“Pass the Vacuum” and other Carlos-isms

Carlos "passing the vacuum"

If you’ve raised a child, you know that as they’re learning to speak, they make a lot of really cute mistakes. It could be a grammatical error, or a word misunderstood and used inappropriately, but for someone like me who adores everything about linguistics, it’s one of my very favorite things about childhood. (Raising bilingual children means one gets a double dose of these sweet slip-ups!)

At some point though, your children get older and their language abilities improve. The mistakes become few and far between so when they make one, maybe, just maybe, you don’t correct them. You can’t stop them from growing up, but you can selfishly make it last a little longer.

I still remember years ago at the table. My younger son asked what we were having for dinner.

“Enchiladas,” I said.

“Lavas? I hate lavas,” he responded, crossing his little arms over his chest.

My older son, ever the know-it-all, corrected him, “Not LAVAS! EnchiLADAS!… Geez, if it was lavas you’d burn your mouth all up!”

But that was about eight years ago. At thirteen and ten years old, my boys are growing up and those days are fading fast. Fortunately, I still have Carlos.

Don’t get me wrong – Carlos’s English is fantastically proficient these days, but there are still a few words and phrases that I haven’t really corrected over all these years. Here are a few I wrote down the past couple weeks. (It took me a couple weeks to listen to him in daily conversation and compile the list because at this point, some of this phrasing is starting to sound normal to me!)

Wings – Carlos never uses the word “underarm” or “armpit” – instead he uses, “wings.” … In Spanish, it is accepted slang to refer to them as such. (At least in El Salvador.) And so he’s just directly translated “alas” – the Spanish word for “wings.” This one has even caught on with my Anglo parents. When they heard him use it with our first son as a baby, they couldn’t resist adopting its use into their own lexicon.

Example: [Said to one of our sons before they shower] – “Don’t forget to clean your wings! You smell a little stinky.”

Pass the vacuum – This is another direct translation. In Spanish there isn’t a verb for vacuum. You say “Pasar la aspiradora” (or more common in the United States, the Spanglish version, “Pasar el vacuum.”) Because of Carlos, the kids actually say “pass the vacuum” in English and think it’s totally normal.

Example: “I’m going to pass the vacuum. The boys got dirt on the carpet.”

Joke hard – I’m not even totally sure about this one because I’ve started to use it over the years, too. What is meant by ‘joke hard’ is to joke around with someone and tease them in such a way that you’re almost crossing the line into making them angry.

Example: “That guy likes to joke hard with people, but he doesn’t like it when others make fun of him.”

You passed me your insert illness! – This might be acceptable in English although I would say we only use it to refer to cold/flu germs. Whenever Carlos falls sick or has any sort of injury though, you can be sure he will be blaming family members left and right, telling them that they ‘passed’ their illness onto him, whatever that illness might be.

Example: “My back hurts. You passed me your back problems!”

They exaggerate too much! – In Spanish, it’s common to say “los precios son exagerados” – (the prices are exaggerated) – so I think that’s where he got this one from.

Example: “Are they kidding? Ten dollars for that?! They exaggerate too much!”

Your shirt looks like a cow chewed on it. – Carlos has no patience for wrinkled clothing. Wrinkled clothing is totally unacceptable. This weird phrasing is the direct translation of “Parece que la vaca masticó tu camisa” – which apparently is a perfectly normal way to make fun of someone’s wrinkled shirt in El Salvador.

Example: “You can’t wear that to school! Look at it! It looks like a cow chewed your shirt!”

Respect the table! – If the boys are being rude at the dinner table, it’s not tolerated. Like Carlos, I expect good manners, but when Carlos shouts, “Respect the table!” – it is terribly difficult to keep a straight face. The boys also want to giggle, but they don’t dare. “Respeta la mesa” is a normal request in Spanish but in English it would be better to say, “Mind your manners!”

Example: Hey. HEY! Respect the table! I don’t think you want me to take off my chancla.


  1. Una frase que hemos spanglishzado con mis amigos es “go and cry to the little field”. We use it when something with no solution happens.
    Example: Si se te rompe el frasco de mayonesa, “andá a llorar al campito”, dicen los argentinos. …”go and cry to the little field”, decimos con mis amigos.

  2. jaja Great post! I might have to make a list of the words and phrases my fiancé uses in Spanish, or his translations..they’re hilarious! One time I sent him to our local panaderia to buy tamales. He called me to ask if I wanted “weird shampoo”, I told him I didn’t know what the was and he said: “weird shampoo, you know, shampoo raro”. I was like: “You mean champurrado?” He thought “Champu” meant “shampoo” and “rrado” was “raro” LOL

  3. In Mexico, the verb for “to vacuum” is aspirar…voy a aspirar…estoy aspirando…etc…at least my family says it like that :)

    • Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Dinita! The Salvadorans I know use “pasar” — so “aspirar” is a totally new word to me.

  4. When I used to live in Thailand, I knew a half mexican half thai couple that met in chicago and then moved to Thailand. Now their kids really had a messed up phrases. They would talk to me in English, but half that time I still wouldn’t understand them and the other half of the the time I only understood them because I can speak Thai. I am assuming that if I knew spanish then I would have been able to understand the rest.

    One thing they used to me was can you open the light, which in thai is how you would say turn on the light.

    • LOL – That’s a good one, Jarvis. You reminded me of another.

      Because there is a verb for “to turn on” and a verb for “to turn off” in Spanish, (Encender la luz. Apagar la luz), Carlos just says, “Can you turn the light” in English — I always have to say “Which one? On or off?” LOL

  5. These were great, Tracy! I’m glad I wasn’t reading them in public because I was totally loling kinda loud ; ) I think I’m gonna have to steal a few of them!

    • Wouldn’t it be weird if, due to the increasing number of bicultural/Spanish-bilingual families, if in 20 years, these were worked into every day English? LOL.

  6. Funny, lots of these work in French too! I probably made a few of these when I first came to Canada.

    I still have issues remembering that in English, jeans in plural (in French it´s jean). Same goes with hair, in French it´s always plural.

  7. Cracking up…I love little language mistakes, too. We’ve adopted some of my husbands, as well. Right now, what comes to mind is “open (or close) the water” meaning “turn on” the water . Also, the other day, my daughter came to me and said, “Dad wants to know how you spell tick.” I was like “huh? Why is he texting tick to someone?” She’s running back and forth between us answering questions because we were in different rooms. I’m asking what kind of tick? It could be tic, like tic toc, or tick, like the bug. Finally I had to get up to see what he was talking about…. something was definitely getting lost in translation. Turns out he was saying “thick” the whole time.

    • These were great, Susan! You made me LOL. The “th” is difficult for Carlos, too. We were just practicing this the other day. I explained that he has to move his tongue up between his teeth. Seeing him do this in a very exaggerated way, but then somehow managing still not to make the right sound, is hilarious.

  8. Wait, you mean non-latinos don’t say “Pass the vacuum”? But “I’m going to vacuum” sounds so boring! LOL!

    I’m staying with pass the vacuum! :)

  9. Hahahahaha! These are all too funny! We used to say “pasar la vacuum” when we lived in the U.S. Gotta love Spanglish! :)

    My hubby and I both have a couple of these. Back when we were newlyweds and Hubby was just starting to learn English, I remember watching some movie and in one scene a woman called the guy an a-hole. Hubby didn’t think the guy deserved it, so he whispered over to me and asked if I thought the lady was being an “assa”. LOL Hubby thought the word was “asso”. :P

  10. Hilarious! I have so many Brenda-isms in both languages! I am often struck by an awful pang of guilt when I call my sister “sisterna” (a play on the word “cisterna”) and also thank people for “friendearme” on Facebook. Love, LOVE your blog, un chorro.

  11. LOL. I finally got a chance to come back and read this post in its entirety. Hilarious.

    I have a couple I heard in Canada, some Salvadoran kids I knew:

    “Put key” a direct translation of “echale llave” when you lock the door.

    “in point” as in “3 en punto” when telling time.

    Also, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why people I knew (from various different Latin American countries) would always pronounce “mach” (as in the speed of sound and Mach 3 razors) as “maTch.” I’d correct them with “mauk” and every time they’d ignore me. Then it dawned on me that in Spanish we pronounce “ch” in that manner.

    BTW, there is a variant of the cow/wrinkles saying: parece la sacaste del buche de una vaca, i.e. it looks like you pulled that out of a cow’s throat.

    Why it is always a cow is beyond me. I would think a goat would be more inclined to eat a shirt. LOL

    • I love these examples! … I wish Carlos would make a list of the ones I’ve messed up while speaking Spanish but it’s like he doesn’t notice at all. At this point he even says I don’t speak with an accent in Spanish when I know I do.

      I wondered the same thing about the wrinkled shirt saying – why a cow? Why not a goat? … So weird. Maybe a cow actually chewed someone’s shirt and it took off from there. Who knows. LOL.

  12. There used to be a strong farmer culture in El Salvador which went from a medieval system to half industrialized, to services etc. (to money recipient now?). This reflects in the language spoken by the generations that emigrated to North America in the 70’s and 80’s. Cows are ruminant, i.e., they chew the cud and then regurgitate it. If a cow were to eat a shirt, a cow would regurgitate it and the shirt would look exactly the same as it look when it comes out of a washer.

  13. Talking about cows. In Mexico, when you used too much gel, mousse or whatever on your hair and it’s so shinny we say “parece que te lambió una vaca”. Kind of “it looks like a cow licked you” or something like that.

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