Be careful with these Spanish words in Latin America!

Published on 13/02/2018

More than five hundred years after the arrival of the Spanish language in Latin America, it has developed quite differently on the two sides of the Atlantic. When travelling to a Spanish speaking country on the American continent, including the United States, the differences between European and Latin American Spanish can lead to often funny, sometimes embarrassing and, in some cases, irreparable mistakes. If you’re planning on travelling to Latin America on business, and you have learnt to speak Spanish in Spain, we recommend that you read this article carefully, to avoid falling into the traps of a language that you thought you knew.

Índice de contenidos

Index of contents

Index du contenu


  1. Actions that aren’t what they seem
  2. Things that aren’t what they seem

Below, by way of example, we have selected eleven words that could be used during a business meeting and whose use could be troublesome and counter-productive.

Actions that aren’t what they seem

Let’s begin with one of the most well-known differences, due to the fact that it is a word that is used frequently in Spanish. We are talking about the verb coger (to take). While in Spain it is a synonym of the verb tomar, in the majority of Latin American countries it refers to having sexual relations in a very informal and almost vulgar tone.  

The Spanish synonym for coger, tomar, also has another meaning, as it refers to drinking until you get drunk, so take note.

Business in Latin America

Imagine that during a meeting, somebody asks you to give your computer to them as a gift (using the Spanish verb regalar). You would find it quite hard to believe. It wouldn’t seem quite so strange if they were just asking you to go over and have a look. Indeed, in several Latin American countries, the verb regalar is used as another way of saying to approach something or pass something on.

If somebody shouts “Párate!” (Stop! in European Spanish), pay attention and move, because what they’re actually asking you to do is to stand up.

And finally, if you’re about to go back somewhere, don’t use the Spanish verb regresar, which actually means in LA to give something back to somebody.

Business in Latin America

Things that aren’t what they seem

If you schedule an appointment with your partners, be very careful with the use of the word ahora (now). If you’re familiar with Spanish from Spain, the word ahora is used to refer to this very moment, or in a short time. By contrast, throughout Latin America, it gives no specific indication of the exact moment and can refer to the whole day. To refer to this very moment, they would say ahorita.

In Mexico and Guatemala, another word that could lead to embarrassment when used in a business context, as it is an essential part of a suit, is chaqueta (jacket). It means masturbation in Central America, where it is best to use the word chamarra. Some advice, don’t leave it on the back of your chair!

Business in Latin America

Continuing with the subject of clothing, it is worth pointing out the different facets of the word zapato (shoe). The word used in Spain to refer to footwear means stupid in Argentina, ugly in Colombia, foul mouthed in Costa Rica and gossip in Peru.

If they call you capo in Argentina, Chile or Uruguay, you should feel honoured. Unlike its use in Spain and Colombia, where it is synonymous with an organised crime boss, in the three countries mentioned above, it refers to a genius with outstanding talent.

However, we must also be aware of the fact that if our use of the language may come as a surprise to others, we may also be confused by certain uses of Latin American Spanish.

Business in Latin America

In Colombia, if they offer you a tinto (red wine in Spain) during a morning meeting, don’t worry, your partners aren’t trying to get you drunk, they’re just offering you a black coffee. And if they ask if you want to take part in the polla de beneficencia (charity cock) in Chile, don’t worry, they’re just talking about their national lottery. And finally, if you’re travelling to Cuba on business, you may find it strange that that one of your partners is absent because he or she is “ligando” (on the pull). Don’t worry, it’s not that your appointment isn’t important, but that the person has fallen ill.

Business in Latin America

Tip: to avoid misunderstandings, it’s better to try to use words that are characteristic of a written or formal tone, which are those that are subject to fewer differences. However, if you find a sentence strange or rude, it’s probably just another trap of a language that has many different tongues. It’s always best to ask so that you can continue to learn the language of Cervantes.

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Elodie Anthian's picture
Elodie Anthian

Graduate in Hispanic Philology from the University of Toulouse (France) and Master in Translation and Cultural Intermediation (EN-ES>FR) from the University of Salamanca.

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