Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lunfardo - Argentinian Slang

Lunfardo was a colorful, slangy argot of the Spanish language which developed at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century in the lower classes in and around Buenos Aires.

Many Lunfardo expressions have entered into the popular language and have become an integral part of the Spanish spoken in Argentina and Uruguay. A few have been recognized even by the Real Academia Española. Lunfardo is frequently found in the lyrics of tangos, supplying nuances and double-entendres with overtones of sex, drugs, and the criminal underworld.

Much of Lunfardo arrived with European immigrants, such as Italians, French, Portuguese, and Poles. It should be noted that Italian immigrants spoke their regional dialects and not standard Italian; other words arrived from the pampa by means of the gauchos; a small number originated in Argentina's black population.

Most sources believe that Lunfardo originated in jails, as a prisoner-only argot. Circa 1900, the word lunfardo itself (originally a deformation of lombardo in several Italian dialects) was used to mean "outlaw".

Lunfardo words are inserted in the normal flow of Rioplatense Spanish sentences. Thus, a Mexican reading tango lyrics will need, at most, the translation of a discrete set of words, and not a grammar guide.

Tango lyrics use lunfardo sparsely, but some songs (such as El Ciruja, or most lyrics by Celedonio Flores) employ lunfardo heavily. "Milonga Lunfarda" by Edmundo Rivero is an instructive and entertaining primer on lunfardo usage.

A characteristic of lunfardo is its use of wordplay, notably vesre (reversing the syllables). Thus, tango becomes gotán and café con leche (latte, café au lait) becomes feca con chele.

Lunfardo employs ingenious metaphors such as bobo ("dumb") for the heart, who "works all day long without being paid", or bufoso ("snorter") for pistol.

Finally, there are words that are derived from others in Spanish, such as the verb abarajar, which means to stop your opponent's blows with the blade of your knife and is related to the verb "barajar", which means to cut or shuffle a deck of cards.

  • Manyar - To know / to eat (from the Italian mangiare -to eat-)
  • Morfar - To eat (from French argot morfer -to eat-)
  • Laburar - To work (from Italian argot lavoro -work-)
  • Algo voy a cerebrar - I'll think something up (cerebrar from cerebro -brains-)
  • Chochamu - Young man (vesre for muchacho)
  • Gurí - Boy (from Guaraní -boy-) Feminine: gurisa - girl. Plural: gurises - kids
  • Garpar - to pay with money (vesre for "pagar" which means to pay)
  • Gomías - Friends (vesre for amigos)
  • Fiaca - laziness (from the Italian fiacco -weak-)
  • Engrupir - To fool someone (origin unknown, but also used in modern European Portuguese slang).
  • Junar - To look to / to know (from Caló junar -to hear-)

Since the 1970s, it is a matter of debate whether newer additions to the slang of Buenos Aires qualify as lunfardo. Traditionalists argue that lunfardo must have a link to the argot of the old underworld, to tango lyrics, or to racetrack slang. Others maintain that the colloquial language of Buenos Aires is lunfardo—by definition.

Some examples of modern talk:

  • Gomas (lit. tires) - woman's breasts
  • Maza (lit. mace or sledgehammer) - superb
  • Curtir (lit. to tan) - to be involved in
    • Curtir fierros can mean "to be into car mechanics" or "to be into firearms" (see Notes below)
  • Zafar - to barely get by (see Notes below)
  • Trucho - counterfeit, fake (see Notes below)

Many new terms had spread from specific areas of the dynamic Buenos Aires cultural scene: invented by screenwriters, used around the arts-and-crafts fair in Plaza Francia, culled from the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, or created by the lyricists of cumbia villera.

Only a very staunch conservative would deny lunfardo status to this verse from cumbia villera band Los Pibes Chorros ("The Thieving Boys"): "Al primero que se haga el ortiba / por pancho y careta le vamos a dar" (see Notes below).


  • Zafar is actually a standard Spanish word (originally meaning to extricate oneself) that had fallen out of use and was restored to everyday Buenos Aires speech in the 1980s by students, with the meaning of "barely passing (an examination)".
  • Trucho is from old Spanish slang truchamán, which in turn derives from the Arabic turjeman ("translator", referring specifically to a person who accosts foreigners and lures them into tourist traps). There is also a folk etymology that derives this word from trucha (trout). Reference (Spanish)
  • Fierro is the Old Spanish form of hierro (iron). In Argentine parlance, it can mean a firearm or anything related to metals and mechanics, for example a racing car.
  • Ortiba is vesre for batidor ("informant" in lunfardo).

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