7 Mexican Words with No Translations – MOTW4

This episode is all about words you might come across in Mexico that have no translations into English. The language spoken in Mexico is Spanish, NOT Mexican. As a translator, it’s my job to find a way around these linguistic obstacles, but language is often so tightly connected to culture that you often end up having to explain the culture in order to translate the word.

The idea for this episode came from a couple of sources. One was a conversation I had with my business partner, Ian Gardner, who one day asked me out of the blue if there were any ideas from Spanish I couldn’t express in English. I think the two I suggested were “tocayo” and “estrenar”. The other source was a video from BuzzFeed on typical Mexican complaints, of which “patatús” is a good example.

1. Tocayo/Tocaya

Someone who happens to have the same name as you. Tocaitl in Nahuatl, meaning “the other me”.

2. Estrenar

Common to any Spanish-speaking country. Can mean “to debut” or “to premiere”, but is most often used to talk about using or wearing something new for the first time.

3. Concuño/Concuña

The brother or sister of one’s brother-in-law or sister-in-law or the spouse of one’s brother-in-law or sister-in-law. To describe men: a wife’s brother-in-law or a sister-in-law’s husband. To describe women: a brother-in-law’s wife or a husband’s sister-in-law.

4. Patatús

To either have a fit or to faint from shock.

5. Amparo

Petition for constitutional relief against legislative and executive acts or court decisions.

6. Chilango/Chilanga

Someone from Mexico City. Xilaan in Maya, meaning someone with tousled hair and used to describe someone from the interior.

7. Achicopalado/Achicopalada

To be under the weather or down in the dumps.

Recommendations

  • Chilanga Banda – a song from Café Tacuba filled with words used by Chilangos.
  • Diccionario de Mejicanismos – for those hardcore fans of Mexican words, this amazing dictionary by Francisco J. Santamaria gives you their translations into Castilian Spanish.
  • Arrival – a film about how language can change who we are. It’s based on a tale by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”, which is available in his short story collection, “Stories of Your Life and Others”.

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4 comments

  • Nevin

    “Patatús” could be translated into equally-slangy English as “having hissy fit.”

    “Amparo” would be best understood a generic description for a handful of different instruments in Common Law: appeal, retraining order, estoppal…

    • Those are good translations, Nevin! I think my original point was that there’s no one translation for any of those words, although I might not have expressed it terribly well. A hissy fit could be one translation for “patatús”, but it could also be a nasty turn or even a fainting fit depending on context. I think the best advice I got on “amparo” was to include a note from the translator pointing someone in the direction of a lawyer, as that one is very specific to Mexican law.

  • Thank you for mentioning Santamaría’s dictionary. It is one of my favourite dictionaries of all time. I could just sit and read it for hours, but I also like the story of how he wrote it, walking around Mexico, gathering words, for the love of the language. He is my go-to etymologist when it comes to Mexican botany, so much information there, but sometimes he is just funny. His definition of chile con carne cracks me up.

    • It is indeed a brilliant dictionary, Michelle! I think it was actually you who recommended it to me in the first place, when I was struggling to understand articles in Artes de México. I don’t know how I could have that without this dictionary.