Word power

A new dictionary of Caló is the most comprehensive guide yet to Spanish barrio and border slang


Caló: A Dictionary of Spanish Barrio and Border Slang
Edited by Harry Polkinhorn and Alfredo Velasco
2011, Junction Press
146 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ONE OF the most interesting aspects of the demographic growth of the Latino community in the US is its impact on language.

Just as there have been signs of a growing hostility to the use of Spanish by official institutions and a backlash towards immigration, there is also considerable interest in how the Hispanic community has influenced American English and developed its own dialects.

The most prominent of these is Caló (once known as Pachuco) – an argot or cant which evolved from Mexican Spanish primarily among immigrant communities during the early 20th century and has undergone a process of constant change ever since.

Caló – a word traditionally used to denote the Spanish used by gypsies not unlike the Shelta spoken by travelling communities in Ireland and Britain – has come to define the vibrant, colourful and unforgiving language of Chicanos, particularly in border areas but increasingly throughout the US as the Latino community has grown.

It is at once what the co-editor of this excellent dictionary, Alfredo Velasco, describes as speech comprising “brilliantly twisted combinations of English and Spanish” in a unique dialect that reflects both lifestyles and language practices but also “a resistance to acculturation, and an ambivalence about identity”. Velasco goes on:

“The mechanic, barber, housewife, student, farmer, and, more recently, politician maintain a sense of cultural/ethnic identity through control, whether active or passive, of this dialect, along with standard English or Spanish.” [p. 10]

The main point being that language usage is always potently political quality whose form mirrors all the subtleties and brutal realities of the environment in which it is employed: Caló is neither Spanish nor English, but a hybrid that appears – again like Shelta – to prefer English grammatical structure but overlays this Saxon order with the exotic descriptive hues and lyrical sensibility of Mexican Spanish.

Previous versions

Two previous versions of the dictionary of Caló have been published, 28 and 25 years ago respectively, but in that time a multitude of new words and phrases have been added reflecting the transformation in the social landscape of Latinos in the US.

Alongside a significant increase in the number of entries, now totalling 1,002, Polkinhorn and Velasco have also made two important changes to past dictionaries: they have included idiomatic expressions as well as a series of expressions pertaining to specific sub-cultures, not least gang culture, as well as references to gay, druggie and folk-healing sub-cultures.

The expansion of Latino gangs, in particular, encapsulates the social and linguistic changes that have transformed the Caló-speaking community, as illustrated by the inclusion of such terms as vatos (dudes) who enter and leave the pinta (prison) amid regular encounters with la placa (the police) and regular pedo (fights) between the clicas (gangs).

Idiomatic usage also brings this collection to life for monolingual Spanish or English speakers who do not easily understand Caló. As Velasco notes, the combination of both languages within word play (albur) may be outside what one considers proper grammatical and semantic use, but it is nonetheless essential to the full understanding of Caló and replete with layers of meaning that may be either offensive or affectionate depending on the context or even both at the same time.

The editors of this collection make no bones about the harsh edge of this dialect: it has always been and remains a language of the streets with little concern for polite usage or political correctness. They have, therefore, courageously, confronted the purportedly sexist, racist or other potentially objectionable qualities without preconceptions: language is language, you understand it or you don’t. Their guiding principle has been clarity of meaning.

This is a wise policy, for Caló is particularly good at providing the raw material for insults and for degrading a target of wrath or contempt. As Velasco says:

“With respect to sexist terms, to stress a point, the words jaina, ruca, huisa all refer to one’s significant female partner-girlfriend. All three terms are insulting and degrading to the majority of women, except those living la vida loca. We nonetheless thought it would be most useful, and accurate, to leave the terms, and their meanings, as they are really used in the streets.” [p. 13]

Their wives may give them a hard time for doing so, but thank heavens they have: in Caló: A Dictionary of Spanish Barrio and Border Slang we not only have a valuable linguistic resource but we also have a couple of editors who have not bowed to ideological ephemera or the conformism of Middle America in their dedication to their task.

Ten-word test
If you are interested in Caló, here are ten words culled from the pages of Caló: A Dictionary of Spanish Barrio and Border Slang to test your knowledge (send your answers to us at editor@latamrob.com):


Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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