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Argentine Slang Essentials: Che

The Wondrous Origin of the Word CHE

Slang words are often tethered to other ideas and attitudes that simply cannot be expressed as succinctly without them, and the slang word “che” commonly used in Argentina, Uruguay and in the Spanish autonomous community of Valencia is no different. With its colorful history, it has already made inroads to non-Spanish speaking cultures and gained an “official status” with its entry into the famous Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary.

If you were to casually mention the word “che” to an English speaker in the United States, they would almost certainly associate it with Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary. His image has been plastered on t-shirts all over the Americas and appropriated for innumerable causes relating to counterculture, but many still don’t know this is simply his nickname. It has been said that Guevara earned the moniker for his frequent use the word che,” among the “barbudos” (the bearded revolutionaries. The term was coined to describe the rebel forces of the Cuban Revolution) as a casual speech filler used to call someone’s attention similarly to “hey” (more about that later.) As a result, Guevara was popularly known as “el Che” in Cuba and in many Latin American countries and simply “Che” elsewhere. However, it is important to note the uses of this word that stretch back far beyond Che Guevara.

There are several theories about the origin of the word “che,” but some scholars link it to the Mapuche language. Spoken natively in the areas in Chile and Argentina, the Mapuche language dates back thousands of years. When Spanish colonizers encountered the Mapuche there was some inevitable word borrowing and one that stuck was “che” which simply translates as “man”. Fast forward hundreds of years and Spanish speakers continue to use this word today, the same way English speakers use the words “pal” and “man”. For example, the colloquial expression “¡Hola, che! ¿Cómo te va?” translates into “Hey, man! How’s it going?”.

According to the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary, it functions as a different kind of usage altogether: the role of attention-getter. Here’s where Che Guevara’s story comes back into play! Similar to the way English speakers use the informal vocative “psst,” Spanish speakers might use “che.” For example, when living abroad in Argentina, one might hear this expression spoken at a dinner table, “Che, ¿me pasás la sal?” which translates to “Hey, would you pass me the salt?” And yet another use employs it as an exclamation to emphasize an idea. For example, one may exclaim about the weather, “qué calor, che!” which translates to “wow, it’s so hot!”

Hopefully learning about this Spanish slang word makes you a little more comfortable with the language and one day a native speaker from Argentina might say to you: ¡Che, pero qué bien que hablás español!

 

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