Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tango Terms and Etymology

Tango Terms and Etymology

ToTANGO Dancers

A language - and therefore it's terms -
is a living, growing, evolving phenomenon.

  • abrazo: embrace (as in dance hold).
  • amague: from amagar. To make a threatening motions. An amague is used as an embellishment either led or done on one's own and may be used before taking a step. An example of an amague may be a beat (frappe) before taking a step.
  • barrida: sweep. A sweeping motion. One partner's foot sweeps the other's foot. Also called llevada.
  • barrio: a district, neighborhood.
  • boleo: from bolear. To throw. A boleo may be executed either high or low. Keeping knees together, with one leg in back, swivel on the supporting leg.
  • caminar: to walk. The walk is similar to a natural walking step but the ball of the foot touches before the heel. The body and leg must move as a unit so that the body is in balance. Walks should be practiced for balance and fluidity.
  • corte: cut. In tango corte means cutting the music either by syncopating or holding several beats.
  • cruzada: cross. A cruzada occurs anytime a foot is crossed in front or in back of the other.
  • desplazamiento: displacement. Displacing the partner's foot or leg using one's leg or foot.
  • dibujo: drawing, sketch. A dibujo is done by drawing circles or other small movements on the floor with one's toe.
  • enganche: hooking, coupling. Occurs when partner wraps leg around the other's leg.
  • enrosque: from enroscar. To coil, twist. While woman executes a molinete, man spins on one foot, hooking other foot behind the spinning foot.
  • giro: turn. While woman does molinete, man turns on one foot placing the toe of the foot in front and executing a sharp turn.
  • llevada: from llevar. To transport (see barrida).
  • media vuelta: half turn. Usually done when man's right foot and woman's left foot are free. Man steps forward with his right leading woman to take a back step with her left and then leads he to take two steps while turning a half turn.
  • milonga: may refer to music or the dance which preceded the tango, written in 2/4 time; or may refer to the dance salon or event where people go to dance tango (see below).
  • milongueros: refers to those frequenting the milongas and considered tango fanatics.
  • molinete: fan. Molinetes are forward and back ochos (figure 8's) done in a circle.
  • ocho: eight. Figure eights usually executed with feet together (ankles touching) instead of one foot extended.
  • ocho atras: ochos backward
  • pista: dance floor.
  • salida: Exit, or start. It's interesting that the word for the basic step (a place to start) should be a way to get out of a figure as well.
  • salida cruzada:the beginning of a pattern with a cross; i.e. side left crossing right foot behind left, or side right crossing left foot behind right.
  • sandwichito: One partner's foot is sandwiched between the other partner's feet.
  • sentada: a sitting action.
  • sacada: see desplazamiento (don't you love glossaries that do that?).
  • trabada: fastened. It is a lock step - the step that the woman takes when man steps outside with his right foot and then straight forward left, together right. At this point the woman crosses and this cross is referred to as trabada



Milonga, according to Jose Gobelo (founder of Academia del lunfardo, considered to be an authority when it comes to Tango subjects), states that it is a word of the African Language "Quimbunda", plural of 'Mulonga'. Mulonga in that language means, "word"; Milonga means words, the words of the Payadores. In 1872 when Jose Hernandez published his most famous book "Martin Fierro" (describes in verse the life of a gaucho); the word Milonga had already acquired the meaning of gathering where one can dance. A decade later, 1883, Ventura Lynch wrote: "In the periphery of the city the Milonga is so generalized that is danced in all the gatherings, it can be heard played by guitars, accordions, comb and paper, or played by street musicians with flute, harp and violin". It is also danced in the low-class casinos around the markets of 11 de Septiembre and Constitución, other dances and funerals".

Today, Milonga has several meanings: a music, a dance, the place or gathering where one dances and also the original meaning (many words, or long story), such as in "no me vengas ahora con esa milonga", (do not start now with all that jazz).


There is no agreement as to the etymology of this word. When it comes to the pre-history of tango everything is shrouded in a dense fog.

The word tango appeared much earlier than the dance. It first appeared outside Argentina, in one of the Canary Islands (Isla de Hierro) and in other parts of America with the meaning of "gathering of blacks to dance to drum music; also the name the Africans gave the drum itself". The dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy of Letters, 1899 edition, defines Tango as "Fiesta and dance of Negroes or "gente del pueblo" (those that belong to lower socio-economical class) in America"; also a second meaning: "Music for that dance". Here one has to remember that to the Spanish world, America is the whole continent - not just the USA; in this case it refers to the Spanish part of America, excluding USA and Canada.

Here the dictionary gives the doubtful etymology of Latin 'tangir' (to play instruments). Latin ergo tango = I play. It is only natural to try to find a Latin origin to the word, although this etymological line obviously is not related to the Argentinean meaning. The 1914 edition gives the etymology tangir or tangere "to play or to touch". Later editions removed that etymological reference.

The music historian Carlos Vega explains that in Mexico, a dance called tango existed in the 18th century. This dance was done individually or apart, not as a couple. Archives of the Holy Inquisition in Mexico make reference to the "ancient tango" - a mexican song - in 1803.

The Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy, edition 1925 defines Tango as before, but without the latin etymology and added: "Dance of high society imported from America at the beginning of this century". Once more Tango traveled all the way from "low-class" to "high-class." It includes two more meaning: "music for this dance" and also "Drum of Honduras". It is only in the 1984 edition that tango is defined as an Argentinean dance.

*It seems that the African origin of the word Tango is accepted by they largest number of erudite investigators. Ricardo Rodriguez reviewed the languages spoken by the slaves brought to Argentina ... tribes from the Congo, the Gulf of Guinea and Southern Sudan. Tango means "closed space," "circle," "any private space to which one must ask permission to enter". The slave traders called Tango the places where black slaves where kept, in Africa as well as in America. The place where slaves where sold also received that name. We could discuss this in more detail but ... I am afraid to bore you with so much detail.

In summary, the most probable origin of the word tango is: closed space where negroes gather to dance; later on the dance itself.


The same way as lawyers, doctors, physicists, chemists, etc. have their peculiar language and terminology, thieves needed a language that was cryptic, secretive enough to speak among themselves and at the same time was unintelligible for the police or the possible victim of their actions. A language to be used in prison that could not be understood by the guards.

This originated terms and expressions that formed a new language, that of thieves and jail inmates. The secret tongue of "lunfardos", term used by thieves to refer to themselves. In this way watch became "bobo" (dumb-stupid) due to two characteristics, it is very easy to steal and it works all day long non-stop. Lunfardo is rich in Italian dialectal terms and also French words.

The first manifestations of this language appeared in Buenos Aires around 1880 ( police and newspapers archives).

This new terminology invaded the familiar language of the conventillos dwellers and very slowly the language of men (it was not used at home or by women), finally became something characteristic of being PorteƱo and Argentine. It was spread by theater in its "Sainetes", a peculiar genre that depicts life in conventillos; it was used by poets; but the greatest means of diffusion was not literature but its use in Tango Lyrics.

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