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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.

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This Happened — September 23: Women Enter The King Fahd International Stadium

On this day in 2017, women were allowed to enter the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for the first time ever. The women attended the stadium’s 87th anniversary celebrations and a qualifying World Cup match.

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