We've all had that moment.
After putting in so much effort to learn grammar and vocabulary, it eventually dawns on us that native speakers don't talk like the people in our textbooks do.
As a Chilean (and Spanish teacher) I’ve heard my students burst into laughter (or stare in horror) when I stop using my ‘neutral’ accent and begin speaking like a true Chilean. It’s kind of a liberating feeling! But then I try to calm them down and explain: that’s the beauty of foreign languages. You never know what you’re going to get, and with time, the endless variety will make you appreciate the language even more.
Spanish, in particular, is officially spoken in 21 countries. This means that there are bound to be (significant) varaiations in how people speak it. The grammar is mostly the same, thankfully, but you'll notice significant differences in vocabulary and pronunciation. That might be scary at first, but, eventually, slang and idiomatic expressions will go a long way towards helping you to blend in and connect with people.
Whether you’re just going to visit Chile for fun or are planning to move there, you should make sure to learn some "chilenismos" (slang words/phrases) first. I promise that your experience will be completely different if you do!
Al tiro / al toque
If there's a phrase that would let you recognise a Chilean anywhere in the world, it's this one! Literally translated as "on the shot" or "on the touch," it's meaning is pretty straightforward: immediately / straight away.
The al toque variant (pronounced /al toke/) is mostly used by teenagers.
En un café – At a café
- Un café y un queque por favor.
A coffee and a cake, please.
- Al tiro.
Con amigos - With friends
- Vuelvo al toque.
I’ll be right back.
Bacán / la raja
Used by everyone from teenagers to people in their thirties and even forties, bacán has a positive connotation and means that something is cool; wicked; awesome. This word can also be heard in other South American countries, too, but it's meaning differs slightly from place to place.
La raja literally translates to "the bum’s crack" (I know, don’t ask), but I swear it has a positive connotation! If someone is la raja, they're the bee’s knees. They’re cool. A situation can be la raja, too. La raja means the same thing as bacán.
Al teléfono con un amigo - On the phone with a friend
- Voy a Chile a visitarte.
I’m coming to Chile to visit you.
Po is one of those words (if we can even call it a word) that you’ll hear at the end of almost every sentence in Chile, particularly after sí or no. It’s a mutation of the word "pues" (well) and we use it to show that we’re following what someone is saying, to highlight that something is obvious, or in conjunction with ya (already) when we want to hurry someone up (¡ya po! = come on already!).
En un asado – At a barbacue
- ¡¿Eres vegetariana?!
Are you (female) a vegetarian?
- ¡Sí po!
En casa de un amigo – At a friend’s house
- Vamos a llegar tarde, ¡ya po!
We’re going to be late, come on already!
Huevón / huevona
Typically pronounced as weón/weona, this is the quintessential Chilean word. Sometimes it’ll just sound like an "on" that's attached to the end of every sentence.
This word borders on being rude, so you need to be careful when using it. Intonation and context are everything. It comes from the word huevo, which means "egg." I'll just let you think about that for a bit. Chileans use it to mean man, dude, idiot, or prick – or sometimes simply to refer to a random man or woman.
Just to be safe, you should probably use it with people you’ve already met.
En el trabajo – At work
- Hola weón, ¿cómo ‘stai*?
Hi man, how ya’ doin’?
- Aquí po weón, trabajando.
Well, here man, working.
* 'stai is an abbreviation of the vos(eo) form of estar, estais. In Chile it's common to omit the final s, giving us estai, and you'll probably here the initial e get dropped in casual speech, too – as in this example. While it looks a little like the second person plural vosotros form, vos is actually a second person singular pronoun, like tú.
En un bar – At a bar
Mira ese weón cómo anda vestido.
Look at what that idiot is wearing.
Ir / estar a pata
For some reason, Spanish has a lot of idiomatic expressions that feature animals. Instead of saying that you’re going somewhere a pie (on foot), for example, you could also say you’re going a pata, which translates to on your paws. Isn't that great?
Afuera del cine – Outside the cinema
- ¿Cómo te vai’* a (la) casa?
How are you going home?
- A pata, ¿y tú?
On foot (paw), and you?
* This is another examples of that vos(eo) conjugation we mentioned above.
Cachar / ¿cachai?
Another classic, this term is a direct inheritance from English. It's used to ask if someone "catches" your meaning — if they get what you're saying. Like bacán, it's mostly used by people under forty.
En el parque – At the park
- ¿Cachai qué significa eso?
Do you get what that means?
- No, no cacho.
No, I don’t get it.
Pololo(a) / pololear
This is one of the words that gets giggles. Even more so after I tell my students its origin: a pololo is a native insect from Chile and Argentina, and its name derives from the indigenous language Mapudungun, in which "pëlulu" means to fly around like a fly.
Luckily, in Chile, we use this word when we want to talk about our boyfriend or girlfriend. The more neutral Spanish word novio/a sounds much more serious to us; we use it when referring to our fiancé. That in mind, pololear refers to the act of dating someone or being in an exclusive relationship with someone.
En la casa de tus papás - At your parent’s house
- Este es mi pololo.
This is my boyfriend.
- Mucho gusto.
Nice to meet you.
En un bar – At a bar
- ¿Quieres pololear conmigo?
Do you want to be in a relationship with me?
- No, ya estoy pololeando.
No, I’m already dating.
Used widely in Chile, Piola means chill/quiet/calm. You can use it to describe a place or a person that seems a bit shy or who has a laid-back attitude. Again, this word is primarily used by people under forty.
This word is also used in Argentina and Uruguay, with a slightly different meaning.
En la calle – On the street
- Ese lugar es muy piola.
That place is really chill.
En un restaurante con un amigo - At a restaurant with a friend
- ¿Qué piensas de Pablo?
What do you think about Pablo?
- Me cae bien, es piola*.
I like him, he’s easygoing.
* You've probably learned that feminine adjectives tend to end in -a in Spanish. That's true, but some words, like piola, only have one form — the word piolo doesn't exist.
If someone invites you to have ‘once’ at their place, you should take them up on that invitation! Then you'll truly be able to say that you've been to Chile.
Literally translated as "to take eleven," there are countless theories about this phrase's origin. All you really need to know is that rather than having dinner at around 6 or 7 pm, tomando once means that you’ll instead be eating Chile’s scrumptious bread with palta (avocado), cheese or ham — probably with some sort of torta/queque (cake) alongside a lovely black tea or coffee, too.
You’ll even see ‘once’ menus being offered outside coffee places. Check these menus out if you see one; they're full of interesting combinations! Most Chilean families have once instead of dinner, or sometimes they'll combine the two and call it once/comida. What more could you ask for?
En la playa - At the beach
- ¿Quieres tomar once en mi casa?
Do you want to have "eleven" at my place?
- Sí, gracias, ¿llevo algo?
Yes, thanks, should I bring anything?
If someone is fome, they're probably not much fun to spend time with. If a thing is fome, it’s not worth doing. I doubt there's a literal translation of this word, but we use it to say that something is boring — whatever it is, it just doesn't inspire you to do it.
You might also hear it used in a similar fashion as qué lata, the next expression.
En la calle – On the Street
- Qué fome es Tom, nunca quiere salir con nosotros.
Tom is so boring, he never wants to out with us.
- No sé, yo creo que solo es piola.
I don’t know, I think he’s just quiet.
Afuera del cine – Outside the movies
- ¡Qué fome la película!
What a lame movie!
- Sí, no podía esperar para que terminara.
Yeah, I couldn’t wait for it to end.
This is one of the best ways to express your frustration and disappointment when something doesn’t go as planned. Used to a greater extent by people in their twenties or later, it literally translates to what a can — which obviously doesn’t make any sense! Having said that, it has a similar feeling as bummer or that sucks.
En una micro – In a bus
- Me tengo que ir de Chile, se terminaron mis vacaciones.
I have to leave Chile, my holidays are over.
- ¡Qué lata! Ojalá* pudieras quedarte.
That sucks, I wish you could stay.
* You probably learned that the subjunctive mood requires que. It's indeed grammatically correct to say ojalá que pudieras..., but we often drop que in casual speech.
If you decide to use the public transport in Chile, you’ll surely be taking the micro (local city bus), rather than the bus (coach, intercity bus). Very important distinction!
En la calle – On the street.
- Perdona, ¿a qué hora llega la micro 404?
Excuse me, at what time is bus 404 coming?
- Se acaba de ir.
It’s just left.
This term is used to refer to money in general, and it literally translates to silver. Given that it's a slang term, you might think of it as meaning something like dough.
En un bar – At a bar
- ¿Me invitas? No tengo plata.
Are you paying? I don’t have any cash.
- Claro, no hay problema.
Of course, no problem.
I’m always amazed at how a word can tell so much about its people and their culture. If you hear anyone saying that you’re cuico/a, they are basically telling you you’re posh or snobbish — someone with a high socioeconomic background who probably looks down on others.
A place can be cuico/a, too, if it refers to an area where cuicos would spend their time, or if it’s too expensive or sophisticated for the rest of the population.
En el parque – At the park
- ¿Vamos a Las Condes a pasear?
Let’s go to Las Condes for a walk?
- No gracias, ¡esa comuna es demasiado cuica!
No thanks, that district is too snobbish!
En un restaurante – At a restaurant
- ¿Qué piensas del ex presidente de Chile Sebastián Piñera?
What do you think about Chile’s ex president?
- Creo que es un cuico.
I think he’s snobbish.
Cuático / brígido
Used mostly by people under thirty, the meaning of this word can change slightly depending on the situation. If a person is cuática or brígida they may be a drama queen — someone who tends to overreact. If we’re referring to a situation, we mean that it’s shocking or scandalous.
En un café – At a café
- ¿Oíste sobre el accidente en Providencia?
Did you hear about the accident in Providencia (a district in Santiago)?
- Sí, es cuático...
Yes, it’s shocking…
En una disco – At a disco
- ¿Qué piensas de ella?
What do you think about her?
- Es cuática, ya quiere pololear y apenas nos conocimos.
She’s overreacting, she wants to date already, but we’ve only just met.
We Chileans are not afraid to give (or ask) for more, particularly when in certain environments. If you go to the market — which you should, if you visit Santiago — you'll see what I'm talking about. The person selling you something might give you a bit extra and say it's "con yapa" — if they don't, you can ask ¿con yapa? This is usually expected if you’re buying a good amount. It translates to freebie or bonus.
En el mercado – At the market
- Quinientos gramos de queso de cabra, por favor.
500 grams of goat cheese, please.
- Aquí tiene, y con yapa.
Here you go — plus a bit extra, as a bonus.
If you visit Chile, you should be sure to try its beer (I recommend Kunstmann). With over 400 microbreweries and a blooming craft beer scene you won’t be disappointed! Whether drinking at home with friends or at a bar, you’ll likely hear the word chela. It's a synonym for beer that's especially popular among teenagers (the drinking age in Chile is 18), though you'll generally hear it from people under thirty.
En un bar – At a bar
- ¿Quieres tomar unas chelas?
Do you want to have a few beers?
- Sí, por favor!
Another word from an indigenous language, this time from Mapuche. It means belly or stomach. You'll also hear this word in other countries across South America like Argentina, Chile, Perú, Ecuador.
En un parque – At a park
- Me duele la guata.
My belly hurts.
- Eso te pasa por tomar tanta chela.
That’s what you get when you drink that much beer.
Carrete / carretear
If you have a few chelas, you’ll most likely go to a carrete afterwards. It literally means bobbin, or cylinder, but we use it to mean party. We've even turned it into a verb: carretear (to party).
En un bar - At a bar
- ¿Quieres ir a un carrete más tarde?
Do you want to go to a party later?
- ¡Ya!, bacán.
Alright, right on!
Another beloved phrase that has to do with animals: in Chile, when you have a good time, you spend it like a pig. That’s what we call pigs in Chile, at least: un chancho.
Used mostly by people in their thirties, forties and onwards, it’s what we say when we want to show we’ve had a really good time. Considering that pigs don’t actually have the same luck, this idiomatic phrase has always puzzled me, even as a Chilean. But it's what we say!
En la casa de una amiga – At a friend’s house
- ¿Cómo lo pasaste en tus vacaciones?
Did you have a good time in your holidays?
- ¡Lo pasé chancho!
I had a great time!
I hope you’ll be able to use some of these chilenismos in your next visit to Chile. I’m sure you’ll spend it like a pig!