Any Spanish-language enthusiast might be forgiven upon arriving in Buenos Aires for becoming disillusioned with their comprehension abilities. It is evident from the first day that the city’s inhabitants have their own very special brand of Spanish that can confuse native and non-native speakers alike.
Universally recognised vocabulary and expressions are twisted and turned by the ever-creative porteños. Instead of ‘camareros’ (waiters) and ‘comer’ (to eat), we have ‘mozos’ and ‘morfar’. A closer inspection of the lyrics of any tango hit will reveal a codified language that is baffling at first sight. This street-smart slang was born, as tango was, from the smoke filled brothels and mean streets of 19th century Buenos Aires. The name of this lingo is Lunfardo, and while its origins are deeply connected with Argentina’s immigrant past, it is now spoken by people from all walks of life.
Origin of the name
The word ‘lunfardo’ is commonly regarded to have originated from the Italian word ‘lombardo’ corrupted to ‘lumbardo’ meaning someone from the Italian province of Lombardy. In the Roman dialect ‘lombardo’ was used to refer to a thief. The word was brought to Buenos Aires in the late 19th century by the massive influx of Italian immigrants. The first known example of the word in print was published in La Prensa on 6th July 1876 under the title ‘El dialecto de los ladrones’ (The dialect of thieves).
The word’s meaning slowly expanded – first to mean any sort of delinquent and later to mean anyone from a poor background – until it was finally adopted as the name for the rich and highly complex street language used by Porteños of the time.
Playing with syllable order within words, known as ‘vesre’, is common in Lunfardo. The idea is to move the final syllable to the start of the word. ‘Una feca con chele’ therefore means ‘un café con leche’ and ‘gotán’ ‘tango’.
It often makes use of words metaphorically or as an analogy. For example ‘tumbero’, slang for convict, originates from the Spanish word ‘tumba’ meaning grave.
Lunfardo and Popular Culture
As with many other slang forms, Lunfardo was a way by which street-wise hoods could communicate without the police understanding them. As such, it was designed to keep outsiders out, and was rarely written down by the semi-literate compraditos (hoods). The main form of documenting it has been through the lyrics of tango. The music provided the soundtrack to the language that reflected the tough, violent and sexually-charged world.
As time progressed the argot began to extend itself more widely through Buenos Aires’ society, and as immigrants moved up through the social ranks, so did its use. Tango’s success in Europe exposed the slang to ever-wider audiences and reinforced its credibility, becoming the way that every hip young socialite wanted to speak.
However, after the military coup of 1943, due to pressures from puritanical groups, the language was unofficially banned from the radio and many tango writers were forced to avoid its use in their lyrics.
The 1950s saw the beginning of tango’s decline as it became out of step with popular culture and the slang, seen as unfashionable and outdated, went back underground.
Nevertheless, music has again been key in resurrecting Lunfardo’s use in popular culture, this time in the form of ‘rock nacional’, which reached the porteño working classes in the late 1960s and 70s. Traditional tango-esque words mixed with new street words are evident in the lyrics of bands such as Sumo, Los Redonditos de Ricota and Argentine rock legend Charly Garcia.
More recently, it has been given a new lease of life due to the infamous rise of ‘cumbia villera’, Argentina’s home grown cocktail of Colombia’s cumbia, mixing Latin rhythms with a gangsta mentality. The music’s lyrics depict the violent and desperate world in Buenos Aires’ villas (shantytowns) making use of many ‘Lunfardismos’ as well as many new words.
Since its inception, Lunfardo has constantly evolved and developed, adding renewed vitality to Porteño vernacular. Some words have become so accepted they can now be found in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, while others have become forgotten and unintelligible words of old tango records. One thing is certain though; Lunfardo is as quintessential a part of any Porteño’s highly distinct cultural identity as tango or football.
‘cafisho’ derives from ‘catfish’ and is the Lunfardo word for ‘pimp’
‘cana’ (policeman) comes from the French word ‘canne’ meaning ‘stick’ or ‘baton’
‘Jailafe’ is a corruption of the English expression ‘highlife’
‘pucho’ meaning cigarette is a Quechua word
‘los ocho cuarenta’ (the eight forties). When statute number 840 was passed, outlawing prositution, pimps became known as the 840s. As soon as outsiders worked out what it meant, it changed to ‘nueve menos veinte’ (twenty