Tamales To Gonorrhea: How Violence Shaped Colombian Spanish

Colombia's Spanish, beside its charming formality, is replete with graphic allusions to extreme brutality, becoming a mirror of a good 100 years of political and criminal violence.

Speechless in Darien, Colombia
Speechless in Darien, Colombia


BOGOTÁ Language, besides creating symbols and metaphors, labels objective and subjective realities. It is in itself a material and physical reality, with mass and movement. It is obviously also metaphysical, characterized by immateriality and silence. It is complex, for sure. And just as there is a language of power (and a language of counterpowers), with its disguises, subtleties and tendencies to hide rather than reveal, there is another language: the language of violence, with its nuances and hemorrhages. It is the language of blood and death.

In Colombia, a country shaken by violence, big and small wars as well as multiple conflicts, language has experienced both change and continuity. For example, "send to the papaya tree" (pasar al papayo) became a popular expression in the 1950s, the period of Liberal-Conservative Violence, and was used for decades to express the desire to kill or "erase" someone. An essentially rural expression, it remained widely popular both in time and space, and survived well into the 1980s, a time when another violent language emerged: the language of the drug mafias.

In the 1950s, a period of seething conservatism under President Laureano Gómez, of Liberal guerrilla actions in the countryside, rising peasant militias and constant atrocities, the language of violence became replete with euphemistic expressions like "guardian angel," meaning your handgun, fosforear (from fosforo, match), meaning set the hillsides, farms or houses on fire, or to "turkey" or "pigeon" someone (pavear or palomiar), meaning to kill from the bushes. That was the work of the "birds," the professional assassins of the time.

The language of violence became replete with euphemistic expressions like "guardian angel," meaning your handgun.

It was a time for "toasting" then, not of coffee beans but of people, this being another killing metaphor. At the time, leftist guerrillas used the tune of a children's song, The Pirate ("I'm a pirate and I sail the seas/Where all respect my voice...") as their anthem, tweaking the lyrics: I am a soldier of the guerrillas/Who conquer a better world/And I promise to overcome in the struggle/Against the dollar and its dictator".

Clashes in Bucaramanga, Colombia — Photo: Melissa Ortiz

Those were the days of the "flannel cut" (corte de franela), of "flattening" (laying low with your machete), chopping someone up finely "for the tamal" (a wrap of cornmeal dough with chunks of meat inside) or slicing them "bocachico style". Bocachico is a local river fish, and bocachiquiar meant to cut someone up and let them bleed to death, like with the fish before cooking. Language could thus refer to the horror of reality by either labeling it or camouflaging it.

The names and pseudonyms of many bandits of the 50s were also linked to the exercise of violence. The late FARC chief Tirofijo ("sureshot"), or personalities known as Sangrenegra (Blackblood), or Maligno (Malignant), received such names according to the way they were or acted.

In Medellín, a city whose elites handled a language of exclusion and racial segregation, the very widespread activity of prostitution led in the 1940s to the emergence of nine "tolerance" zones where venereal diseases were rife. The word gonorrhea was spoken with caution and fear then, as a Divine punishment or curse of Biblical proportions, in a time when penicillin was unavailable.

In the 1990s and under the influence of language promoted by drug cartels, gunmen and neighborhood gangs, the word became an insult, in continuity with the idea of verbal aggression. And like "son of a bitch" in our language (so often shortened or misspelled into hijueputa or hideputa, as it is heard), it has also become a term of endearment or affection, depending on the tone in which it is pronounced.

The language of violence, its pervasive presence and penetration of all social classes, is part of the mass decline in sensitivity. Context, cause and effect are lost and words are corrupted by repetition or by the recurrence of the situations they refer to. This way, a dead person found in the street is nothing more than a lifeless "doll," or someone who was "sent to the papaya tree" or "toasted" — with no questions asked.

The language of violence is part of the mass decline in sensitivity.

I remember one December seeing a body lying in a central avenue of Bello, outside Medellín. People strolled past, jigged about, as if nothing were amiss. It seemed to illustrate a saying here: "The dead into the pit and the living to the dance." Perhaps worse than strolling past when it comes to normalizing violence, is when people condemn the victim, and whitewash the killer, with something like, "well, he must have done something." That is language, nay an entire culture, infected — a total gonorrhea.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!