Ñoquis might be a popular Italian dish in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, but its meaning goes a lot deeper than Italian gastronomy. In Argentine lunfardo, ñoquis is the word used to refer to someone who doesn’t work, but who still manages to claim a salary at the end of the month.
The lunfardo expression became a well-used phrase in Argentine during the 1970s and relates directly to a group of corrupt, Argentine, civil servants who, it was eventually revealed, had been continuing to claim their paychecks at the end of the month without actually having done any work.
When Mauricio Macri was first appointed Mayor of Buenos Aires in 2011, one of the first administrative decisions that his government saw through was to sack 2400 public employees in the city of Buenos Aires. Macri and his government claimed that the 2400 public employees forced out of employment were all “ñoquis” – that they had been continuing to receive their salaries at the end of the month without ever having showed up to do the jobs they were being paid for. Macri’s decision generated a huge conflict between his government and the city unions. Many strikes by public service employees were also organized as a result.
As well as being a popular lunfardo expression, eating ñoquis on the 29th of every month is a long-standing tradition in Argentina. The tradition dates back to the early 20th century when Italian immigrants in Argentina didn’t get paid until the end of the month. Food was normally very scarce by the 29th and ñoquis, made from just potato and flour, is full of starch and was one of the best ways for these Italian families to feed everyone on a budget.
The ñoquis eating tradition on the 29th of every month also relates to the notion of good luck, fortune and wealth. It’s customary to put money underneath each plate before eating to encourage wealth and prosperity in the future.
Argentine Spanish is strewn with words and colorful phrases from Lunfardo, a rich vocabulary born on the streets of Buenos Aires in the second half of the 19th century. Now considered a fixture of the Spanish language in Argentina (especially in and around Buenos Aires) and Uruguay, linguists cite the use of Lunfardo as a defining characteristic of the Rioplatense dialect.
A bondi in Buenos Aires, early 40s
“This bondi can’t take longer!” “This bondi leaves me three blocks away from my house”, “The frequency of this bondi is disastrous!” These and other similar phrases in Spanish are frequently heard in Argentina, especially in the city of Buenos Aires. Any tourist can hear them in everyday conversations but, what does bondi mean? What are all these people talking about?
Bondi is the lunfardo term for the city bus or “colectivo” and it is still widely used in the River Plate area. Let’s explore its etymological origin.
Bondi and its Brazilian Origin
According to many language experts, bondi is a derivation from a Brazilian word born in the city of Sao Paulo at the beginning of the 20th Century. At that time, the tramways of the city were owned by English companies and, therefore, the price of the ticket was preceded by the word bond. Brazilians understood that the term bond meant tramway and extended its meaning to all the public transport. In Portuguese, many words that end with a consonant add the sound “i”, in this case represented by the adding the letter “e” at the end of the word. Italian immigrants took the word bonde to Montevideo and Buenos Aires, where the word was adopted as bondi.
Bondi and the Shape of the Bus
There is another theory that states that the word bondi is, in fact, a diminutive of the word albóndiga (meat ball), after which the urban buses in Buenos Aires were named because they were much smaller than what they are nowadays and roundish in shape.
Although not much in use these days, it may still be possible to hear people in their fifties or sixties using the word bacán in their conversations, especially when referring to somebody who seems to have a good economic position. It was a very popular term during the sixties and seventies amongst the hippies.
Alegre Bacán – Tango
What does bacánmean?
According to some language experts, a bacán is somebody who sees himself or herself as having a lot of money. It is worth noticing that a bacán is not necessarily somebody wealthy but -in most occasions- somebody who seems to be wealthy. It was first used to refer to the rich people who held administrative positions in the British-owned trains. According to a version, these administrative people, since they didn’t do any physical effort, kept their hands at their backs (backhand, in English).
This term belongs to the Argentine lunfardo and it was used not only in Buenos Aires but also in all the River Plate area.
Throughout the years, different synonyms or quasi synonyms have appeared: “jailaife”, “shusheta”, “pituco”, “cajetilla”, “bienudo”, “concheto” or “cheto” just to mention a few of them.
The English version
Some language experts believe that the word bacán derives from the English word “backhand”, which referred to the wealthy people who, as it has already been said, had administrative positions in the British-owned trains.
The Italian Version
On the other hand, some language experts are convinced that the term bacán comes from the old Genoese Latin word baccan, which meant patron, captain of a ship, pater familia (head of a Roman family).
Baco, Bacanales and “bacán”
It is also worth mentioning that some linguists firmly believe that the etymological origin of the word bacán can be found in the word bacanal. Thus, “bacán” would be an abridged version of that word. Bacán would be the man who enjoys life fully, who spends money on good clothes, good wines and good food since the bacanales were, in the Ancient Greece and Rome, parties celebrated to pay homage to the God Baco that included plenty of good food and alcoholic beverages.
If you ever spend a couple of days in Buenos Aires or Montevideo, there are great chances that you will hear at least once the word mina in a conversation and, needless to say, without referring to any kind of military device or to the place where precious metals are extracted.
What kind of mina is everybody talking about? To begin with, we will mention that in the River Plate area mina has a very distinctive meaning since it is one of the most popular terms used in lunfardo. It is part of everyday language of men and women, both young and old. Generally speaking, mina means “woman”.
Free image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Mina: When A Woman is as Precious as a Jewel
Both in Buenos Aires and in Montevideo, the term mina is traditionally used to refer to a beautiful and sexually attractive woman. The origin of this usage can be traced to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Buenos Aires was a Spanish colony, and groups of slaves were brought from Africa. The slaves that came to America from the old Portuguese African fort of San Jorge de la Mina received the name of Minas. The slave women that came from Cape Verde were especially expensive; their very dark skin and exquisite, exotic beauty made them very sought after by men, who employed them in their houses and used them to satisfy sexual favors. In the 20th century and now in the 21st, mina is still used to talk about a beautiful woman, especially in informal or colloquial conversations.
According to some language experts, this term of lunfardo derives from the clipping of the Italian word femmina and the contraction of the Galician menina. To these origins we can add the metaphoric language used by procurers since the woman with her body brought them money, just as a mine does any time a precious metal is extracted from it.
Mina: Or How to Talk About a Woman in a Pejorative Way
Even though it may seem paradoxical, it is also quite common to find the word mina used to refer to a woman in a pejorative or derogatory way.
This is quite common in everyday dialogues or when somebody is telling a story in which in some way or another a lady intervenes, whether she is beautiful or not.
Mina: A Tango Word
There are many tangos where we can find the word mina, either because a beautiful woman is the main character or because she is the singer’s elusive object of desire.
In this context, language expert Gobello states that it comes from the Italian slang. On the other hand, etymologist Santillán comes up with two complementary points of view. He mentions that, either it is the Castillian voice mina figuratively meaning any profitable activity or business or it derives from the Italian slang of the camorra in which this voice stands for “donna” and “miniera”, which mean young and beautiful prostitute.
It is also worth mentioning that the word mina has additional meanings in the world of tango. Amongst them we can mention: woman, female, prostitute, woman that lives with a man, woman that lives with a man illegally, concubine and lover.
Argentine Spanish is strewn with words and colorful phrases from Lunfardo, a rich vocabulary born on the streets of Buenos Aires in the second half of the 19th century. Now considered a fixture of the Spanish language in Argentina (especially in and around Buenos Aires) and Uruguay, linguists cite the use of Lunfardo as a defining characteristic of the Rioplatense dialect. Add a dash of Argentine flavor to your Spanish vocabulary with the Transpanish blog’s ongoing feature highlighting some of the most frequently used terms in Lunfardo.
A popular lunfardo term is junar, a verb that is believed to have derived from the Romani language Caló of Spain and Portugal. In this language, which has inspired many other lunfardo terms, junar means “to listen”. In modern use, though, the meaning has changed.
The first meaning may be described as “to watch” or “look”, although it is more specific than mirar or ver. That is, junar is to look at someone in a roguish or even leering way. Oftentimes, it can be used to describe a person’s excessively obvious/aggressive “romantic” gaze, e.g. Él te está junando “He is leering at you”. Although it refers to a manner of looking in a specific time and space, it can also occasionally have implications beyond the particular instance.
The second meaning is basically synonymous with conocer, which also has a dual meaning—“to meet” or “to know”—though junar more closely compares to the later. It can translate very directly to conocer in an example such as ¿Junás a María?
“Do you know María?” or less so in another, ¿Quién la juna a María?, which is a rather pejorative way to say that nobody knows María, or that she’s not worth knowing.
The third meaning may be considered a sort of extension of the first and second meanings. That is, junar can be used both positivity and negatively with reference to a more essential characteristic or intention of a person—a characteristic beyond what is immediately, physically perceivable (e.g. a person’s manner of looking at). A close common Spanish equivalent here might be a combination of conocer and entender. Although it has a wider range of use than the first meaning, it commonly relates to romantic situations, e.g. La juna por la infidelidad “He/she knows she is unfaithful”.
It’s interesting to consider, first, how junar of lunfardo changed from the original form of “to listen” from Caló, and second, how the contemporary lunfardo meaning severed. At what point did the division between listening and seeing begin to blur, or, was the change less organic, i.e. did the initial rioplantense user of it simply decide to do so in this new manner? Finally, the dual lunfardo meaning raises the question: at what point does a physical characteristic, such as a manner of looking at someone, become more than physical—that is, essential of a person?
The word junar turns up in the lyrics of the tango “Atenti Pebeta” by Ciciarco Ortiz and Celedonio Flores.
Cuando estés en la vereda y te fiche un bacanazo,
vos hacete la chitrula y no te le deschavés;
que no manye que estás lista al primer tiro de lazo
y que por un par de leones bien planchados te perdés.
Cuando vengas para el centro, caminá junando el suelo,
arrastrando los fanguyos y arrimada a la pared,
como si ya no tuvieras ilusiones ni consuelo,
pues, si no, dicen los giles que te han echao a perder.
Si ves unos guantes patito, ¡rajales!;
a un par de polainas, ¡rajales también!
A esos sobretodos con catorce ojales
no les des bolilla, porque 1e perdés;
a esos bigotitos de catorce líneas
que en vez de bigote son un espinel…
¡atenti, pebeta!, seguí mi consejo:
yo soy zorro viejo y te quiero bien.
Abajate la pollera por donde nace el tobillo,dejate crecer el pelo y un buen rodete lucí,
comprate un corsé de fierro con remaches y tornillos
y dale el olivo al polvo, a la crema y al carmín.Tomá leche con vainillas o chocolate con churros,
aunque estés en el momento propiamente del vermut.
Después comprate un bufoso y, cachando al primer turro,
por amores contrariados le hacés perder la salud.
Regional differences in the way Spanish is spoken can usually be attributed to either the influence of native languages that exist in a particular area or the languages brought by immigrants that blend with Spanish to create a unique regional dialect. The Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires, as we have discussed in our series on Lunfardo words, is no exception.
Another example of a language influence is Cocoliche, which takes its name from Antonio Cuculicchio, a theater worker in the Podestá theater company established in Argentina and Uruguay towards the end of the nineteenth century. An Italian immigrant, Cuculicchio’s accent was apparently often mocked by others, giving rise to the comical caricature of a figure called “Cocolicchio”, representing a southern Italian.
Cocoliche is a hybrid language that arose from the meeting of Spanish in Argentina and Italian brought to that country by immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century. The result was a pidgin — an oral form of communication that blended elements of two languages to foster communication between diverse groups of people, in some cases simplifying the grammar and lexicon of each language.
Over time, as the Italian immigrants in Argentina spread out geographically and blended more into their new culture, Cocoliche began to disappear. Yet as it became more and more rare to hear the language spoken, per se, its remnants were left — and still remain — in the form of surviving words and turns of accent. Indeed, Cocoliche is the origin of some characteristics commonly associated with the Argentinian accent of Italian immigrants, such as the “ch” sound in “diche” (dice).