Argentine Spanish is peppered with words and phrases from Lunfardo, a vast slang vocabulary developed on the streets of Buenos Aires around the turn of the 20th century. Criminals and other shady characters looking to keep their activities under wraps developed Lunfardo by borrowing and twisting words from the melting pot of languages that surrounded them, allowing them to communicate with each other even in the presence of the police or prison guards. While initially used by the more unsavory element of Argentine society, Lunfardo was later popularized through the tango, literary art forms, and upwardly mobile immigrants and has become a part of everyday, informal speech regardless of social class. Today, the use of Lunfardo is most prevalent in Argentina (particularly in and around Buenos Aires) and Uruguay, though some elements have been adopted by neighboring countries such as Chile and Paraguay.
Lunfardo was largely a product of the great wave of European immigration to Argentina that took place from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. The huge influx of immigrants hailing from Spain, Italy and France, many of whom spoke non-standard regional dialects or languages, greatly influenced the development of Lunfardo. Certain words also arrived via the gauchos of Argentina’s interior as well as native groups like the Guaraní, Quechua and Mapuche.
One of the features of Lunfardo is the use of vesre, a form of wordplay that involves reversing the order of syllables in a word. The term "vesre" is derived from the Spanish word "revés" (in reverse/backwards). Examples of vesre include café → feca (coffee), pantalones → lompa (a truncated form of the word for pants) and hotel → telo (a pay-by-the-hour love motel).
In addition to vesre, Lunfardo also employs words based on metaphors such as tumbero, a slang term for "convict" that originates from the Spanish word "tumba" meaning grave. Another example is the word "campana" (Spanish for "bell"), which describes the lookout man ready to sound the alarm should the police suddenly arrive on the scene.
For those of you looking to add a splash of color to your Spanish, the following websites have compiled an extensive list of Lunfardo words and phrases: Argentine Spanish Slang Dictionary, Wally's Dictionary of Argentine Colloquialism and Culture and Diccionario de Lunfardo.
This post was originally written for Transpanish, a translation blog focusing on the Spanish language and Hispanic culture.