The Meaning of the Lunfardo Word ‘Bacán’

Although not much in use these days, it may still be possible to hear people in their fifties or sixties using the word bacán in their conversations, especially when referring to somebody who seems to have a good economic position.  It was a very popular term during the sixties and seventies amongst the hippies.

Alegre Bacán – Tango

What does bacán mean?

According to some language experts, a bacán is somebody who sees himself or herself as having a lot of money. It is worth noticing that a bacán is not necessarily somebody wealthy but -in most occasions- somebody who seems to be wealthy. It was first used to refer to the rich people who held administrative positions in the British-owned trains. According to a version, these administrative people, since they didn’t do any physical effort, kept their hands at their backs (backhand, in English).

This term belongs to the Argentine lunfardo and it was used not only in Buenos Aires but also in all the River Plate area.

Throughout the years, different synonyms or quasi synonyms have appeared: “jailaife”, “shusheta”, “pituco”, “cajetilla”, “bienudo”, “concheto” or “cheto” just to mention a few of them.

The English version

Some language experts believe that the word bacán derives from the English word “backhand”, which referred to the wealthy people who, as it has already been said, had administrative positions in the British-owned trains.

The Italian Version

On the other hand, some language experts are convinced that the term bacán comes from the old Genoese Latin word baccan, which meant patron, captain of a ship, pater familia (head of a Roman family).

Baco, Bacanales and “bacán”

It is also worth mentioning that some linguists firmly believe that the etymological origin of the word bacán can be found in the word bacanal. Thus, “bacán” would be an abridged version of that word. Bacán would be the man who enjoys life fully, who spends money on good clothes, good wines and good food since the bacanales were, in the Ancient Greece and Rome, parties celebrated to pay homage to the God Baco that included plenty of good food and alcoholic beverages.


Should NYPD Officers Speak Spanish?

The NYPD seems to have some trouble with Spanish speaking people. Just a few days after nine Hispanic officers were issued memos for chatting in Spanish amongst themselves and violating the department’s unofficial English-only policy, their intolerance with Spanish speakers has made it to the press again.

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Five Latina women in New York City filed a lawsuit last week against the New York Police Department, the City of New York, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for failing to provide Spanish interpreters during separate house calls over the past two years.

One of the complainants, who is a victim of domestic abuse, said that, despite the fact that she asked for someone who spoke Spanish when she called 911, only English-speaking police officers were sent to her house. She adds that, to make things worse, they arrested her instead of the attacker and ridiculed her just because she was not fluent in English.

The reaction of the NYPD so far is disappointing, to say the least. Even though Paul Browne, its chief spokesperson, dismissed the lawsuit alleging that the department has an efficient language service as well as the largest number of foreign-language officers in the country, who many a time act as translators or interpreters during house calls, the truth is that the force reprimands its officers for not speaking English during the working hours.

That double message is contradictory and confusing. The NYPD embraces foreign officials and encourages them to put their language knowledge to the service of troubled citizens but then fails to send them to help out in situations where they are really needed or files memos against those same cops for using their mother tongue during working hours.

It is perfectly understandable the need to ensure the use of English as the only spoken language in certain situations. For instance, when officers from different ethnic backgrounds are together, when they are discussing safety instructions or procedures or when they are looking into a case. However, in every other situation, officers should be allowed to use the language they are more comfortable with. The United States is a multicultural and multilingual country and its police force should reflect that fact.

The Origin of the Word Chévere

If you have had the chance of spending some time in Venezuela, or Cuba or in any other Caribbean country or if you have watched any Venezuelan soap opera on TV, there are great chances that you have heard at least once the word chévere (meaning good, cool). And in fact it is quite likely that you’ve found yourself saying chévere once and again to locals talking to you while on holidays in the Caribbean. But, have you ever thought about which is the etymological origin of this word?

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Chevere and Its African Origin

According to some language experts, chévere is a neologism derived from the African language Efik, which was introduced to Cuba at the beginning of the 19th Century by a group of African immigrants that came from Nigeria as slaves. These slaves formed the secret society Abakua and, for over two centuries, they used the word chévere as part of the songs they sang during their public ceremonies. As these songs were made popular in recordings made by popular Cuban artists of the 1950’s such as Cachao and Tito Puente, the word chévere and others from the Efik language started being used in other Caribbean countries, especially in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Colombia.

Popular Versions of the Etymological Origin of “Chévere”

There are quite a few popular versions of the birth of the word chévere. For instance, it is believed that it derives from the name of the General Jacques Francois De Chevert.

The Cuban philologist José Juan Arrom believes that the origin can be traced back to Guillermo de Croy, Lord of Chievres, servant of Charles I and thief who abused of his position when he went to Castile in 1517 with the king, giving birth to the revolution of the Castilian Communities (1520-1521).

English-Only: Past, Present and Future of a Controversial Movement

The Whole Food’s incident, in which two employees accused the company of encouraging an English-only policy in the working environment and suspending them for speaking Spanish during the working hours, seems to have opened Pandora’s box in relation to a long-standing and unresolved issue that reaches deep into the American society: the use of English language as a means to exercise some kind of control over Latin American immigration.

The Early Origins of the English-Only Movement

Even though it may seem that the advocates of the English-Only Movement can only be found in recent years, especially as President Barack Obama is pushing an immigration reform, the truth is that its origins can be traced back to the 1800’s. In fact, during 1878 and 1879 the constitution of California was rewritten so that the Spanish language rights were no longer recognized and the English-only schooling was recommended to Native Americans. According to the official text “All laws of the State of California and all official writings, and the executive, legislative and judicial proceedings shall be conducted, preserved and published in no other than the English language”. Years later, English-only instruction laws were also passed in Wisconsin, Illinois and Hawaii.

The need of relying on the English language to provide some kind of unity and common bond to the American nation, which was being born at the time, is probably the main reason behind passing these laws.

Does the USA Need English as an Official Language?

Almost since its inception, the United States of America has been a pluralistic nation. Stating that it is a land of opportunities, it embraces warmly any immigrant that wants to fulfill the American Dream and help the country grow and prosper.

This multiculturalism has lead people from all over the world to come to the USA and, in many occasions, they do not know nor understand English and find it easier to communicate with peers in their mother tongue so that they do not feel pressed by the need of learning English.

As a result, many people doubt whether these immigrants are really integrated into society and question whether establishing English as the official language would be helpful in order to press them to learn English and therefore become fully functional American citizens.

There are different groups such as ProEnglish and U.S. English –just to mention the most important ones- that believe that in a pluralistic nation, it is important to foster and support the similarities and encourages public opinion and law makers to adopt English as the official language at all levels of the government as they consider English as the most empowering tool that immigrants have to succeed.

So far, the United States Federal Government does not specify an official language. However, all official documents in the U.S. are written in English, though some are also published in other languages. Looking at this issue state by state, a vast majority of them (33 out of 50) have passed laws that establish English as the official language in the state while some of them also accept the use of other language. Amongst these states we can mention: Hawaii, Wyoming, Idaho, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky.

Whether the United States need an official language or not, is a question that has caused quite an interesting controversy. While the ones that are pro this idea consider the English-only movement a good way of unifying a multicultural and multinational nation, there are many others that are convinced it is discriminatory and that it certainly contradicts the First Amendment and the right to freedom of speech.

These groups suggest that the union of people of the United States  will be the result not of a single language being spoken but of exercising tolerance and pushing political measures that benefit all people equally no matter what their ethnic origin is. They deny that English is under threat and they claim that, many a time, these English-Only movements show hatred against non-English speaking immigrants.


Career Opportunities for Multilingual People

Being multilingual is usually considered as the key to landing more attractive and well-paid jobs than the ones that people that speak only one language can aim at. However, when people think about what positions multilingual people can look for, in general they limit themselves to teaching a foreign language or translating, without taking into account there are many other interesting jobs available in the market. Let’s explore some career opportunities you should consider if you speak more than one language.

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National Defense

National defense programs depend on maintaining a fluent communication between countries; and this would be impossible without the collaboration of multilingual individuals who work in military, economic, environmental, cultural or national security. Everywhere across the world, the Departments of Defense offer multiple career alternatives that are both challenging, rewarding and allow you as well to contribute to the world order and be in constant relation with people from different nations.


Working at an embassy is also a wonderful opportunity for multilingual people. It is challenging and glamorous and encourages you to speak, write and think in your second language almost the whole time you are working. Embassies are also a great place for those speakers of more than one language who are fond of travelling as there are many times commercial missions organized abroad to which you can be invited.

Tourism and Hospitality

Hotels and resorts are always in need of individuals who speak at least a foreign language in order to be able to provide a top notch service to their international guests and keep them happy. Career opportunities in this area are almost unlimited and you can find positions in marketing, catering or hotel management at a global level as you move forward in your career.

International and Non-Government Organizations

From the Red Cross to UNICEF or UNESCO, there are hundreds of international and non-government organizations where multilingual people can find challenging career opportunities. In these places, people skillful in more than one language are greatly appreciated because of their ability to communicate and establish strong relationships with the locals, which translates into a better reach of the programs that need to be enforced. They also offer a great environment where you learn first-hand from other cultures and feel helpful.

Banking and Finance

With companies and individuals doing business across the globe, it is really advantageous to speak more than one language in the banking and finance niche. From helping customers overseas solve their bank account or commercial problems to being able to translate a financial document so that everybody in a meeting can understand it, there are multiple areas where multilingual people can develop a successful career.

Law Enforcement

People skillful in more than one language are important as they can make sure people coming to live to a new country or tourists understand the local law and comply with it. In other occasions, multilingual people are required to make sure anybody that has committed a crime in a foreign country understands what he’s been accused of, understands what the lawyers and prosecutors are telling him, has access to documents translated into his own language and has the right to a due process.

Spanish Language in USA: Flourishing or Declining?

With a solid and consolidated Latin American community, the United States of America has the second largest Spanish speaking population outside Spain, being the first one in Mexico. According to the North American Academy of the Spanish Language (ANLE, Spanish acronym), over 50 million people speak Spanish in the USA. That said, is the Spanish language blooming there? What is its current situation like? What challenges are awaiting Spanish speakers ahead in the US?

In a recent interview to Gerardo Piña-Rosales, director of the ANLE, recently published in the cultural section of “El País” newspaper, he analyzes the situation of the Spanish language in USA, its specific characteristics and the challenges involved.

ANLE logo

Spanish Language in the USA Today

According to Gerardo Piña-Rosales, Spanish is not flourishing in the US currently but its situation is not negative either. Many people speak it and a vast majority of them are well educated, which definitely contributes to the quality of the language spoken there.

There are quite a few signs of the positive status the Spanish language is currently enjoying in the US. On the one hand, he states that many U.S.-born young people of Latin American parents who stopped speaking Spanish at home are increasingly interested in learning the language. On the other hand, he mentions the fact that many politicians have incorporated Spanish in their speeches and that several TV networks offer content exclusively for Spanish speakers.

However, the Spanish spoken in the US has its own characteristics; it is rich in words and expressions derived from the American English that affect not only the vocabulary used but the way in which sentences and phrases are organized as well. These estadounidismos, as the ANLE calls them, are a clear reflection of the way Latin Americans living in the US try to convey the cultural reality of the country by using their mother tongue. In other words, estadounidismos are words or uses peculiar to Spanish spoken in the United States of America.

Spanglish and its Connection with the Spanish Language in the USA

Mr. Gerardo Piña-Rosales is quite positive when speaking about Spanglish and its connection with the Spanish Language in the USA. He says that those who do not master Spanish need to use Spanglish in order to communicate with other members of the Latin American community in a language different from English. He is convinced that it is a way of depriving themselves of integrating fully with the community but he says that it has a very little influence on the consolidation of Spanish in the US.  According to his own words, it should be seen more as a social phenomenon than as a linguistic one.

Speaking Spanish in the USA: Present and Future Challenges

Mr. Gerardo Piña-Rosales is convinced that the main challenges that the Spanish language faces and will face in the US are related to the presence and growth of certain “hispanophobic” groups that reject or threaten those that speak Spanish. Some of these groups are extremely powerful and can exercise a lot of influence amongst important political and economic sectors.

The other challenge is politically related. If there is no significant and positive economic change soon and if the political climate turns sharply rightwards, it is undeniable that English-only movements will become stronger and, therefore, the space allowed for Spanish speakers will be greatly reduced.

Modern innovation revitalizes endangered language

Recent technology has proven useful to language acquisition in many ways.  Whether it’s practicing speaking with target language natives via Skype or reviewing vocabulary with one of the myriad smartphone language apps, the various innovations have diversified and streamlined the learning process. For some, though, such technologies have even deeper potential.


Screenshots of The Ma! Iwaidja app, an initiative of the Minjilang Endangered Languages Publication project.

Many Native American tribes, in response to the potential extinction of their native language/s, have begun to embrace apps, iPads, and other related tools in efforts to above all generate interest in younger generations.  Currently, there are over 200 Native American languages spoken in the U.S. and Canada, although in many cases they are only spoken by a handful of people.  There are an additional 100 Native languages that are already extinct.

The majority of tribes have historically made efforts to pass native languages down to younger generations, but the success of these efforts has waned with time.  One of the main reasons for this, of course, is the ever-rising influence of external influence, including both language and technology.  Until recently, tribes’ general response to such influence was commonly (and understandably) marked by resistance and resentment.

Many cite the Native American Languages Act of 1990 as being a crucial turning point in the language struggle, for it provided resources and funding to tribes working to revitalize their native tongues.  As a result, technology has been increasingly integrated in the process, a trend that may be seen as a sort of “reclaiming” of an early source of oppression.  Furthermore, the new learning methods have changed the very nature of the languages themselves.

The phenomenon is also representative of a larger concern—that is, how languages should adapt to or be adapted to seemingly distinct, non-linguistic innovation.  Although many take a conservative view, believing that speakers and writers should try to maintain the specific lexis and grammar of languages—and either reject or are highly selective about linguistic innovation—, the majority see language as an inherently malleable thing, always in a state of flux, including the methods used in teaching and learning.

What do you think?  Is there any limits when it comes to linguistic innovation and means of acquisition, or does more variety simply and always make a language more rich?

Online language learning: a mixed innovation

Foreign language acquisition and multilingualism have been influential human phenomena for centuries, with the most popular and supposedly successful methodology being a combination of formal study and cultural-linguistic immersion.  As any foreign language learner can attest, the statement “in order to really learn a language, you must live where it is spoken” is a common one.

In recent decades, though, because of globalization and international business, among other factors, multilingualism has risen.  Now, multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers, and their means of acquisition are becoming increasingly diverse.  Now, for instance, a native Spanish speaker in Mexico City is able to practice her Russian with a native Russian speaker in Moscow.

The Internet’s influence on multilingualism is obvious, for it is an easily accessible, seemingly unlimited realm of many languages.  Traditionally, using the Internet would foster passive language learning, i.e. reading, above all English, which is used exclusively on nearly fifty-seven percent of websites.  But many have begun to utilize the realm in some innovative ways, forming online communities of like-minded learners, yielding impressive results.

One such learner who’s had particularly impressive results is 17-year-old polyglot Timothy Doner of New York, who’s become fluent in several languages, and has a working knowledge of more than 20, mostly thanks to his conversations with native speakers around the world.  Although he supplements these conversations with traditional book-study, he attests that the most useful method has been speaking with native-speaking friends, who he slowly acquired after posting several YouTube videos of himself speaking in the particular language(s) he had been focusing on at the time.

The phenomenon could completely change the way foreign languages are learned and taught. If one is able to speak with native speakers—and furthermore, watch them speak—how necessary is it to actually be physically close to them, let alone in the same region of the world?  What’s more, applications like Skype make it possible to speak with multiple native speakers simultaneously.  Many language institutes have already harnessed the technology, and now offer classes—one-on-one- and group-style—through Skype.

But perhaps it has deeper implications still, as evidenced by Doner in a 2012 video interview.  “I don’t necessary see language as being first and foremost about communication”, he says, “You can almost see it as studying a sort of math.”  Although many would argue that math is a sort of language as well, Doner’s statement/motivations suggest that the nature of language acquisition and its relationship to foreign cultures and experience is changing.  Sure, it may be easier to learn foreign languages now, but does that somehow cheapen the process, and by extent, foreign cultures as we traditionally understand and seek to better understand them?

What do you think?  Is the new phenomenon an ultimately good thing, or it does what is inevitably lost outweigh the benefits?

Spanish Spelling Bee May Reflect a Rising Acceptance of the Language in the U.S.

The National Spelling Bee is a competition that is believed to have originated in the early 20th century in the United States, wherein a number of young contestants are required to a orally spell various words of increasing difficulty.  The first official Bee was held in 1925, and the first champion was eleven years old.  The tradition has since spread to many other nations.

For 85 years, the Bee was an English-only competition—a reflection of the country’s massive language majority.  Recently, however, a variant was introduced that caters to the largest (and ever-rising) minority language—Spanish.  The first annual Santillana National Spanish Spelling Bee was held in July 2011 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The winning word was Bizantinismo, spelled by 13-year-old Evelyn Juarez.

There are approximately 67 million native Spanish speakers in the U.S., and many more who speak it as a non-native language.  Although English is the de facto national language (and required for U.S. naturalization), it is not officially recognized/enforced on the federal level—perhaps a reflection of the nation’s rich history of immigration.

But although Spanish’s presence and influence is massive in the U.S., there are still many who resist its expansion, whether viciously, through xenophobic or anti-immigration policy and rhetoric, or less so, by promoting monolingualism as a necessary or preferred national linguistic policy.  The Spanish spelling bee, although still a very new tradition in the U.S., suggests a possibility for a rising adoption of the language, which already has very deep roots in the region.

The Second Annual Santillana National Spanish Spelling Bee was declared a tie, after two students surpassed 53 rounds of words—all that the competition had planned for—without making a single error.

The Third Annual Spanish Spelling Bee will be held this July, again in Albuquerque.

Some of the words included in the 2013 Spanish Spelling Bee

Language and twitter: a form growing from itself

Twitter, an exclusively written forum of language with fixed parameters and functions, is propelling a linguistic phenomenon.

The phenomenon involves lexis, grammar and voice (i.e./e.g. hashtags): how information is made and communicated, among other things.

“Speaking” of the hashtag: it is one of Twitter’s key functions—a term which has been almost universally adopted.

And regarding universality, the forum has just about achieved it, for it might be described as transcending both space and language.

However, it may be limited, for a tweet cannot exceed 140 characters.  Although, every link/article/word above was found using Twitter.

A parameter and function: search the hashtags #language and #Twitter to find the articles above.

A question: how will Twitter’s influence extend beyond its limits, beyond its (seemingly) exclusively written composition?

Another: how has it already affected modern language—both spoken and written—as we know it?