Bridget Gleeson writes for BBC Travel about a subject close to my heart: the characteristic local slang of Buenos Aires called lunfardo (whose name Wikipedia says is “from the Italian lumbardo or inhabitant of Lombardy in the local dialect”). She says that when the Argentine police first heard it, they assumed that it was “a sort of criminal jargon”:

But according to Oscar Conde, an Argentinian professor who’s written two books on the subject, the cops were wrong.

“The birth of lunfardo is not related with criminality,” Conde writes, “but with European immigration to Argentina between 1880 and the beginning of World War I.” During those years, four million people, mostly Italians and Spaniards, arrived in Buenos Aires. The city became, as Conde puts it, “a real-life Babel”.

In Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th Century, Italian words were quickly adopted into everyday speech, sometimes with slight modifications. The Italian word femmina (woman), for instance, was shortened to mina; fiacco (laziness) became fiaca. Similarly, bacán (of or relating to the good life), biaba (hair dye or perfume) and laburar (to work) all have a basis in Italian.

José Gobello, 20th-Century Argentinian writer and founder of the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo, a non-profit institution dedicated to the study of colloquial speech in Argentina, suggested that pibe (Fermin’s nickname for his friends) comes from the Italian word pivello, meaning ‘youngster’ or ‘novice’, or perhaps from pive, a word in the Genoese dialect that means ‘apprentice’.

Spanish wordplay – particularly vesre, a form of language modification in which the last syllable of a word is moved to the start – also contributed to the development of lunfardo. The word ‘vesre’ itself is a play on the Spanish word revés, meaning reverse. Amigo (friend) became gomía, café (coffee) became feca and leche (milk) became chele.

Gleeson goes on to discuss the history of tango (whose “lyrics were filled with lunfardo”) and provide some great anecdotes; not only the photos but the very word pibe fill me with nostalgia for my years in that great city. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. So is “bacán (of or relating to the good life)” related to the current Brazil Portuguese bacana (cool)?

  2. café (coffee) became feca

    The word “fika” is an example of the back slang used in the 19th century, in which syllables of a word were reversed, deriving fika from kaffi, an earlier variant of the Swedish word kaffe (“coffee”). From fika also comes the word fik (a colloquial term for “café”) through a process of back-formation.

  3. sounds like the Hungarian word for coffee – fekete (literally the word means simply black, but used to refer to coffee in general)

  4. David Marjanović says


  5. Yes indeed. I wrote about verlan in the very early days of LH, but there are no surviving comments.

  6. The “vesre” phenomenon is not limited to lunfardo, as it is used in Chilean slang as well. I think I’ll pass on having a “feca”, as it means “dropping” or “turd”.

  7. Yes, “feca” sounded pretty nasty to me too! But I imagine that’s part of its slang appeal.

  8. “sounds like the Hungarian word for coffee – fekete (literally the word means simply black, but used to refer to coffee in general)”

    I wonder where you got that from. English speakers who learned Hungarian from the edition of Zsuza Pontifex’s Teach Yourself Hungarian printed in the 1990s would have quickly learned the question Kérsz egy feketét? (‘Do you want a black [coffee]’), but by the time I began using Hungarian in Hungary in the early millennium this phrase was considered totally antiquated. Asking for “a black” would usually be met with a baffled look and then “Oh, you mean black coffee?” People savvy to the phrase said it had gone out of style sometime in the mid 20th-century. Today – and for the last two decades at least – ‘coffee’ is never fekete.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Wikipedia seems to believe that a criminal-argot origin is still the majority/consensus view on lunfardo. It is broadly true cross-culturally that any sort of in-group argot intended to baffle The Man will be very open to loanwords from foreign languages even if the argot’s users do not all or primarily come from speakers of the particular foreign language, and that criminal-or-similar demimondish argot is often a productive source of slang lexemes that then diffuse more broadly.

    That doesn’t mean that Prof. Conde’s critique of the consensus history is wrong, of course, but there’s also a phenomenon where advocates for informal/vernacular language variants sometimes feel motivated to claim more “respectable” historical origins for the speech variety they’re advocating for than the record will really support.

  10. “Oh, you mean black coffee?”

    “Uh, what I actually mean is, ‘My hovercraft is full of eels’.”

  11. Fun post! Of course, I had to laugh when I saw all the more or less innocent explanations of what bacán means. In my readings in 1920s and 1930s Argentinean lit, I think it’s used to describe a pimp as often as a sugar daddy or a high roller.

  12. This reminds me of the 19C English expression put the black on ‘blackmail’ (v.t.)

  13. innocent explanations of what bacán means
    the meanings of slang words change even faster than in the regular language, of course… but with respect to the 1920s and 1930s, the sugar daddy is what it meant. I hear “bacán ” and I hear “Se va la vida”. In this classic tango song (written by an esteemed poet and author of many thick volumes of verse, Maria Luisa Carnelli, under an assumed name – a MAN’S name), a pebeta is given this advice, to forget virtue and to let go of dreams of honest, humble love, and to jump right in when a sugar daddy promises to keep her. The song was a great commercial success, and the poet went great length trying to disassociate herself from the popular lyrics she wrote…

  14. It appears that I fell into old trap described by Kato Lomb:

    “For a valuable “dictionary” of spoken language, you can use today’s plays or the dialogues of novels. Classical works are not suitable for this purpose. I asked my young German friend who was raised on Jókai (Mór Jókai: prolific Hungarian writer of the 19th century) how she liked her new roommate. “Délceg, de kevély,” (“Stately but haughty,” expressed in a lofty and old-fashioned way.) she replied.”

  15. “For a valuable ‘dictionary’ of spoken language, you can use today’s plays or the dialogues of novels. Classical works are not suitable for this purpose.”

    I had a similar experience last week in a Munich tobacconist. Needing matches, I asked for Schwefelhölzer, a word I had picked up purely from the title of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera (Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern) on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Match Girl”. The tobacconist had a good laugh at what is a now very antiquated term and I was red-faced. At least I know to start asking for Streichhölzer now.

  16. marie-lucie says

    CC: Having once decided to improve my then limited Spanish by reading the whole of Don Quijote in the original version (without a dictionary), I had a few such embarrassing moments – fortunately with friends rather than shopkeepers.

  17. Greg Pandatshang says

    I learned bacán/bacana “cool” from an Ecuadorian coworker of mine. The semantic match seems solid, so I’d assume that’s the same etymon where it pops up in South America unless there’s evidence otherwise.

    Wiktionary relates that it comes from Turkish bakan “minister” via Ligurian. And these Italians go around claiming they can’t understand turco ottomano!

  18. You don’t need to binge on centuries old literature to fall in that trap, out-of-date school books can be enough. I think I told the story before about asking for a rubber when trying to buy an eraser in a London stationery shop.

  19. “Rubber” is the word I learnt at school as well, back in the late 70s… but our textbook was already outdated at that time; IIRC, we were the last grade to use it, for the grade coming after us it was replaced by a more modern textbook.

  20. You were lucky that you didn’t ask for rubber in an American stationery shop.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Oh, we still learned rubber at the end of the 80s.

    At least I know to start asking for Streichhölzer now.

    While they definitely understand that in Munich, do they actually say it? From Austria I’m only used to Zündhölzer, and knew Streichhölzer only from reading.

  22. In one northern English town I asked a passerby where is the closest pub.

    “You mean poob? Go straight and turn left”

    Having learned the correct pronunciation of this important word, I went straight, turned left and asked another Englishman: “Excuse me, can you tell me where is the poob?”

    He replied: “Pub is just over there”.

    From then on, I stopped paying attention to English quirks and referred to damn things as bars…

  23. marie-lucie says

    I learned rubber in France in the 50’s, but I don’t think I needed to buy an eraser until I was in the US and had learned the local word by then.

    Wasn’t rubbers the word for overshoes worn while it rains?

  24. My textbook shouldn’t have been so outdated, my primary school was new built and opened in 1965 and the ‘incident’ happened in 1977… but I think there was an illusion in Danish ESL teaching that RP and pre-war vocabulary was prestigious and should be taught.

  25. Rubber is US slang for condoms.

    Sorry, just to save you from potential embarassment

  26. In ’77 it was clearly British slang for those objects too. (As I discovered later, at the time nobody saw fit to explain to me the source of the awkwardness).

  27. Jen in Edinburgh says

    ‘Rubber’ has been the ordinary word for the things you use to get rid of pencil marks all my life, or at least since 1984, when I first went to school – I understand ‘eraser’, but to me it’s a ‘book word’, or possibly American, although I tend to blame all unfamiliar words on them.

    The OED gives ‘rubber’ for condom as ‘chiefly N. Amer.’, which is my feeling, but who knows what strange things they do in London.

  28. Emma Watson, obviously a native British English speaker, famously related an incident in which she, newly arrived in America as a freshman at Brown, loudly asked a classmate for a “rubber.” So that was evidently still an unremarkable term for an eraser, not suggestive of a French letter, for some Brits within the last decade.

  29. I may of course have misconstrued the reaction of the two female shop assistants at the time, but I am pretty sure there was clear relief to be seen when I found a pencil mark remover myself, along with words to the effect of “Oh, an eraser, why didn’t you say?”

    This was somewhere in SW7, I think. Looking big and German/Dutch may have induced an unfavourable interpretation, I remember finding out later that summer that putting Danish flags on luggage much improved our reception in the North and Scotland.

  30. Of course. That made you Co-Fathers of the Nation, instead of just those even-worse relatives of the already thrice-damned Southrons.

    After all, what is the flag of “that pleasant semi-Nordic country in the north of the EU” except yet another Dannebrog turned at a 45% angle? (Of course the English flag is also a Dannebrog without the (modern) inequality of the dexter and sinister parts, but shhhh.)

  31. Don’t you both overestimate recognizability of the Danish flag to average English hotel employee?

    Same with the Dutch flag – gets confused with French or Russian tricolors all the time.

    German flag is one of the few which does get wide recognition.

  32. “Average English hotel employee” isn’t at stake here; it’s “average Scottish and Northern English” etc.

  33. Remember, 1977 was closer to the end of WWII than today is to 1977. I suspect it didn’t matter much if we were Danish or Finnish, even Dutch, as long as we weren’t German.

    When I lived in England around the turn of the millennium, that wasn’t something I noticed.

  34. Cross-linking from the facebook group “Association for the Study of Food and Society”:

    I linked this post in the post in the group also, with explanation about who blogged this and also the article by Bridget Gleeson.

  35. I’ll take this opportunity to say that Argentine pizza is the best I’ve ever had.

  36. Wiktionary relates that it comes from Turkish bakan “minister” via Ligurian. And these Italians go around claiming they can’t understand turco ottomano!

    The recent LH post on sumercé, mentioning the group of Spanish bacán and bacano, brought me to this thread. The Wiktionary still has the following etymology for Spanish bacán:

    Borrowed from Ligurian bacan (“boss, captain”), from Turkish bakan (“minister”).

    But then the Wiktionary entry for Ligurian bacàn ‘boss’ offers an entirely different etymology, taking bacàn from bàcco ‘bastone, mazza, bacchio’. (For more on bàcco, see for example the LEI under *baccum, *baccus.)

    Despite the accounts in such sources as this study of Near Eastern loanwords in Ligurian, there some difficulties with the etymology from Turkish. The Turkish word bakan is really just the present participle of the verb bakmak ‘to look (at)’. In the 1930s, during the Turkish language reform, bakan was introduced as the word for ‘minister’ to replace Ottoman ناظر nâzır. (The Ottoman comes via Persian from Arabic ناظر nāẓir, itself just the active participle to the verb نظر naẓara ‘he looked’.) I checked and in 1934, bakan was still alternating with nazır in the official gazette of the Turkish parliament. I couldn’t find a باقان bakan in a meaning like ‘overseer’, ‘boss’, ‘captain’, ‘minister’, etc., mentioned specifically in any Ottoman dictionaries I checked, from Meninski (1680) onwards to the Qâmûs-ı Osmânî (1910). (In support of the Turkish etymology, I suppose one could object that bakan ‘(one) looking on’ to ‘overseer’ is a natural progression… As for the transmission to Ligurian, I suppose that those who advocate the etymology of the Ligurian from Turkish will say that the Genoese picked it up in their trade or military interactions with Turks in the eastern Mediterranean and the Caspian. However, Genovese involvement in these regions began a long and steady decline in the 15th century…)

    There is yet another etymology for Ligurian bacàn ‘boss’ offered by Angelico Prati in ‘Vicende di Parole III’, L’Italia dialettale, vol. 1 (1937), p. 81-83 (available here, here, and here; click to expand the images). He associates bacàn with a word attested in medieval Latin apparently meaning something like ‘peasant’ and found in glossaries and in onomastics, in such forms as baccones (pl.) and baccunnus. See also Johannes Hubschmid, ‘Die -asko und -usko-Suffixe und das Problem des Ligurischen’ Revue internationale d’onomastique vol. 19 (1967), N° 2, p. 151f , here, with more detail.


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