Expats: Tomate El Palo

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Say what? Literally it means “drink the stick,” but the porteños (Buenos Aires locals) use it to say “go away.”

Lunfardo, as its called, is loosely speaking, the slang of Buenos Aires. Spanish is the official language, but there are times when it sounds more an Italian with food in his mouth. One has to be careful with the word to describe the linguistic idiosyncrasies of lunfardo. It is not in fact its own dialect because it doesn’t have its own grammar rules.

The words in lunfardo replace already existing Spanish words, but they do it with flair. For example, to say someone is smart, you call him a big head. And to credit skill, you refer to a person as a sledgehammer.

It isn’t that the speakers don’t know the original word, it’s that they choose not to use it. In some ways, it is a show of opposition to the established order. They find a way to express themselves outside of the system, and it’s clever – one of their cultural trademarks.

For decades, it was said that lunfardo was a language of criminals, that it was code for nefarious doings. But contemporary academics justly insist that to be poor and a criminal are not the same thing. The reality is that lunfardo developed as a result of massive immigration in the late 1800s.

Many lunfardo words come from Italian, including some of the most fundamental elements of human existence. To eat is “manyar” from mangiare, and to work in lunfardo is “laburar” from lavorare. But there is a pleasant menagerie of other influences as well, including Argentine’s own cowboys (gauchos) who lived in the Pampas until life got too tough and they headed for the city.

With the spread of tango, originally a diversion for dockworkers after their shifts, came the wider use of lunfardo. Though Argentina’s upper classes initially shunned the tango, soon it was exported to Paris. Once the dance gained prestige, porteños took pride in it, embracing it as their own.

Most of the lyrics in tango are, in fact, lunfardo and as the dance was diffused, so did the slang.

The other signature of the slang is the reversal of syllables in a word. So café becomes feca and tango becomes “gotan.” For those who know the Gotan Project, the fathers of “new tango” music, you will smile at the homage to Buenos Aires.

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