The language of elections

Spanish slang, Colombian Spanish
When elections care oming up, be sure you’re prepared with all the lingo

As the city returns to normal after the mayoral elections Katie Jacoby gets our vote of confidence as she whips through the vocabulary of voting


Election time is here again, and as this decision could mark a new course for the city, it’s only natural for expats to take an interest in the process, even if many can’t actually vote. So, whether you’re a political junkie who can’t get enough polls, debates, and twitterstorms or you’re only interested in the top line essentials, here’s all the local vocabulary you need to know going into Election Day.

Let’s start with some cognates to build up our confidence and realise how much we already know. This is the time when several candidatos are in the middle of their campañas for las elecciones. Although there are several partidos, they are generally categorised by whether they are liberal or conservador (not conservativo!) One good way for votantes to learn more about the candidates is by watching un debate.

I talked about running in a past column, but this is a different kind of running: running for office. When you decide to run and officially announce it, the verb is lanzarse (a la presidencia/a la alcaldía/al concejo, etc.). You’ve now launched yourself into the election cycle. Once a candidate has announced that they’re running, well, they’re actually running, and our verb becomes aspirar, as in aspiring to the throne. If you want to know what the public thinks of the candidates, you should check the latest encuestas or sondeos. If someone is leading the polls, it’s said that they’re punteando or encabezando them – they’re at the head.

The frontrunner is also often called el favorito. That is, the one favoured to win. To say that it’s very close, you say that está muy reñido. Hopefully there are no campañas negras (smear campaigns or mudslinging) to make the race ugly.

Now, Election Day: When it’s finally time to ir/acudir a las urnas (head to the polls), each voter will report to their local mesa de votación and will be given a ballot, or un tarjetón, where they indicate their choices.  If they’re not satisfied with any of the candidates, they also have the option to votar en blanco, in which you indicate “none of the above.” If you think that all the candidates are lousy but that there are some shades of grey between them, then you’ll vote for the lesser of two evils: el mal menor.

After the comicios are over (a fancy word for the elections), everyone keeps a close eye on the news to learn the results. One boletín (an update containing the latest results) at a time, the TV news stations report the results according to the mesas informadas – the polling stations that have reported their results. It’s always interesting to see how many curules, or seats, each party has lost or gained. (Una curul is a Colombian word; in other countries they say escaño.)

Now you’ve got the basics, how about some local phrases and words to add some colour?

If you think all the candidates are essentially the same (liars and crooks), just throw up your arms and say ¡Que entre el diablo y escoja! when someone asks who you’re voting for. Let the devil come and choose! We’re screwed either way.

Another Colombian word you may hear when people are talking about how to decide who to vote for is carisellazo. As cara is the “heads” side of a coin and sello is the “tails” side, a carisellazo means a decision made by flipping a coin. A true sign of voter apathy.

A flip-flopper is locally known as un voltiarepas. Imagine someone who keeps flipping their arepa from one side to the other. This can refer to someone who changes their position or who changes parties, seeking any formula necessary to get into power.

One phrase used for someone who leaves their party is: Se arrima al árbol que más sombra le dé. (He’ll sit under whichever tree will give him the most shade.) This phrase comes from another well-known one that’s international: El a que buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra lo cobija. In the political sense, it pays to have friends in high places.

And when there are people in high places, you’ll always have some toadies running around trying to schmooze and flatter their way to personal benefit: a job, a contract, etc. In Colombia, these would-be social climbers are not toads but lizards: lagartos. Even politicians can lagartear with other, more powerful politicians; indeed, many seem to specialise in it.

Feeling voter fatigue? Let’s hope that it turned out well for Bogotá and that the best candidate won – whoever you think that was.


Katie Jacoby is a Spanish-English translator and has been in Colombia for 3 years. Feel free to leave her a comment or ideas for future columns on her language website, vocabat.com.

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