 5,000 terms (most are Spanish words with reappropriated meanings). In the following, I offer a wee lil’ etymological sampler of some particularly creative terms…

A Funkymological Trip Through Lunfardo

1.) colibrillo/a (also colibriyo/a) adj. Crazy.

The word’s recipe:

–> Take one loco (crazy), vesre it up into colo.

–> Then add one brillo (luster, shine) at the end.

–> Fuse colo with brillo by wittily adding an i in between so the end result sounds like colibrí (hummingbird).

2.) socotroco. n. Onomatopoeia for punch.

3.) quilombo. n. A mess or disaster. Also, has been verbed as quilombear/quilombificar.

Hisstorickety infusion: The word quilombo originates from the Kimbundu kilombo, or town. In Latin America, especially Brazil, the word described large hinterland settlements of runaway slaves, indigenous peoples, Jews, Arabs, and others marginalized from the colonial regime. The most iconic of these settlements was Palmares, a community of 20,000 inhabitants that existed from 1604 to 1694. Led by formidable warrior kings such as Ganga Zumba and later Zumbi, Palmares repelled repeated invasions from both the Dutch and the Portuguese until it finally fell after decades of warfare. The continued existence of these maroon communities exasperated colonial authorities, whose authority over their enslaved populations was always precarious. So it’s quite possible that this fear made quilombos synonymous with disasters or nightmares. 

Comparative Philology Incitement: It might be useful to compare quilombo next to other Spanish colloquialisms for destruction such as the Mexican desmadre (literally, de-mothered) and the Cuban/Dominican desmandinga (literally, de-mandigaed, as in the Mandinga, an African people brought over as slaves to the Caribbean).  

4.) funyi. n. A hat. 

A endearingly goofy metaphor, funyi comes from the Italian fungo, or mushroom.

5.) cerebrar. v. To think.

Literally, to brain. “Let me brain for a second…”

6.) madrugado. adj. Early, in advance. 

This one’s sheer lyricism: Turn la madrugada, or the dawn, into an adjective & BAM! you’re a poet in everyday life.   

7.) telefunken. n. Telephone.

I’ve got no idea about the etymology on this one, but it leaves us with one pressing question: Why are the Spanish still using teléfono? Why haven’t American English speakers picked up on this one yet? It’s like George Clinton met Alexander Graham Bell…

8.) matadero. n. A hotel room for sex.

Literally, it means a slaughterhouse. The word conjures disturbing images, but I felt that I had to include at least one of the many mysogynistic terms in this slang.

9.) rascabuche. n. A poor person. Also, an adj. for an item of bad quality.

This one’s a compound between rascar, to scrub, and buche, the stomach of a pigeon. The word’s absurdity testifies to the resilient humor developed by communities facing extreme hardship.

10.) mishiadura. n. Poverty.

Comes from the Genoa Italian dialect’s miscio (poor). Used to velvety affect in Enrique Santos Discépolo’s lyrics to Angel Villoldo’s classic tango “El Choclo,” never has poverty sounded so deceptively seductive.

11.) culo del mundo. Banished to a godforsaken place.

Literally, it means ass of the world. ‘Cuz sometimes daily life just feels that way…

12.) All the Ways You Can Die in Lunfardo–> The topic of death provides much poetricking in this slang. Here are some particularly humorous, violent, and creative ways in which death is described: 

achure. Cattle guts

amasijar. To be kneaded     

becamorto. Literally, Catholic priest. This word comes from the Italian slang beccamorto, or gravedigger, an irreverent term for priests, alluding to how they give last rites to a dying person. 

cantar para el carnero. To sing like a ram.

charquear. To jerk beef.

crepar. From the Italian crepare (to burst/crack/die). 

cucaracha. The cockroach. 

enfriar. To refrigerate. 

entregar el rosquete. To give up the fritter.

fiambre. Cold meat, old news. 

hacer la boleta. To get the admission ticket. 

la huesada. The bony one.

la quinta de ñato. The cemetery. A ñato is literally a cut and crushed nose. The term might have originated to describe gardens that surrounded prisons.

morfarse. To kill someone. From the Italian slang morfillar (to eat).

mortadela. Yup, just like the sausage.

queder frito. To stay fried.

tocar el violín. To play the violin.

tocar la refalosa. To take the white sheet. Refalosa was originally a dance in 19th Century Buenos Aires; it later described the act of sliding a white sheet over a dead person. Its root probably lies in refaloso (slippery).

Resources for more information:

Borges, Jorge Luis and Jose Elmundo Clemente. El lenguaje de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Emece Editores, 1963.  

Conde, Oscar. Diccionario etimológico del Lunfardo. Buenos Aires: Libros Perfil, 1998.

Diccionario de Lunfardo.

Gobello, Jose and Irene Amuchastegui. Vocabulario ideológico del Lunfardo. Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1998.