Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Lexical differences between Spain and Spanish America Tabooisms

Juan C. Zamora / Stephen B. Hawes (University of Massachusetts, Amherst, US)



The major difference is that words and phrases that are taboo or sacrilegious in Spanish America are constantly used in Spain, except in very formal speech. It follows that euphemisms are very frequently used in Spanish America but almost never in Spain. The other important difference is that in Spanish America referring to the mother of the person one speaks to using the word "madre" is an insult, so "mamá" is used instead. In Spain "mamá" is never used.


Before discussing the theme of this paper it is important to understand some basic concepts. All of us speak at least one language (English, German, Spanish, etc.) and a dialect of that particular language. A dialect is the way of speaking a language that is characteristic of a particular geographic area. This is why people from the city of Seville speak differently from their not so distant neighbors in other parts of Andalusia. The study of this phenomenon is known as dialectology. It would be scientifically incorrect to say that one dialect is better than another; all the dialects belonging to a particular language are equally valid.

Because of the differences in dialects, we can, at times, find a word with several distinct meanings across a geographical area. Let's take for example the word "tostón". In Salamanca, Spain, this word refers to a piglet, that when properly baked, becomes a meal that is typical to that city. The same word when used in Andalusia refers to a slice of toasted bread. In Puerto Rico, "toston" means fried plantain. The same also occurs in Spanish America. There the use of the word "guagua" has more than one meaning depending on the area. In Cuba and Puerto Rico the word refers to a bus, such as one used in public transportation, but in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile the word refers to a very young child. Spanish America uses the word "amarrar" while peninsular Spanish uses "atar", for what in English is "to tie".

One must keep in mind, that dialects in contact with each other will be more similar than those in other areas. In Spain, the dialects in the northern and central areas tend to resemble each other, while those in the south will be markedly different. The same applies to Spanish America, which has two macro dialectal areas, one being the "highlands" the other the "lowlands".

In Spain, just as in Spanish America, these macro dialects reveal more differences at the phonetic level than at the lexical level. To illustrate this, the dialects of north central Spain differs from that of the southern group because the former differentiates the sounds of "s" on the one hand, and of "c" and "z" on the other hand; while the latter does not happen in the south. In Spanish America, in the lowland dialects the final consonants tends to be loped off, whilst the highland dialects retains the consonants, while deleting vowels that are in contact with the "s".

Regarding the theme of this paper, tabooisms reveal differences between Peninsular and Spanish American Spanish that are due more to cultural than to linguistic differences.

We will begin by giving definitions for the technical terminology relating to the theme of this paper. Dysphemisms are words used with a derogative connotation, or with the intention of insulting. Tabooisms are words or phrases avoided by the speakers of a particular dialect because of religious, superstitious, moral or social reasons. Euphemisms are words used to avoid the above, that is to say, they substitute words and terms frowned upon by society. The latter allows one to substitute "me caso" (literarily "I get married") for "me cago" (literarily "I defecate"). In Argentina the words "agarrar" and at times "tomar" are used instead of "coger", because in that country the latter expresses the act of fornicating, which is a tabooism.

The continuous use of euphemisms, and the fact that the speakers know what their function is, can make them acquire the same negative and unacceptable meanings of the words for which they were substituted. Obviously a new euphemism must then be created to take the place of the old one.

When comparing the use of lexical taboos by speakers of the major dialects, Peninsular and Spanish American, it becomes evident that there is a series of features that differentiates as well as identifies the use between the two groups. One of these differences is that in Spain, even people with little education are familiar with the etymology of these words that are so commonly used. Two of these are "carajo" (penis, male organ), "coño" (female genitals) and "joder" (the act of having sex). In America, only philologists and other specialists on language, or those who have been in close contact with Spaniards for some time are aware of this. Although these three words are viewed as taboos in the America, they don't carry a sexual connotation. For these speakers the first two ("carajo" and "coño") are seen as mere interjections, although offensive and viewed as taboos. The third ("joder") is also a taboo word and can occasionally be used as an interjection, but its most common use is in place of "molestar", "fastidiar" o "dar lata", all meaning "to bother", hence ("No me jodas") would be the rude way of saying ("No me fastidies"), giving us the gloss, "Don't bother me!" or "Stop bugging me!". In Spain one could use this word with the previously mentioned meaning, but it's widely used as an interjection, and more often than not refers to the sexual act, a meaning not shared by the speakers in Spanish America.

Another difference between these two large dialect groups is that these terms and taboos, although used by those in Latin America, are used in very limited contexts and very infrequently when compared to Peninsular Spanish. So infrequent are their use that those in Spanish America consider that Spaniards are vulgar. To illustrate this, people in Chile call the Spaniards "coños" because they believe they use the word more often than necessary, not only as a interjection but as a crutch word. In the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, we can find the words (coño, carajo. etc.), but if we look for the same words in comparable dictionaries from Latin America, we won't find them. Through revisions of dictionaries, studies in dialectology as well as lexicography of Spanish America, it's evident that the absence of these vulgarities is the rule not the exception.

The last of the bigger and more notable differences between the Spanish spoken on both sides of the Atlantic occurs with blasphemous or sacrilegious expressions such as "Me cago en Dios" (I shit on God). These, although almost nonexistent in Latin America, even among the non-religious, are frequently uttered in Spain.

It is important to mention once again that an expression can loose its original meaning over time. The previously mentioned word "joder" is a perfect example of this in many parts of Spanish America. On the other hand, a word or its derivations can take on a completely different meaning when compared to its original repulsive implication. These new meanings do not justify its original intended debased meaning, but are maintained for lexical reasons. For example the expression, "Pedro la cagó", when used in Cuba and other places, means that "Pedro stuck his foot in his mouth" or "Pedro screwed up". In this context, the word "cagar" has nothing to do with defecation, but it doesn't loose its gross implication.

In the Americas, a number of words started out as euphemisms but later on acquired an extreme vulgar meaning. These words now accepted, form part of technical vocabulary in its corresponding semantic field. When the concept cannot be avoided, the technical word is used. For example, if reference must be made to the male sexual organ, "pene" (penis) will be used.

To prepare a list of all of the Dysphemisms, vulgarities, and taboo words would be an enormous undertaking to say the least. But I would like to mention two issues: the "mentada de madre", and that very small group of vulgarities that are very common in Latin America.

To refer to someone else's mother as "madre" is in Spanish America is an insult. For the most part, when referring to the mother of the person addressed, is one of the worst insults anybody can say. When someone says "tu madre" or "su madre" (your mother), you could get an exchange of "la tuya" or "la suya" (your mother), though what might really happen is not just an exchange of words, but an outright brawl. To avoid such a mess Spanish Americans will use "mamá" as in "tu mamá" or "su mamá". It doesn't matter what context it appears in peninsular Spanish, the use of "madre" is not in any way offensive. Hence, as previously mentioned, in Spanish America the only word that could be used is "mamá"; the word "papá", by analogy is used for father, although "padre" is not an insult. Spaniards find the words "mamá" and "papá" humorous when used by Spanish Americans.

It's true that insults could be even more explicit than just saying "tu madre": "Me cago en tu madre" or in Mexico, "Chinga (fuck) tu madre". By the same token, the entire insult could be implied by just the use of: "Hijo de tal", or in Mexico, "Hijo de la chingada", or simply by saying "íjole" (hijo de). These expressions can turn into simple interjections if not referring to anybody's mother. For example, if someone falls and hurts himself, he might exclaim, "¡Me cago en la madre!" not referring to any particular individual or mother. Other interjections such as "¡Mi madre!" or "¡Hay mi madre!" are often used to express surprise, admiration, fear, etcetera, and in these expressions "mama" is not used.

Throughout all of Spanish America, the use of "coño", "carajo" and "joder" (along with its derivations: jodedor, jodón, jodedera, jodienda) are all considered nasty and offensive, although the latter three of the derivations have been desexualized in Latin America, and similar to "mear", "cagar", "mierda" and "culo", they are still viewed as being obscene.

It's interesting to note that in Spain the first three (coño, carajo, joder) appear in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE), at least since 1984, though not in the 1959 edition, and they are all classified as "voz malsonante" (offensive, nasty word). The latter four mentioned, mear, cagar, mierda and culo (to urinate, to shit, shit, and ass) do appear in DRAE, however they are not classified as tabooisms, which leads us to believe that the Spanish Royal Academy does not view them as offensive, yet to Spanish Americans they are filthy.

Moving on to the sources that document the use of these vulgarisms in Spanish America, it must be noted that they do not pinpoint exactly where in the continent they are used. Nor do they exclude the words that are used mostly in Spain. Because of the enormity of the geography of Spanish America, it is hard to narrow down the usage to a particular country, or region or in all of Spanish America. On the other hand, regarding the sources that are available, one cannot ignore the diachronic (i.e. historical) problems. There exists documentation of words that have been in existence for centuries, even millenniums. A good example of this are the Latin-Spanish; Spanish-Latin dictionaries by Antonio de Nebrija published near the end of the fifteenth century, as well as others sources that are even older, which contain words that have not disappeared from the Spanish lexicon. However, the fact is that the least stable aspect of a language is the lexicon. A vulgarism used during the 1950s or even during the 1980s, could now have disappeared. Unfortunately, research on vulgarisms and taboo words is almost nonexistent, at least at a philological and lexicographical level.

One of the best scientific collections of Spanish American vulgarisms in existence today is American Spanish Euphemisms, by Charles E. Kany where every euphemism is followed by the vulgarisms or tabooisms for which they stand. The only problem with this work is that it was published in the 1960s and can be at least partially outdated because of the rapidity of change. There are in existence other reputable works that could have included at least a chapter on the subject, but for reasons that are cultural rather than scientific, do not do so.

The best works are collections of regionalisms. In almost all of them the jargon of criminals is excluded because, obviously, it represents only the speech of a minimal group in a society. All of these works are scientifically valid, but only with regards their own country or region; when it comes to the treatment of words of other countries, often their reliability withers.

The works that deserve recognition, besides the work of Kany, are the following, listed in the order of their date of publication: Luis Flores, "Sexualización y desexualización de palabras" in the book Del español hablado en Colombia: Seis muestras de léxico (Bogotá, 1975), it is an excellent, though brief, article. Mario E. Teruggi, Panorama del lunfardo (Buenos Aires, 1978), which in spite of its title, goes well beyond pure jargon; The work of Larry M. Grimes, El tabú lingüístico en México: El lenguaje erótico de los mexicanos (New York, 1978) is again an excellent work, and it also includes taboo words that are not erotic; Hernán Rodríguez Castelo in his Léxico sexual ecuatoriano y latinoamericano (Quito, 1979) is very good in what it says about Ecuador, but comes up short regarding the rest of the continent. The Diccionario cubano de términos populares y vulgares by Carlos Paz Pérez, (La Habana, 1994) makes a distinction between "popular", "generalized vulgar" and "marginal"; the last term is used when referring to jargon of a group avoided by other authors, that of delinquents.

In 1963, at the first "Congreso de Instituciones Hispánicas" held in Madrid, Dámaso Alonso emphasized the need to study obscene and vulgar words, because people who travel from country to country run the risk of sticking their foot in their mouth when using a word that has a completely different meaning, possibly obscene, in the country they are visiting but not in others. For example the word "bicho" usually refers to an insect, but in Puerto Rico it is a tabooism for the male penis, or "concha" (shell), which in Argentina is a tabooism for the sexual parts of women. What Dámaso Alonso said was not forgotten and the Colombian academy in 1968 in the 5th "Congreso de Academias" held in Quito proposed as follows:

"That the "Comisión Permanente de la Asociación de Academias" and the "Real Academia Española" should compile and publish a list of commonly used words that in some countries have a sexual connotation while in others not."

The "Academia Ecuatoriana" took up the suggestion and the conference recommended the publication of such a list. Unfortunately, until now neither group has acted on the proposal. However, it must be noted that such a task, if done properly, would require a substantial monetary investment as well as a lot of time, two things that often are not available.

© Juan C. Zamora / Stephen B. Hawes (University of Massachusetts, Amherst, US)


Flóres, Luis. 1975. Del español hablado en Colombia: Seis muestras de léxico. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

Grimes, Larry M. 1978. El tabú lingüístico en México: El lenguaje erótico de los mexicanos, New York: Bilingual Press.

Kany, Charles E. 1960. American Spanish Euphemisms, Berkley: University of California.

Paz Pérez, Carlos. 1994. Diccionario cubano de términos populares y vulgares, La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.

Rodríguez Castelo, Hernán. 1979. Léxico sexual ecuatoriano y latinoamericano, Quito: Instituto Otavaleño de Antropopgía.

Teruggi, Mario E. 1978. Panorama del lunfardo, Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana.

Zamora Munné, Juan C. y Jorge M. Guitart. 1988. Dialectología hispanoamericana: Teoría, descripción, historia, 2ª. ed., Salamanca: Colegio de España.

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Juan C. Zamora / Stephen B. Hawes (University of Massachusetts, Amherst, US): Lexical differences between Spain and Spanish America Tabooisms. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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