Why are they laughing at me? What the heck did I just say?
If you’ve travelled to a Spanish-speaking country, without learning how to speak Spanish, then you’ve experienced the embarrasement that comes with saying the wrong Spanish word. Especially if it’s a dirty one!
All languages come with their own words that have an “alternative” interpretation to native speakers, and it’s often these humorous words that bring us close together.
Learn them all, and you’ll be in “the know” next time you get laughed at while speaking Spanish. Heck, you might even start laughing when other people say them—and that’s when you officially know you’re a Spanish speaker rather than a Spanish student.
Clean meaning: Toad
Dirty meaning: A lady’s hoo-ha
This one is number one of my list, because I’ve had people laugh at me when actually speaking about toads in the context of ongoing biological research.
There’s no way to avoid the crassness, no matter your context or technically perfect Spanish. If you’re not speaking to biologists, maybe you could pretend you only know the word for frog (rana). I say you tackle this head on, though. No fear. Make the scientific community (and me) proud by unabashedly using precise language regardless of the consequences.
Clean meaning: Seashell
Dirty meaning: Map of Tasmania
If you didn’t know that Tasmania is shaped like that, now you do—forever. You’re welcome. This word makes appearances in many explicit phrases used to curse people out, such as “¡Concha [de] tu madre!” and the weirder “¡Concha [de] la lora!”
Clean meaning: Female dog
Dirty meaning: Floozie
This darn gendered language seems like it’s designed to cause these problems on purpose. You automatically have to define a dog as a male or female dog when speaking, either a perro or perra.
In English, we have our own vulgar word that technically means “female dog” but is almost never used for that reason. Spanish uses “female dog” for another insult, namely “a woman of loose morals” or “a loose woman who’s had many lovers.”
Clean meaning: To eat (reflexive)
Dirty meaning: To do the deed
This one caused my personal, all-time favorite Spanish embarrassment story. While talking to my Ecuadorian homestay family about a Spanish class assignment involving “La caperucita roja,” I did a metaphorical faceplant after talking about how the wolf eats the grandmother. Talk about reinventing classic stories. I will never forget the sound of eight Quiteños laughing hysterically at my Spanish blunder.
Clean meaning: Wealthy (when referring to people), delicious (when referring to food)
Dirty meaning: Delicious (when referring to people)
You can make a similar mistake if you’re still confusing ser and estar and want to describe someone as “a good person.” If you say that “Ella está buena” instead of “Ella es buena,” look out for some raised eyebrows—you just said that “She’s a hot piece of tail,” not that “She’s a good human being.”
6. Culo vs. Nalga vs. Trasero
Clean meaning: Butt
Dirty meaning: Butt
Okay, the dirtiness here is caused by a common mix-up between the two words listed above. Culo is a raunchy word that impressionable Spanish learners often pick up by listening to too much reggaeton.
Nalga is a more benign word which means something akin to “butt,” “butt cheeks” when plural and “lil’ butt cheeks” when phrased more diminutively as nalguitas—but despite being more anatomical it’s still moderately crude.
Stick with trasero, which comes out sounding more like the English “behind,” and you’ll be polite in anyone’s company.
Clean meaning: Fat, oil
Dirty meaning: Fat
Again, this is another case of word mix-ups. You may have learned that grasa technically means fat, but that doesn’t mean you should refer to your own body fat or someone’s else’s that way. Instead say, “Tengo unas libras de más” (I have a few extra pounds), rather than pointing to yourself and talking about nasty, greasy lard.
Clean meaning: Eggs
Dirty meaning: The two amigos
You can always use huevitos if you want to make sure you don’t bungle this one up. In some countries—I myself am only aware of this happening in parts of Mexico—some native speakers defer to blancos when they’re discussing eggs.
Clean meaning: Smaller balls (as opposed to balón or bola which refer to a larger ball) used in sporting events
Dirty meaning: The two amigos
You may be talking about tennis equipment, but this will never not be funny.
Clean meaning: General ball-shaped items, balls used for sporting events, edible balls of food
Dirty meaning: The two amigos
There is no Spanish word for sports-related balls that isn’t funny. Sorry. This particular word is twice as bad because you can also eat bolas in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Suddenly, “¿Qué comiste hoy en el almuerzo?” becomes a dangerous question.
Clean meaning: Sausage
Dirty meaning: Exactly what you think it means
Your home country doesn’t matter—it’s part of human nature to identify vaguely phallic-shaped items and laugh at them. We all know what a sausage looks like, and we all know what that word can mean in the right (or wrong) context.
12. Pechuga vs. Pecho
Clean meaning: Chicken breast/human chest, human breast
Dirty meaning: Breasts
Let’s clear all this up right away: Pechuga is for talking about chicken breasts and pecho is a more technical term for a human chest. Pecho can be used when speaking about medical issues, physical fitness, breastfeeding and any other usual topic of conversation.
Pechuga, when used in reference to a person, conveys that you think of that person as a slab of meat. Pecho, used when talking about meat, conveys that you don’t know how to speak Spanish.
You don’t always want to say pecho when talking about people (or yourself), since that can be awkward if you’re in the midst of a girls’ night out or something. If you actually want to talk casually about boobies (and not the blue-footed kind) with friends, in Ecuador you can use chichis in a playful sense and avoid sounding totally awkward.
Clean meaning: Bag, shopping bag, sack
Dirty meaning: Sack
Say funda instead, for the love of God.
Clean meaning: Bird, little bird
Dirty meaning: Homosexual (offensive)
This totally innocent word becomes an offensive slur when used in the wrong country. In many places, ave sounds heavy, awkward or is simply less-commonly used, and that’s where you’ll want to use pájaro to talk about our winged, flying friends.
In other regions, namely the Caribbean and perhaps a few others, you should only ever use ave. Pay attention when people speak or ask your hosts if you’re unsure! Honestly, you can never go very wrong with ave, so it’s the safe choice no matter where you are.
Clean meaning: Desire, urge; to have the desire or urge to do something
Dirty meaning: Animal urges (ahem)
Sure, you can say “Tengo ganas de comer una hamburguesa enorme” (I feel like eating an enormous hamburger), but don’t pause after “Tengo ganas.” If your conversation exchange partner thinks the sentence ends there, funny looks will abound.
Clean meaning: To grab
Dirty meaning: To do the deed
In many countries and contexts, this verb is A-OK. The internet will expressly forbid you from using it in most Latin American countries, but Ecuadorians and Colombians (citizens of countries that are supposed to only know of the dirtycoger usage) can be heard innocently saying things like “Voy a coger un taxi” (I’m going to take a taxi) all day long.
It’s pretty much a toss up when you’ll get someone snickering at you for using it, no matter where in the world you are—though I’ve heard the word is actually off limits in Chile and Peru, so you might want to ask when you arrive at your Spanish-speaking destination.
17. Me cago vs. me caigo
Clean meaning: I fall (me caigo – caerse)
Dirty meaning: I sh*t myself (me cago – cagarse)
Even if you’re not clumsy and falling down all the time, me cago is a great phrase to have on hand, particularly for the expression “Me cago de [la] risa,” which is roughly equivalent to ROFL. You may also want to describe how you’re falling in love with “Me cago en el amor.” Now, these phrases come from the irregular (and seriously vulgar in every possible context) verb cagarse, not caerse (to fall).
Beginning Spanish language learners have been known to accidentally mix these up or simply mis-conjugate or mispronounce their intended verb. Urban Dictionary can’t even tell the difference between these phrases, which shows you just how deep this goes.
Even if you always say “Me caigo” perfectly, you may well have immature jokesters play off your words, twist your words around for jokes at your expense or chuckle at you de la nada.
Clean meaning: Thing
Dirty meaning: Thang
This is possibly the most frequently-used word in the Dominican Republic. Absolutely everything is a vaina, so leave cosa behind once you’ve set foot on Dominican soil. Since everything can be a vaina, it’s no small wonder that it can be used to casually refer to one’s private parts—mostly for ladies.
You’ll get some giggles if you say this one with misplaced emphasis, silly context where it could be somehow construed sexually or if everyone has had enough Presidentes (popular brand of Dominican cerveza nacional) that night.
19. Estoy caliente
Clean meaning: There is no clean meaning, this is just an all-around sexual thing to say—but lots of Spanish learners say it.
Dirty meaning: I’m hot/smokin’/feeling quiggly
Classic. The ol’ “Estoy caliente” instead of “Tengo calor” switcharoo. Many Spanish learners have fallen to this phrase before you, and it never fails to elicit a sidelong glance or giggle from native conversation partners. You were trying to say that you feel hot due to the current temperature or climate, and instead you boasted about your hot bod or eagerness for intimate encounters.”
Where to go from here?
You can always learn more Spanish words by checking out free Spanish classes online, using Memrise to memorize more words, or working with a private Spanish coach on websites like Rype.