Cuba Up Close
Cuban Slang Words & Phrases
Wall mural in Havana
Explore Cuba like a local using these essential Cuban slang words and phrases!
Traveling to Cuba? You'll want to get a handle on the local lingo. Cubans have a unique way of expressing themselves, and understanding their everyday slang will not only help you navigate the country with ease but also help you bond with the locals and get a taste of the unique Cuban culture. Here's a handy list of Cuban slang words and phrases you should know!
Let's start with a word you'll hear a lot - 'guagua'. In Cuba, a guagua is a bus. So, don't be surprised if you hear phrases like “¡vamos a coger la guagua!” (let's take the bus!), “¿a qué hora sale la guagua?” (when does the bus leave?) or “¿prefieres ir en guagua o en taxi?” (do you prefer to go by bus or taxi?).
Interestingly, 'guagua' means 'small child' in other Latin American regions like Colombia or Peru. However, in the Dominican Republic, much like in Cuba, 'guagua' also refers to a bus. So, remember, context is everything!
There are several theories about the origin of 'guagua' in relation to buses. One of the most accepted theories is that it's related to the English word 'wagon'. So, are you ready to hop on a guagua on your next trip to Cuba?
Picture this: you're in a Cuban restaurant, scanning the menu, and you come across 'chicharritas'. What are they you might wonder? Chicharritas are delicious thin slices of fried green plantains, a favorite side dish among Cubans.
You'll often find chicharritas served during Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve dinners. They're also a popular snack to enjoy with a cold Cuban beer on a hot summer afternoon. Kids love them too! Once you try them, you'll be hooked!
3. “Estar arriba de la bola”
This phrase, 'estar arriba de la bola', literally translates to 'being on top of the ball'. It's used to describe someone who is well-informed and up-to-date with what's happening around them. So, if someone is 'arriba de la bola', they're in the know.
On the flip side, there's 'estar detrás del palo', which translates to 'being behind the stick'. It's used to describe someone who is usually out of the loop. And if they're 'detrás del palo y pidiendo el último' - literally 'behind the stick and asking for the last' - they're even more clueless about what's going on around them.
'Jaba' is a standout word in Cuban slang as it's a daily-use item for Cubans. It refers to cloth or plastic bags that are carried by hand and are very useful.
Cubans often carry jabas in their purses or backpacks because they're handy for carrying all sorts of things, like groceries. This term is also used in other countries, like Panama and Puerto Rico, but here it specifically refers to baskets made of the indigenous Yagua people.
'Pincha' is a popular Cuban slang word that refers to work. In a typical conversation with a Cuban, you might hear phrases like 'estaba en la pincha' (I was at work) or 'estaba pinchando' (I was working).
If a specific task requires a lot of effort, 'pincha' might also be used. For example, if you want to renovate your kitchen, which involves tearing down the old countertop, changing the lights, installing a new sink, etc., for Cubans, that would be 'tremenda pincha' (a lot of work).
6. “Tener el moño vira’o”
This common phrase, literally translating to "having the bun twisted", couldn't be left out of our Cuban slang list. If someone "amaneció con el moño vira’o" (woke up with the bun twisted) or "tiene el moño vira’o" (has the bun twisted), it means this person is in a bad mood, similar to the English phrase 'getting up on the wrong side of the bed'. The term 'vira’o' is a contraction of the word 'virado', meaning 'turned', and is a typical example of how Cubans often drop the 'd' sound in their pronunciation.
It suggests a temporary change in someone's behavior, making them irritable and intolerant. So, if someone tells you they 'tienen el moño vira’o', be patient with them. They might be a bit grumpy that day.
7. Qué hueso
This phrase is widespread among people from Matanzas, one of the most popular travel destinations in Cuba. 'Qué hueso' is equivalent to 'what a drag' or 'what a bore'. If doing something 'da hueso', it means you're too lazy to do it or find it tedious. 'Me da hueso fregar los platos' (I can't be bothered to wash the dishes) or 'Me da hueso sacar la basura' (Taking out the trash is a drag) are phrases you might hear in any home in Matanzas.
8. ¿Qué bolá?
This is a colloquial greeting used by Cubans. It's similar to 'what's up?', 'how are you?', or 'what are you up to?'. Remember, it's a casual phrase, so it's best used in informal settings.
For instance, you'll hear this phrase a lot at parties or when hanging out with friends. But it would be inappropriate to use it in a conference or a classroom.
'Asere' is another commonly used word in Cuban slang, but it's more colloquial. It's used to refer to a close friend and is often part of the greeting '¿Qué bolá?', so you might hear '¿qué bolá, asere?' when friends meet on the street.
In the dictionary of Americanisms, the word appears as 'asere' or 'acere', but for Cubans, it's more common to spell it with an 's'. Again, consider the context and the people you're with when using more colloquial words or phrases like this one.
10. "O te peinas o te haces los papelillos”
This phrase, literally translating to "Either you comb your hair or you make the curlers", nudges the listener to make a decision, particularly when they're uncertain about the best choice. For instance, imagine you want to tour Viñales, but concurrently, there's a tour of Las Terrazas that you don't want to miss. As both events coincide, you can't be present at both, you have to decide - 'o te peinas o te haces los papelillos'. This expression is quite common on the Island, and it's also used in other Latin American countries.
Now that you're equipped with these local expressions, why not delve deeper into our essential guide to Cuban cultural traditions? It's the perfect companion to this linguistic primer, offering you a comprehensive understanding of the unique Cuban lifestyle.
Written by Teresita Padrón.
Published July 2023.
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