El Salvador – New Vocabulary

When we went to El Salvador I expected the kids vocabulary and Spanish language skills to improve by leaps and bounds, (they did!) – but I didn’t realize I would learn new words… and I especially didn’t think Carlos, a born and bred Salvadoran and native Spanish-speaker would learn anything new.

The thing is, new words enter the lexicon all the time, and we were away for over a decade. In 1999 there weren’t “Ciber/Cyber Cafes” [pronounced see-ber] – where people can pay to use the internet – or at least they weren’t as popular as they are now.

So for today’s Spanish Friday, I’m going to share the new vocabulary I picked up in El Salvador.

Pasarela – Pedestrian walkway over a busy road. (I heart this word. It’s so pretty.) Pasarelas are also known as spots where young people make-out – Something I witnessed several times. I insisted that Carlos and I try to fit into the culture, although maybe we don’t qualify as young people anymore.

Ambiente – Environment, atmosphere, ambiance. There were always questions directed at me about whether I liked “el ambiente” of wherever we happened to be. (The answer was always “¡Sí!”)

Recarga – Literally it means “recharge” – but “recargas” are when you buy more minutes for your cellphone. While we were there we had the cheapest model of cellphone, (I think it cost like $10) – It had very few features (one of which, inexplicably, was a built in flashlight), and one (very annoying) ringtone which sounded even when you were turning it off. I wish I had thought to take video or photos of it, but I forgot. We actually came to love that stupid, little phone. I wish I could hear its stupid ring again.

Anyway, the “recargas” can be gotten almost anywhere. There are signs at various businesses and kiosks. They also have special days where they double or triple your minutes. If it was a triple day and you bought $3 worth of minutes, they’d give you $9. (El Salvador is very big on these bonus deal things – more on that another day.)

For some reason, Carlos couldn’t get used to the word “recarga” and every time he went to get a recarga for the phone, he’d go up to the counter and mistakenly say, “Necesito una carga” – to which the confused clerk would say, “Necesita cargar que? No entiendo.”

Getting recargas for the phone seemed like a burden at first, but now I kind of miss running over to Metrocentro to take care of it. It was a good excuse to go out and walk around. I also miss the way we Spanglish-cized the word while we were there. I’d say, “Did you recarga your phone?” or “You just recarga-ed yesterday. Are you out of minutes already?”

Místico – The real translation of this word is “mystical” or “mystic” but people seem to use it to mean “weirdo” – I’m still a little confused about this one. (Guanacos, help me out!)

Bruma – Mist/fog. This is the word people used to refer to grey clouds that come over the mountains which they say is due to humidity.

(Not sure if this qualifies as “bruma”)

Ubicada – Located. This is another word that was used a lot. “Está bien ubicada” (It’s well located), or “Ya ubicaste?” (Did you figure out where we are?)

Está yuca – This phrase means “It’s difficult” and it’s one of my new favorites. “Está bien yuca la situación” means the situation is really difficult/complicated. (Again, this one got used multiple times per day, whether referring to family problems, politics, the economy or traffic.)

Pulido – Literally means “polished”, but used to mean “cool” (not “cool” temperature wise, but awesome-ness wise.)

Tocadores/Sanitarios – Both words can be used instead of “baños” to mean “bathrooms.” “Sanitarios” is a word I’m cool with – it sounds like “sanitary” … that’s always a good thing and one of my priorities when looking for a bathroom. “Tocadores” disturbs me. It sounds like the verb “tocar” (to touch) … and that is why I still make sure my kids are accompanied to the restroom.

By the way, while we’re on the subject of bathrooms – know that the toilets in Metrocentro’s public bathrooms lack seats. If you really need to go and can’t master the squat stance (I haven’t), then head over to the department store called “Siman” … They have seats. Whew!

Another tip – some bathrooms in El Salvador don’t have toilet paper in the stall. The toilet paper is located on the wall near the sinks. You must estimate how much you need and take it with you. I think this is to avoid people being wasteful and using too much, but I’m not sure. This setup requires one to know their body well and plan ahead. You can not go into the stall with the intention of only doing a #1, but decide to do a #2, lest you find yourself in the “can you spare a square” situation of Elaine on Seinfeld.

Original – This seemed to mean unique, cool and name brand. We hung out with Carlos’s best friend a lot, and he has a 15 year old son. I found myself hanging out with the teenager a lot because we had more in common, (which isn’t saying much for my maturity.) … Anyway, he was always very excited when something was not a knock-off, declaring, “Es original!”

Ah, ya – Not actually a word, but it means something like, “Oh, I see. Right. Gotcha. I understand.” … I personally always used “Oh, sí” – but the teenager I hung out with always said something that sounded like “Aya” when he finally understood what I was talking about.

Mecha – pistol/gun … The teenager and I talked a lot about gangs. He was so impressed with how much I already knew. He was so confused as to how a girl from the United States could know so much about El Salvador. It kind of blew his mind because he was totally obsessed with everything American – clothes, food, music, movies. He couldn’t understand why I would be equally obsessed with everything Salvadoran.

Anyway, one thing he told me about gangs in El Salvador that I didn’t already know, is that there’s one gang that gets tattoos of Mickey Mouse. He said this with a completely serious expression on his face, and he looked kind of shocked when I busted out laughing. “Why are you laughing?” he asked. “Mickey Mouse is for children,” I said, “That doesn’t seem very scary.” He seemed to take this into consideration but wasn’t totally convinced that my reaction was normal.

Then again, his reaction to finding out Pizza Hut in the United States does not in fact serve horchata was kind of funny, too.


Did you participate in Spanish Friday? Leave your link in comments!


    • I didn’t know that one (gato/gata) … Is it used sort of like naco/naca?

      Gracias por participar en Spanish Friday. I’ve been enjoying your posts a lot.

      • Yeah, it is a similar context, but the way I see it used, it seems like it is intended to be more demeaning than nac@.

        I kept hearing it and kind of deduced the meaning from the context and the other day I asked around for an explanation and I wasn’t too far off.

        Glad you enjoy them. Likewise, I always enjoy reading your stuff.

        Its been a real great outlet for myself these last couple of weeks. I hope you enjoy the forthcoming entries as well.

      • Boy, oh boy. Thanks for this website. I think about my terminology all the time. ‘Naco’, the way my parents used used it was meant to mean the wrong way,… because it was weak. So if, as a child I reacted poorly to a negative situation, my mom would say, ‘Aye, hijo. No seas naco.’

  1. I love love love how you are always learning something new, and always curious about everything around you. I wish there were more people like you amiga!
    You have some pretty good words there! Me sorprendió muchísimo lo de los baños… en México nunca he visto eso! Se llama “hacer de aguilita”, when you have to squat. Ay Dios mio!
    Y los baños se llaman tocadores because that´s where women go to touch up.. o sea, “darse una manita de gato”, put on some make up, etc. :D
    Love your Spanish Fridays because I learn a lot too! Un abrazo amiga!

    • Thanks, amiga. You always say something to make me feel special and loved :)

      I’m feeling better about the word “tocadores” now… That makes sense. Jajaja….


  2. Dominicans use “ubicarse” to mean to get one’s bearings and also the past participle “ubicado/a.” “Ambiente” is common as well. My husband uses “mística” in the feminine as a noun, as in “Deja tu mística”= “stop being so secretive,” although I had to translate it as an adjective in English.

    I think “pasarela” is from the French “passerelle” and “pulido” reminds me of the Italian “pulito” (clean or polished). Once you know one Romance language it is easier to pick up another one.

    • Lori, Salvadorans seemed to use “ubicarse” to mean the same.

      I agree with you on “pasarela” and “pulido” … A friend of mine in El Salvador was talking about how she’d love to learn Italian – I told her to get to it! If you’re a Spanish speaker, you’re way ahead of the game when it comes to learning Italian, or any Romance language.

  3. funny this whole time i thought my dad didnt know what the hell he was talking about when he used the word mistica lmao he always used in place of the word rara…ahora veo que la que no sabia era yo hahaha

    I learned a new word when i went to El Salvador the last time too (your pizza hut mentioned reminded me) palitroques =breadsticks

  4. Me alegra que, además de buenos recuersos, te hayas llevado nuevas palabras para tu vocabulario.
    Me encanta la foto de la pasarela! very cute!
    En cuanto a las palabras que mencionas:
    Ambiente: tambien se usa “Ella/El es bien de ambiente” meaning que la persona es fun y se adapta fácilmente a cualquier situación! (just like me)
    Mistico: La verdad es que yo no uso esa palabra con el contexto que tu mencionas. He escuchado de alguien ser Mistico cuando es bastante “secretive” o alguien como ultra conservador (nothing like me).
    Tocador: NADA que ver con gente tocona jajajaja. Tambien se usa para “vanity” el mueble en tu recámara donde te “retocas” el maquillaje.
    Sanitarios: muchas veces es un oxymoron, ya que de Sanitario…. NADA!
    Ah, ya: si, admito que lo uso mucho! Ah ya, del verbo “Ya te entendí”, “Comprendo” “Ya te agarré la onda”
    Mecha: the true meaning of mecha is a piece of string, hair, the stringy thing on top of the candle but Salvadorans have an extra meaning: GUN! or “Te voy a day mecha” meaming I will shoot you (not something I would EVER say).
    Hasta pronto amiga!

      • BTW, Claudia reminded me of something..

        “Gente de ambiente” can also be used as code words for gay.

        As in “a ese bar solo llega gente de ambiente”

      • JAJAJAJAJA Chele says gente de ambiente es un code de gente Gay! MENTIRA!!!!!!!!! jajjajjajaa Yo soy de ambiente y de Gay tengo lo que tengo de Australiana = NADA!
        Será que tengo que “mingle” más con la comunidad gay de EL Salvador? Dónde los encuentro…. mmm maybe preguntando en Twitter!

  5. This post was a lot of fun. It’s so interesting to see how colloquial expressions are formed from ordinary words, and it’s also cool what different meanings they might have from country to country. Language is fun.

  6. LOL! I love hearing you describe figuring out Aya.
    I don’t want to admit how many months it was that every time I went past a bookstore I ducked in and peeked into all their Spanish-English dictionaries looking for the word “paca”. Boy did I feel dumb when I finally figured out it was just “para aca”.

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