Monday, December 25, 2006

Gay Spanish

[Beginning with the three-part "Introduction" a few steps below, the main part of this site is devoted to a full-length book, which is organized in a logical sequence. It has little to do with my book of some twenty years ago, also entitled Homolexis. Since the word "homolexis" and its twin homolexeme are unfamiliar, this choice was probably not a good marketing device. Since these texts are now available on blogger, I would like them to continue to appear there.

For some reason it is not immediately obvious how to access the main body of the texts. To do this, use the Search function above.

Also, the Spanish-language section has become inaccessible. I am reproducing it here. One can still find, with a little diligence, the sections on English, French, German, and Italian. For those who find the following useful I urge you to consult them. WRD]



As a romance language, Spanish inherited much of the lexical storehouse of classical Latin. This heritage also entailed a special inclination to revive Latin words that had died out and to coin new ones on a Latin base. In some instances doublets appear, e.g. vaína, sheath, is the inherited form (with the disappearance of intervocalic ‘g’), while vagina, vagina, is the revived form. In some instances, new coinages employ Greek roots, but here again Latin had paved the way.

Latin origins also fostered links with two other daughter languages, Italian and French. During the Renaissance borrowings from Italian were significant, andd these continued in the realms of music and art. Beginning with the eighteenth-century enlightenment the French language came to exercise an important influence.

The Latin heritage bequeathed a significant morphological feature to its Spanish offspring: masculine agents generally display the ending –o, while feminine ones have the ending –a. This contrast sometimes lends itself to foregrounding gender ambiguity, an ambiguity that overlaps with sexual diversity. Thus puta is a common word for “prostitute.” Altered to puto it means “male prostitute,” and by extension, “fairy,” a feminized man perceived as sexually promiscuous or available. Conversely, maricón, fairy, yields maricona, lesbian. In contemporary peninsular Spanish the feminizing suffix -triz is common: bailatriz, danseuse, directriz, funcionaratriz, vendetriz,
Sometimes no variation of the ending is needed, as the speaker effects the change by switching the gender of the definite article preceding the noun, e.g. la general, the feminine or gay general.

To return to general themes, Spanish civilization participated in the intellectual currents dominant in Western Europe. During the Middle Ages this meant primarily Christian theology and the Bible, both of which provided abundant homophobic motifs. Later, the prestige of science brought a number of terms from German (including homosexual), though other languages (especially French) usually mediated these. More recently a veritable invasion has come from English, with the Internet as its latest vehicle.

These similarities are significant and far-reaching. Yet Spanish also shows distinctive features. First, Spanish has undergone substantial incursions from non-European languages. During the Middle Ages Arabic was important, as for a long time the Moors occupied much of the peninsula. The widespread, though often unacknowledged familiarity with the jargon known as Caló (see below) has served as a portal for a number of words from the Roma or Gypsy language. Colonization of the New World brought in words of Amerindian derivation.

Spanish is spoken not only in Spain but also in a score of independent states in the New World. These other countries tend to develop regional variations, as Mexican, Caribbean and Andean. Within these units particular Amerindian influences are significant, as Aztec and Maya in Mexico and Quechua and Aymara in the Andes. Most of these terms lend local color or serve to designate native plants and animals not found elsewhere. In other cases the regional variants have simply evolved differently. Sometimes words limited in the peninsula to the type of jargon known as Caló achieve a more general currency.

In Mexico and the Caribbean proximity to English produced special effects. These are even more pronounced in the Spanish of the US southwest. Recently the concept of Spanglish has gained some currency. This term is confusing, though, as it puts together a tendency to language mixture (“code switching”) as found in the American southwest, southern Florida, and the New York City area, with a more diffuse tendency by all Spanish speakers to incorporate English-language loan words.

As with other languages Spanish has welcomed ephemeral slang words. These items are known collectively as jerga or germanía. While not recognized as part of standard Spanish, these words flourish within the general grammatical structure of the language. In the view of linguistic prescriptivists such terms are parasites inhabiting what would otherwise be “pure” Spanish.

Yet there are two “parasitic” phenomena of this kind that are more pervasive. The River Plate region has created a more elaborate and stable special vocabulary called Lunfardo, which flourishes especially in Buenos Aires. In Argentina Lunfardo enjoys an honored status, along with the tango, as a national symbol.

This is not true of an even more significant rival. Throughout the Spanish-speaking world one finds evidence of a tenacious jargon called Caló. As its existence violates normative expectations of language purists, some prescriptivists even deny that it exists. Some words in the Caló register display a transfer of meaning from that expected in ordinary Spanish, as aduana, thieves hangout (originally “customs house”), and larga, highway (originally the adjective “long”). Other terms sometimes classed as Caló are simply normal Spanish words for body parts and functions regarded as taboo. There is also a formidable external input, as many words derive from the Roma or gypsy language. For example, the Caló term for man is romá, derived from term employed by gypsies for a man of their own group; note also bulo, fraud, and dai, mother. In Western Europe the closest parallel seems to be the jargon known as Gaunersprache in German-speaking lands. In England Parlyaree is somewhat comparable, though its vocabulary and scope are much narrower.

Its very extensive vocabulary estimated at 5000-plus words--covering all sorts of ordinary ideas and experiences--allows Caló to serve as a secret code, occulting the meaning. In this way those in the know can communicate perfectly, while outsiders are perplexed. This feature has allowed Caló to thrive in the underground of society—among thieves, con-artists, prostitutes, and in general those judged deviant. For better or worse, historically sexual minorities have mingled with these marginal elements.


The Iberian Peninsula came under Roman control during the second century BCE. Except for the Basque country, which resisted, though in a constantly shrinking territory, Latin swamped the existing languages. It is likely, however, that a majority of the indigenous peoples spoke some version of Celtic. Since Celtic warriors were proverbial in antiquity for their homosexual proclivities, one might expect some linguistic residue. Up to now, though, no terms of Celtic derivation have been found in Ibero-Romance for homosexual persons or acts. Further research may reveal something.

The Latin vocabulary for same-sex acts consisted mainly of learned words derived from Greek. In the more educationally restricted circumstances of the early Middle Ages, these did not survive, though a few were revived in the Renaissance.

During the early fifth century the Visigoths, a Germanic group occupied much of Spain. A Visigothic law code of ca. 650 stipulated castration for homosexual offenses, actually a mitigation of the Justinianic death penalty. At all events the Visigoths left relatively few linguistic traces, and Muslim invaders, beginning in 711 overwhelmed them.

Islamic Spain had a sophisticated homosexual culture, though the Christians generally rejected this. There are many Arabic words in Spanish, but again, according to present knowledge, few pertain to same-sex acts. The word bardaje (originally bardaxe, with an 'sh' sound), meaning a catamite, is Arabic, though deriving originally from a Persian word for slave. While it may have come to Spanish directly from Arabic, it would have been reinforced by variants in French (bardache) and Italian (bardassa).

The dominant form of Spanish, Castilian, was originally confined to a small sector of the northern fringe of the peninsula, in Cantabria. Gradually, the Castilian standard spread southward, replacing Mozarabic Spanish, while morphing into an important variant in the extreme south, Andalusian. Castilian retains its traditional prestige (so that the language itself, especially in its “correct” forms is often simply termed castellano). Yet Andalusian is significant as the major source of New World Spanish.

All these varieties conform to the general pattern of romance languages with respect to vocabulary, syntax, and word formation. One device that is characteristic of Spanish is dvanda formations (compounds joining two elements). A good example is marimacho, lesbian, combining mari for woman and macho, male.

In pre-modern Castilian the terms--at least those that are known, because much slang has presumably vanished—reflect the influence of the church. Sodomía (first attested in 1490) and sodomita (1495) derive from an interpretation of the notorious incident in the book of Genesis. An ethnonym (a term derived from a whole people) is bujarrón (1526), cognate with English bugger. This word reflecting the notion that the Bulgarians, as dualist heretics, were particularly given to same-sex practices. It is unlikely that medieval Spaniards had any deep acquaintance with Bulgaria, but they did know the south French Cathar or Albigensian heretics, sometimes known as bougres in French, who were ostensibly addicted to same-sex relations.

As the association with heresy suggests, sodomites were often the object of search-and-destroy campaigns on the part of the Inquisition. Typically, the documents term this behavior the pecado nefando (from the Latin peccatum nefandum), the “silent” sin, which is not to be named directly. Hence the agent term nefandario.

Later Hispanic sexual ideology insists on the difference between the stereotypical effeminate passives and the rarer aggressive types, who take advantage, as it were, of the former. As the contracted adjective somético (ostensibly derived from sometir, to submit) suggests, the sodomita plays the receptive role. Like the counterparts in other languages (bougeron, buggerone, Puserant), the bujarrón is conceived as the active penetrator. In Caribbean Spanish today the alternative form bugarrón predominates. Whatever the form preferred, this is a hardy perennial—though the sexual meaning is not universally understood.

As in other parts of Europe, the new learning of Humanism meant a revival of terms from classical antiquity. During the siglo de oro, the great age of Spanish literature, many of these terms, cultismos, were introduced. However, this did not occur very often with sexual terms. It was safer to introduce the pagan gods (as fictions, of course) than the practices of the ancients, for in this realm the Church was very vigilant. Thus Hermafrodito was known as a god from the late fifteenth century, but as a physiological type only from the early eighteenth century (hermafrodita). Ganimedes, Jupiter’s minion, was fairly explicit, at least to the educated public. From classical civilization stems ninfa, nymph, yielding a male counterpart, ninfo, dandy or flamboyant fairy. More recent are such learned expressions as amor griego, amor sáfico, and amor socrático. In keeping with international practice, lesbiana has been widely adopted.

From the sixteenth century onwards we have evidence of a special Spanish jargon termed Germanía, Picardía, or Jácara. This argot or jargon circulated among vagabonds, tricksters, and thieves—all those who had need to conceal their business by drawing a veil of language. Accordingly, it consisted both of “new” terms, not part of the officially recognized vocabulary, and special senses of ordinary words. In time this language became confused with Caló, much of which stems from the special language of Gypsies (Roma and Sinti). Lunfardo is an argot developed in Argentina, with some words reversed, as in French verlan. For a long time language purists ignored all these variants of Spanish, sometimes even denying that they exist. For this reason it is hard to date the first appearance of the terms.

There is evidence that Caló had spread to most regions of Latin America before 1810, when the independence movements began. For this reason, this understudied phenomenon must date from at least as early as the eighteenth century if not before. Some Caló terms stem from familiar patterns of gender manipulation, so that ruminé, fairy, derives from rumi, woman. Culebro is a masculine counterpart of the familiar culebra, snake, suggesting slithery motion. Jaña, girl, yields jaño, fairy. Madrina is a dimunitive of madre. Other terms resist explanation: caneo, coatatón, pajiro, pajubique, taralaila.

The Spanish conquest and settlement of much of the New World laid the foundations for regional particularisms. Oftentimes, though, words regarded as distinctive of, say, Mexico or Argentina, have peninsular origins. Occasional incursions from Indian languages are for the most part regional in scope, so that a Náhuatl (Aztec) term may recognizable in Mexico, but not a Quechua one, which would be limited to the Andean region. In Central Mexico the Nahuatl cuiloni (faggot) and cuilonyotl (homosexuality) enjoyed currency through the sixteenth century. Still sometimes found is chilintzín, a pasivo. The term mayate (originally a beetle--now meaning a flashy straight man, a “player” who may “service” effeminate gays--stems from Náhuatl mayatl. In Ecuador the term guallmico, comes from Quechua huarmi, a woman. Caucho, rubber; hence a pliable pasivo, comes from another Andean language.

As noted above, terms for homosexual men are characterized by a strong binarism that sharply distinguishes between activos and pasivos. The pasivos are the “true” homosexuals, often stereotyped as effeminates, possibly crazy queens, while activos are, or seek to pass as bisexual. Since any ascription of homosexuality may be stigmatizing, some even claim to be heterosexual.

At one time this polarity was much more widespread. It is found in classical antiquity, in Old Scandinavian documents, and today in southern Italy. In the US it flourishes in the major enclaves of jails, prisons, and reformatories, where a distinction between catchers (passives) and pitchers (actives) is mandatory. The latter do not regard themselves as gay, and indeed generally resume a heterosexual lifestyle on release.

Pasivos or afeminados are assumed to be in some sense women, or at least simulating that gender. Hence the widespread tendency of the Spanish language to indicate (effeminate) homosexuality switch by switching endings and articles, thus Carla for Carlos; la René; la soldada. Occasionally it goes the other way, as in puto, from puta, whore, and jaño (from jaña, girl in Caló). Diminutives may have a concurrent effect in lowering status: Carlita, mariquita, and Josefino (“nelly Joe,” modifying Josefina).

It is not surprising that Spanish the terms for the pasivos are much more numerous. Far and away the leading one is the set of terms stemming from marica (milksop), a lively word family that flourishes throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Marcia (documented as early as1599) derives from the woman's name María. The augmentative maricón originally had the same sense, but soon shifted to mean an “effeminate homosexual.” Today it is universally understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Variants are mari, mariquita. The word mariposa, butterfly, also stemming from María, has been assimilated to the same meaning. Americado and amariconado mean “faggy.” Marimacho is a lesbian.

Terms derived from animals are found in some frequency, either small, defenseless creatures, conveying the pasivo’s vulnerability--mariposa, pájaro (bird) and pato (duck)--or offensive creatures that may serve to stigmatize either (cabrón, goat, and cangrejo, crab. The term cabrón is often, perhaps most frequently, applied to a lusty pursuer of women. Yet the fact that it can be heterosexual or homosexual points up a widespread sexual mythology--comforting to macho practitioners who fear being labeled as fairies--that they are imbued with a kind of universal randiness. This notion is sometimes termed the “blind phallus” syndrome. That this is indeed a venerable sentiment appears in an offhand comment by the Roman poet Horace, who says that either a girl or a boy will do for sexual purposes.

The rare term jibiona may derive from jibia, cuttlefish. Delicate or edible vegetables may also do service: coliflor, cauliflower, and its Caló derivative colifunto.

As modern medicine and psychiatry diffused through Spanish-speaking countries—Buenos Aires became a major center—it helped to spread such terms as homosexual, homosexualidad, and (less commonly) invertido. The first two terms stem originally from German sources, the last from Italian.

The varieties of Spanish abound in expressions for bisexuality. Two of these are sol y sombra (reflecting the choice of shady or sunny seats at the bullfight), ida y vuelta (a round-trip ticket), que contesta dos teléfonos (now rare), and estéreofonico (because stereo receivers produce sound from two speakers). Moreover, parallels appear in terms for individuals who are versátil, playing both the activo and pasivo role—a practice sometimes considered exotic or “international.” One such is disco, a phonograph record (because it can be played on both sides). At first the loan-word gay was restricted to this “international” type; now it is used more generally. The new type is also called universal or redondo, round.

Discretion remains the order of the day among more educated types. Generally understood is ambiente (ambience, milieu), used narrowly to designate a quarter frequented by homosexuals, and more generally with the sense of “in the life,” that is, the homosexual lifestyle and social milieu. De ambiente is a discrete way of indicating gayness. A somewhat similar code word is the verb entendido (in the know). Those who are ignorant of gaydom and its ways are desentendidos.

The following paragraphs record terms widely understood in the peninsula today. Among lesbians the metaphor of preparing baked goods produces bollera (cf. Mexican tortillera), also simply bollo, a bread roll, or bolli (familiar). A butch lesbian may be termed a camión, truck (with various brand names for subvarieties).

In Spain general term for acting gay or going on the prowl is canconear, from the French dance, the cancan. The world of gaydom, especially in its more extravagant aspects, is encompassed by gremio, the guild. A fling, a sexual liaison of brief duration, is a lío or rollo. An aventura is quite brief, possibly a one-night stand. Novio, fiancé (or novia) means a partner in a more stable relationship. Polvo describes any sexual act.

Spanish effeminates are thought to cherish imaginary feathers, or plumas. And reinas, or queens, must not be without their symbolic coronas, crowns, and tronos, thrones. Discord in the queen’s circle is defined as trouble in the palacio real. A person with a venomous tongue is a víbora or viperina (viper), a term reflecting ageism. For commercial relations chapero (from chapa, a trick) is a well-established term for a hustler. Chulo, originally a young guy or kid, now redefined as an aggressive heterosexual man who preys on homosexuals. A person much longed for, but seldom found is the príncipe Azul, Prince Charming or Mr. Right.

As in most advanced industrial nations, Spanish gays are much preoccupied by age, typically gravitating to younger partners. For some the ideal is an efebo, an adolescent or youngish person, “cute,” muscular, and attractive. A synonym is querubín, cherub, an “angelic” type. Departing from the usual meaning of the word, an eunuco, is a young person who has not decided to come out and therefore lacking in sexual experience. Turning to the other side of the age divide, a carroza, carriage, is a person of forty or more years, who nonetheless seeks to keep up appearances. A harsher term for such a person is morcillona (from “morcilla,” blood sausage). Certainly older is a papi, someone who seeks to befriend a younger protégé; also known as maduro. An histórica (or mari histórica) is definitely “over the hill.” The final stage is momia, mummy.

Depending on the region, many of these expressions would be understood outside of Spain as well. We now turn to the world of Hispano-America. While there are some terms there that have only a narrow circulation, Latin American particularism is more a matter of degree than absolute differentiation. Here we will focus on only a few areas.

Let us start with Mexico. A polite designation is otro, other, or more fully del otro lado, from the other side (of the street). Sometimes izquierdo, left, has a similar sense. Ironic references to animals are león and leopardo. Culebra, snake, has a perceived association with culo, buttocks. Swishy types are identificable from the mano caída, limp wrist. As elsewhere in Latin America the pasivo is said to have a propensity to backward motion: marcha atrás. Joto is the word for the jack in cards. An edible vegetable is coliflor, cauliflower. A culinary reference appears in charro con sartén, a cowboy with a skillet, where sarten has the secondary meaning of vulva. A lesbian is a tortillera, tortilla-maker, with reference to the slapping motion supposedly shared by the two activities. Other lesbian terms include marimacho and manflora

As might be expected, Central American usage is similar to Mexican, but with a few local forms. In Nicaragua the pasivo is termed colchón, a mattress.

In the Andean region, the goat family is evoked, as in chivo, billy goat, and chivato, properly tattletale; also cabritillo, kid. A sports allusion appears in del otro equipo, someone who plays on the other team. The mano quebrada is a limp-wristed fag. A propensity for active anal activity emerges in cacorra, from a child’s word for feces, and culista. The pasivo complement is said to have retropulsión, he backs into it; or he is classified as a mostacero, mustard pot. In Ecuador meco stems from meca, a prostitute. The activo-pasivo contrast is still observed, but terms exist for those who, in this sense, “swing both ways”: ida y vuelta, round-trip ticket, reversible, a raincoat that can be turned inside out, and viricambio, a changeable man. These are not terms for bisexuals, as North Americans might assume, but describe one who can play either the active or passive role in same-sex activity. For lesbians the equivalent of Mexican tortillera is arepera, a maker of a round cornbread known as arepa. Also found are machona and maricona.

In the modern Spanish-speaking world some terms are imported from foreign languages. Travestí and garzón stem from French, traditionally the prestige language among Hispanic intellectuals.

Yet for some decades English has been by far the leading donor to Spanish gay vocabulary. Throughout the Spanish-speaking world the joint influence of the gay movement and the overall prestige of English in commerce and communications have fostered a massive invasion of English. The word gay has long been around, but is now used more generically to designate a newfangled “North American” type of person who rejects gender polarization. Terms like heterosexismo and homofobia have made easy progress, owing to their common Greek roots. Calque is a linguistic practice in which a term from another language migrates, not by borrowing, but by substitution: native elements replace foreign ones, but according to the foreign pattern. The procedure is also termed loan-translation. This practice appears in armario, closet (actually an upright chest where clothing is kept). Note also the expression salir del armario, where salir is a calque of “to come out.”

Some expressions have a dual existence, so that in contemporary Spain one can say either gay pride or orgullo gay, and ghetto or (with Spanish spelling) guetto. Sometimes the subculture is imported along with the term, as in the oso or bear identity, fostered by the movimiento ursino. While these terms are translated, various borrowings using English bear are current.

Spanglish is a voguish umbrella term for a phenomenon perhaps best seen in the borderlands of the US Southwest, in Puerto Rico, in south Florida, and in the Niuyorican parlance of New York City. At its complex best this form of language exhibits virtuoso code switching from Spanish to English and back again, sometimes in the same sentence. Loan words proliferate from English: bisi, corna, chopin (shopping), estoqiao (stuck). As regards homosexuality, though, the old standby maricón seems to suffice for the most part. However, in Puerto Rican street language a bucha is a butch lesbian.

A different matter is the Chicano slang sometimes termed Caló (even though it has little to do with the historical Caló). While there are some loan words from English (e.g. toque, a marijuana hit), this is essentially a variant of Spanish. Examples are bolas, testicles (a shift of meaning influenced by English “balls”) and mecos, semen. The basic meaning of the term chavala is “young woman, “chick.” Applied to a male, it means “sissy, cry baby.” Terms for lesbians include rara, a strange one, cachapera, seemingly referring to the use of the dildo to “open” the partner, and jota, the feminine form of joto (see above). By contrast the term loca, crazy queen, has a different connotation in some contexts, where it means a young “with-it” woman, the counterpart of the male loco.

At the southern end of the Latin American continuum, Argentina has developed a particularly rich jargon, termed Lunfardo. This repertoire is an elaborate creation of the immigrant groups, utilizing some traditional argot and some imported words and meanings. However, the main principle seems to be reinterpretation of existing Spanish words, as ciego, blind, which means “broke” in Lunfardo, and vento, wind, signifying “money.” Words for homosexual conduct are mainly drawn from the larger Hispanic pool: thus manflora and marcha atrás.

REFS. Wayne R. Dynes and Stephen O. Murray, “Hispanic Homosexuals: A Spanish Lexicon,” in S. O. Murray, ed., Latin American Male Homosexualities, Albuquerque, 1995, pp. 180-91; Victor León, Diccionario de argot español, second ed., Madrid, 1992; Ferran Pereda, El Cancaneo: diccionario petardo de argot gay, lesbi y trans, Barcelona, 2004; Hernán Rodriguez Castelo, Léxico sexual ecuatoriano y latinoamericano, Quito, 1979.

3 Comments:

Blogger Neko said...

Hi, I'm reading you from Mexico. I just wanted to comment... I don't know if you know about this word we use in Mexico (or at least in Central Mexico) for heterosexual, and that's "buga". It is only used within the gay community, and the few heterosexuals who know and use this word are usually the few straight people who go to gay clubs or have gay friends. When a gay man hits on a straight man in one of these clubs, the straight guy usually would say "soy buga" to make things clear.
See ya

3:07 PM  
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Blogger Latinsoul said...

"Buga" is short for "Bugarron".

12:01 AM  

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