Advice, Culture

Spanish Accents & Dialects: Do Little Details Really Matter?

Spanish words that have different meanings

If you’re the type of person who hits “Reply All” when responding to an email with sensitive information, listen up. Attention to detail is arguably one of the cornerstones of language learning, and it can save you from making some easily avoidable mistakes, like saying you’re pregnant when you meant to say you were embarrassed. (And even more so now.)

An accent mark in a Spanish word can wildly change its definition. To further trip you up, the same word in Spanish can change meaning by country—and not necessarily for the better. No matter what your perceived level of Spanish is, you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you take some time to research local dialects before your next vacation, meeting with a Spanish-speaking client, or conversation with an attractive foreigner on Tinder. 

Cuidado ahí: Words to look out for

  1. A classic example is if, for some reason, you need to tell someone how old your father is. It should be written as, Mi papá tiene 53 años, but if you forget the accent marks and write Mi papa tiene 53 anos, you’ve gone from “My father is 53 years old” to “My potato has 53 assholes.” They may be hard to remember, but what a difference an accent mark or two make, particularly with how crazy you want to be perceived as or not.
  2. In Mexico, the word concha literally means “shell” but also refers to a delicious type of sweet bread. In other parts of Latin America, like Argentina and Chile, as well as in Spain, however, concha refers to a specific part of a woman’s body—of which there are also slang equivalents in American English, so get your giggles out now.


More precarious palabras to watch out for

  • embarrassed
    • One of the most common mistakes that non-native Spanish speakers make is when they don’t know a word and make one up that sounds like the English word with an “o” or an “a” slapped on the end of it. The word “embarrassed” is one of those words.
      • The word people use: embarazada, or “pregnant”
      • The correct word: avergonzado/a
  • how to tell someone when you’re warm
    • We all understand that it would seem logical to use the Spanish word caliente to describe how you feel when it’s “warm” or “hot” out, right? Right. Except so, so wrong when combined with the basic verb estar, or “to be.”
      • The phrase people use: Estoy caliente. = “I’m horny.”
      • The correct phrase: Tengo calor. = “I’m warm/hot.”
  • capullo
    • If you like exploring new parks and admiring the local flora, you’ll want to know the word for flower “bud,” i.e. capullo. Be careful to use good context clues and not to scream it at the top of your lungs across the park to your friend, though—at least in Spain. There, the word capullo is also an insult meaning “idiot” or “jerk,” “dick” if you’re feeling extra spicy, or “bell end” if you prefer British English.
  • porro
    • You might be in Colombia having a really lovely conversation about a new style of music and dance that you recently discovered. You find out it’s a subgenre of cumbia, called porro, and you can’t wait to tell your friends about it. Just make sure your friends aren’t from Spain, or they’ll be wondering where in the world you found a joint (of marijuana) that played music.
  • torta
    • When you’re at a café in Mexico and order a torta, you’ll get a tasty sandwich on a big white roll filled to the brim with meat, cheese, veggies, avocado, and/or beans. Ask for a torta in Spain, and you’re getting a hearty slap across the face.

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