Today’s NY Times story by Julie Turkewitz (archived) is both educational and annoying. Here is the meat of it:

In most of the Spanish-speaking world, the principal ways to say “you” are the casual “tú,” and the formal “usted.” But in Colombia there is another “you” — “su merced,” meaning, “your mercy,” “your grace” or even “your worship,” and now contracted to the more economical “sumercé.”

I did not know that, and I am pleased to have my knowledge of Spanish expanded. But here’s how the piece opens:

After Altair Jaspe moved from Venezuela to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, she was taken aback by the way she was addressed when she walked into any shop, cafe or doctor’s office.

In a city that was once part of the Spanish empire, she was no longer “señora,” as she would have been called in Caracas, or perhaps, in her younger years, “muchacha” or “chama.” (Venezuelan terms for “girl” or “young woman.”) Instead, all around her, she was awarded an honorific that felt more fitting for a woman in cape and crown: Your mercy.

Would your mercy like a coffee?

Will your mercy be taking the appointment at 3 p.m.?

Excuse me, your mercy, people told her as they passed in a doorway or elevator.

“It brought me to the colonial era, automatically,” said Ms. Jaspe, 63, a retired logistics manager, expressing her initial discomfort with the phrase. “To horses and carts,” she went on, “maybe even to slavery.”

And here’s how it ends:

Still, Daniel Sánchez, 31, a documentary filmmaker in Bogotá, said that he had moved away from using “sumercé,” after he began thinking about “the whole background of the phrase,” meaning “that servile and colonialist thing that is not so cool.”

Now, when he wants to convey respect and affection, he employs a different, less fraught Colombianism: “Veci,” meaning simply “neighbor.” As in: “Veci, don’t give papaya in the street, you’ll get robbed.”

Now, granted, most of the piece takes the opposite tack:

In Bogotá, a city of eight million people nestled in the Andes Mountains, “sumercé” is ubiquitous, deployed not just by taxi drivers and shopkeepers to attend to clients (how can I help your mercy?), but also by children to refer to parents, parents to refer to children, and (sometimes with tender irony) even by husbands, wives and lovers to refer to each other (“would your mercy pass the salt?” or “your mercy, what do you think, should I wear these pants today?”). […]

It describes the colonial history (“scholars have documented its use as a sign of courtesy in institutional relationships[…]; a sign of respect in families[…]; and, in particular, as a sign of servitude from slaves or servants to their masters”) and continues:

But modern-day advocates of “sumercé” say that its current popularity lies in the fact that it has lost that hierarchical edge, and today signifies respect and affection, not reverence or a distinction of social class. Ms. Jaspe said she eventually came to see “sumercé” as a casual term of endearment, as in “sumercé, qué bonito le queda ese sombrero.” (“Your mercy, how lovely that hat looks on you.”)

After Colombia gained its independence from the Spanish in the early 1800s, “sumercé” hung on in the department of Boyacá, a lush agricultural region in central Colombia, just north of Bogotá.

Jorge Velosa, a singer-songwriter and famous voice of Boyacá (he once played Madison Square Garden in the region’s traditional wool poncho, known as a ruana) recalled that in his childhood home “sumercé” was how he and his siblings referred to their mother, and their mother to referred to them. “Sumercé,” he said, was a sort of middle ground between the stiff “usted” — used only in his house as a preamble to a scolding — and the almost overly casual “tú.”

Eventually, “sumercé” migrated south along with many Boyacenses, to Bogotá, becoming as much a part of the lexicon of central Colombia as “bacano” (cool), “chévere” (also cool), “parce” (friend), “paila” (difficult), “qué pena” (sorry) and “dar papaya.” (Literally, “give papaya,” but more figuratively, “act oblivious.” As in: “Your mercy, don’t act oblivious in the street, you’ll get robbed!”).

For the most part “your mercy” has remained a feature of central Colombia, and is rarely used on the country’s coasts, where “tú” is more common, or in cities like Cali (“vos”) and Medellín (“tu,” “usted” and sometimes “vos.”) But in the capital and its surroundings, “sumercé” is emblazoned on hats, pins and T-shirts and incorporated into the names of restaurants and markets. It is the title of a new documentary about Colombian environmental activists. And it is celebrated in songs, podcasts and Colombian Spanish lessons across Spotify and YouTube.

“At this point it marks no social class,” said Andrea Rendón, 40, of Bogotá. “We are all sumercé.”

Which is nice. But a minor irritant is the continual rendering as “your mercy” when that’s (presumably) purely etymological for most of its users, who consider it simply another way to say ‘you’; what really irritated me, though, was that the story never points out that the usual Spanish usted ‘you [formal]’ has exactly the same etymology except with a different possessive pronoun — it’s from vuestra merced! I guess Turkewitz didn’t know that, but I would have thought someone at the Times somewhere along the way to publication would have known and thought to add it; it seems an obvious way to emphasize that it’s a normal process and sumercé is just another pronoun, not some evil reminder of colonial subjugation. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    Diccionario de americanísmos has:
    sumercé. (De su merced). ● a. ǁ ~. fórm. Co:C. Forma de tratamiento que expresa afecto o respeto. rur; pop + cult → espon ^ afec.
    Co:C = Colombia and ?Chile?

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Turkewitz might like to write an article about how the continued use of the term “disaster” in news reports promotes astrology, and how calling ice cream “vanilla” is sexist.

  3. Co:C = Colombia: Centro

    There is a guide to the abbreviations here.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Disaster is also a fossil starfish.

  5. “usted” may in fact have an Arabic etymology, as I believe I once pointed out here at the hattery (I have, alas, not managed to find the relevant thread).

  6. You’re thinking of this ancient thread; the discussion in which you took part is from 2012 and begins with Hans J. Sosa’s introduction of the Arabic etymology here. I continue to be skeptical.

  7. The Missing Link, as they say.

    (Never mind, the link is unmissing.)

  8. As usual, Corominas’s full dictionary is scary detailed; to me, the clincher is the analogous contractions of vuestra señoría into vusiría, usiría, and usía, comparable to vuesarced, vuasted and usted.

  9. …and vuecelencia, vuecencia and ucencia, for vuestra excelencia.

  10. Abstract: This article studies the use and usage of su mercé in Colombia, an old address form wich also remains in other Hispanic-American countries. It shows the geographical areas where it is used today and its social status.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    I’d have to know more than I do about the usage to be entirely confident it’s “just another pronoun,” but I agree that the Etymological Fallacy seems to be in play here. In English terms of address, for example, vocative “sir” is not the same as vocative “sire,” despite the etymological connection (and ditto for vocative “mister” versus vocative “master”), and treating them as equivalent is going to lead to mischief and/or confusion.

  12. It might end up replacing tu, as has você in some parts of Brazil.

  13. cuchuflete says

    “ (In some parts of the Spanish-speaking world there is yet a different “you” employed — the hyper casual “vos.”)”

    Since when, and where, did vos become hyper casual? When I worked in Buenos Aires in the 1970s it seemed to cover mostly situations where tu would be used in Spain, but also replaced usted in some circumstances. I recall some Central American voseo, but it wasn’t hyper casual.

  14. There have been earlier discussions of vos here; Alon had a useful comment in 2015. I agree with you based on my BA experiences in the ’60s.

  15. John Kelly says

    Right. “Vos” (where it is used, e.g. Argentina and Nicaragua) is exactly as informal as “tu” (where it is used, e.g. Mexico and Peru) – no more, no less.

    And I, too, was astounded at the etymological fallacy on display in the article — and blown away that it never discussed how “usted” comes from “vuestra merced.” (Sorry, the alternative etymology is bogus).

  16. ə de vivre says

    Dang, I thought this was about Turks talking about Sumerian.

  17. Andrew Dunbar says

    Vos vs Tú apparently varies a lot from region to region, but it seems to be in Chile where it might well be described as “hyper casual”. I asked on a forum nearly 15 years ago about it when I’d been in Guatemala and heard it the first time from a local instead of tú after much drinking. The answers I got didn’t match my observation but other answers and comments in the thread referred to the situation in Chile:

    The thread I started: [Are there regions or dialects which use both “tú” and “vos”?

    This comment about Chile is interesting:

    Una aclaración con respecto al voseo en Chile. Nosotros voseamos principalmente los verbos, pero, si hay un pronombre, éste generalmente es tú. Por ejemplo, decimos ¿tenís hambre? y tú vai a ganar. Pero el pronombre vos lo usamos poco. Cuando se usa, no implica camaradería ni intimidad, sino agresividad, real o fingida (¿vos soi weón?). El uso de vos podría calificarse en Chile como “de mala educación”. – Rodrigo

    A better thread on the topic as far as the situation in Chile: ‘Vos’ vs ‘tú’ usage by country

    Has this comment:

    Voceo in Chile is taken as vulgar speech, which is odd because “vos” comes from the cult or archaic form of pronouns. Anyway, in formal or educated speech the voceo never takes place. – Andrés Chandía

    And this answer:

    It is extremely important, when talking about word usage in Spanish, to avoid the general thought that every country has an homogeneous way to do so.

    For example, here in Chile we use tú as the normal way, but, in some cases you want to sound a bit rude, and then use vos, pronounced like voh:

    Y vos, qué te crees que eres? (And who do you think you are?)

    At least, this is the use in central Chile.

    I’ve visited central Argentina several times, and there they have a very widespread use of vos, along with their own way to conjugate the verbs in the second person singular (what lies beyond the scope of this question). – Nicolás Ozimica

  18. John Cowan says

    Right. “Vos” (where it is used, e.g. Argentina and Nicaragua) is exactly as informal as “tu” (where it is used, e.g. Mexico and Peru) – no more, no less.

    Up to a point, Minister. Specifically, there are places where three levels of formality exist:

    1) In Chile, Guatemala, and Honduras, usted expresses distance and respect; corresponds to an intermediate level of familiarity, but not deep trust; vos is the pronoun of maximum familiarity and solidarity.

    2) In El Salvador and Chile the same is true, but vos is also the pronoun of contempt. As Lord Coke said at the treason trial of Lord Ralegh in 1603: “All [Cobham] did was at thy instigation, thou viper. For I ‘thou’ thee, thou traitor. I will prove thee the rankest traitor in all England.”

  19. Paul Frank says

    “In Chile, Guatemala, and Honduras, usted expresses distance and respect; tú corresponds to an intermediate level of familiarity, but not deep trust; vos is the pronoun of maximum familiarity and solidarity.”

    Not quite. Tú also expresses closeness and respect and tenderness in Chile. One thing that jumped out at me in the first episode of the Netflix show 42 Days of Darkness was a mother talking with her daughter and using the usted form: it’s a way of expressing tenderness between family members. My Chilean mother would use the usted form with me to express tenderness and love. “¿Qué se le ofrece, mijito? ¿Un pan con palta?”. The tú form was neutral. And she always used the usted form to talk to our dog Rebel, whom she loved (he died of sadness a week after she died).


  20. Let’s add Uruguay to the list of countries with a T/V/U distinction.

    Pero el pronombre vos lo usamos poco. Cuando se usa, no implica camaradería ni intimidad, sino agresividad, real o fingida (¿vos soi weón?)

    A friend from Valparaíso gives me a slightly different interpretation: that in Chile vos is only common in what’s considered “uneducated” speech (where it does index closeness). What indexes aggressiveness is the deliberate adoption of an uneducated register by someone who otherwise speaks the standard form.

  21. “Voceo in Chile is taken as vulgar speech, which is odd because “vos” comes from the cult or archaic form of pronouns. Anyway, in formal or educated speech the voceo.”

    The word is spelled voseo, not voceo, because it comes from the pronoun vos, not the noun voz.

    Spanish therefore also has the verb vosear, analogous to the verbs tutear and ustedear.

  22. John Kelly says

    Thanks to all for explaining the regional “T/V/U” complexities.

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