All happening at the language zoo

Spanish words
The literal monkey on the back!

Katie Jacoby looks at the animalistic side of the Spanish language


Bogotá doesn’t have an official zoo, but who needs a zoo when Spanish is teeming with creatures great and small? While there are tons of animal-related words and phrases that are universal (por si las moscas, etc.), here I focus on ones that are either exclusively Colombian, ones that you’re especially likely to hear here, or ones that are just too ubiquitous to not include. I’m skipping a few like camello, hacer conejo, and lagarto that have appeared in past columns. And off to the zoo we go.

One of the most Colombian of Colombian words, as many will know, is ser/estar berraco and (ser) una berraquera. These words can refer to something or someone that is tough, brave, strong, amazing, skilled, angry, or difficult. Literally, though, un verraco is a hog or boar.

A killer neck cramp is called tortícolis (turtle neck), but another way of referring to tortícolis here is tener el mico al hombro. That is, to have a monkey on your shoulder. (In Colombia a monkey is a mico.) Just imagine an organ grinder with a small befuzzed monkey perched on his shoulder all day and how sore his neck would be by the end of the day after constantly twisting it to address the simian.

Another common Colombian use for mico that you might hear on the news here is an amendment, or an additional provision that’s slipped into a legislative bill that’s unrelated to the bill’s purpose. When these self-interested provisions are especially egregious, people will say that it wasn’t a mico but rather un orangután.

To discuss cheapo knock-off brands, you’re bound to hear marca pato, marca pajarito, or marca gato. Marca payasito is a human option you can use here.

If you go out to drink with friends, you might decide to order a jirafa (de cerveza), which is a beer tower from which you dispense beer for everyone.

To order that giraffe, you and your friends may want to hacer una vaca. This is when everyone chips in, pooling their money together to buy something. This bovine phrase is used throughout Latin America.

Hacer el oso (to do the bear) is to make a fool of yourself and it’s used in many, many countries. ¡Qué oso! How embarrassing! How ridiculous! What a loser!

If you’re in Colombia, you might order a hot dog or hamburger and then notice a funny little egg on top. When you ask what kind of egg it is, you’ll be told it’s a huevo de codorniz. That would be a quail’s egg, my friend.

Abeja (bee) and avispado/a (wasp-like) mean slick and clever, and these words can have both good and bad connotations, depending on the context.

To flirt with someone in Colombia and several other countries is echar los perros. Set the dogs on them, release the hounds.

In Colombia, a sapo/a can be a snitch/tattletale, a suck-up, or a nosy person. A regular toadie. Sapear is to tattle or snitch.

Lobo/a in Colombia is trashy and flashy, especially referring to taste in clothes.

Hacer operación tortuga is to perform an intentional slowdown at work. You hear this a lot with Bogotá’s taxi gremio, or union/association. This is a step beyond the traditional turtle operation, as they move at the most lethargic pace possible but don’t actually transport passengers.

Irle a uno como a los perros en misa means for something to go poorly for you. Think of a dog trying to enter a mass service: it would be shooed, told to scram, and chased out; Rubén no se preparó para la entrevista y le fue como a los perros en misa.

Bagre (catfish), babilla (caiman/alligator), and chimbilá (bat) are all words used for a woman who is not particularly fetching (OK, so maybe I’ve only heard that last one on Yo soy Betty la fea). Striving for balance, I swear I asked my male sources for the equivalent for a less than attractive man, and they became suspiciously tight-lipped, alas.

Culebras, or snakes, can be used for debts in Colombia and a few other countries; Tengo muchas culebras por pagar.

Dar lora is to give someone a cantaleta: to nag them and give them a sermon about something; Mi jefe no hace más sino dar lora con el tema de las llegadas tarde.

Continuing with female parrots, (hablar como) lora mojada means to be a chatterbox.

The pato on a motorcycle is the one riding on the back; Diego viaja en moto y su novia va de pato.

Estar más de malas que piraña mueca means to be unluckier than a toothless piranha. Definitely Colombian, as the word mueco itself is only used here.

Nothing unlucky about you, though; now you’re packed to the gills with animal-themed vocab in Spanish. I could have included so much more, but this is a good start. Sometimes it’s hard to find the best way to end these columns, but I think the Colombian readers among us would concur that there’s one final touch that turns anything good into something extraordinary: a small quail’s egg on top (and maybe some ripio). Enjoy!


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