Spanish Words with Very Different Meanings in Latin America | Newsdle

Spanish Words with Very Different Meanings in Latin America


¿Hablas español? Beware the chameleon words of Latin America!

Chameleon words are those Spanish words that exist in any Spanish variant but carry different meanings depending on the region or country.

So the challenge is not only about Spanish words said differently in different countries, but unveiling the meaning these have according to context and location.

There are several Spanish words that are different in other countries than Spain, such as Latin American ones, and today we are going to discover a few of them.

Same Spanish Noun, Different Meaning!


Don’t worry if your friends suggest going for a swim into the alberca!

Latin American alberca is something much more fun and refreshing than a Spanish reservoir. It’s quite handy if you have it or live nearby one, especially during hot summers, no matter if you are in Spain or in the Americas.

Yes, the Spanish alberca turned into a Latin America swimming pool!

Latin American: alberca → swimming pool

Castilian Spanish: alberca → reservoir


Every house in Spain has a baúl and it is usually passed down from old generations to the new ones. When you open one, you can actually breathe in the sweet fragrance of old wood, perfectly combined with that hint of vintage cotton or linen from your great-grandmother’s trousseau.

Well, if you cross the ocean you’ll find out this word has lost its romantic meaning and turned into a more modern… boot of a car!

Latin American: baúl → boot or trunk of a car

Castilian Spanish: baúl → the old trunk, similar to a chest


Look out for this one as knowing the difference between a Spanish billete and a Latin American one might save your date!

Let’s imagine you are on a date and you want to offer them the billetes (tickets) to the cinema and the cashier asks if you want to pay with a card or billetes (banknotes) 🙂

See what happened here?!

Latin American: billete → banknotes

Castilian Spanish: billete → ticket


"I’ll pick you up at 8pm en mi carro."

I know your eyes went blinking as your date said this sentence.

Well, wouldn’t it be romantic if they picked you up driving a horse-drawn cart?

Relax! “Carro” in Latin America means “car” 🙂

Latin American: carro → car

Castilian Spanish: carro →cart


If you’re filling a form and you’re asked for the “celular”, they are not going to test your scientific knowledge of a cellular structure.

In fact, in Latin America “celular” refers to “mobile phone”, so you’d better write down the correct number!

Latin American: celular → mobile phone

Castilian Spanish: celular → cellular (of a cell)


Ok, this is one of the two words of this article you really need to be careful about!

We all have our favourite chaqueta that we cannot wait to show off when the perfect season arrives. It might be a spring chaqueta, that you wish you could wear even during the freezing winter.

Well, you might want to switch to chamarra while talking to a friend (or date) from Latin America, especially from Mexico and Venezuela. In these parts of Latin America, "chaqueta" refers to a specific sexual activity.

Yes, you read it right – it's a term that might make you blush, adding a whole new layer of meaning to the innocuous jacket.

Latin American: chaqueta → “a specific sexual activity”

Castilian Spanish: chaqueta → jacket


If you are dealing with el grifo, who are you going to call?

In Spain you’d call the plumber, but in Latin America grifo is commonly used as an adjective and it has different meanings.

In Colombia, calling someone "grifo" might be like labelling them presumptuous, a playful jab at their confidence.

In Costa Rica, "grifo" might be used to describe someone who has goosebumps, adding a touch of unexpected poetry to the word.

However, grifo is also used in slang Latin American Spanish.

Travel to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, and you might encounter a unique twist. In these places, "grifo" could refer to someone under the influence of cannabis.

In Honduras and Mexico, if someone is described as "grifo," they could be drunk or intoxicated.

Latin American: grifo → presumptuous, someone who has goosebumps + slang

Castilian Spanish: grifo → faucet / tap

Lentes and Gafas

“Pass me the gafas, please. I have trouble reading these tiny instructions.”

“You need gafas to read?! Indoors?!”

“Why? What should I use? Binoculars?”

“No, but your lentes will be just as fine!”

Yes, this is another example of Spanish words that are different in other countries but here we go beyond just one meaning!

So, for someone from Latin America, “glasses” translates into “lentes”.

However, “lentes” in Spain are simply one part of the “gafas”, which you need to read and see clearly.

The plot twist is that the term “gafas” in Latin America refers to “sunglasses”, which are “gafas de sol” in Spain.

Who knew eyewear had so much drama? 😎

Latin American: lentes → glasses

Castilian Spanish: lentes → lens

Latin American: gafas → sunglasses

Castilian Spanish: gafas → glasses


Your friends have taken you to the countryside and you are surrounded by a flutter of feathers dancing in the wind. You point to the delicate plumes and mention the word "pluma."

They all look at you, puzzled. "Pluma" takes on a myriad of unexpected meanings in Latin America.

In Mexico and in many countries in Latin America, "pluma" refers to a pen.

In Antigua, Colombia, and Panama, "pluma" is a tap or faucet.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, "pluma" is a barrier.

Latin American: pluma → pen, tap/faucet, barrier (road)

Castilian Spanish: pluma → feather


This happened to me the other day.

I was browsing an e-commerce shop, looking for a nice colourful jacket to show off now that spring is coming.

To my surprise, the Spanish version of the website included a list of sacos.

Now, I am no fashionista but I really would like to avoid wearing a sack as a jacket!

As I am naturally curious, I clicked and discovered that they used the Latin American Spanish term on this website.

In Latin America, "saco" transforms into a stylish chameleon as it refers to a jacket.

In Uruguay, in particular, "saco" is a women's coat.

Latin American: saco → jacket

Castilian Spanish: saco → sack


Ordering a torta can be quite an adventure as you may receive something entirely different depending on the nation where you and the bakery are.

In Spain, you will most likely receive a sweet cake - but beware of the regional differences!

In Latin America and especially in Mexico, you’ll be surprised with a crusty white sandwich bread with veggies, gammon, eggs, avocado or a pork fillet.

I would be happy in any case 🙂

Mexican Spanish: torta → sandwich roll

Castilian Spanish: torta → cake

When A Verb Can Get You In Troubles… Or Out!


This one adds up to the list of Spanish words with similar yet different meanings depending on the country.

This verb comes from the Spanish nautical tradition and it means to tie or fasten, a nautical skill that ensures safety and stability.

Instead, "amarrar" in the Americas can mean to arrange or pact, a verb tied to the art of negotiation and agreements.

Set sail to Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama, "amarrar" might involve the act of binding or wrapping, as in the context of bandaging a wound or cinching something tightly.

Latin American Spanish: amarrar → pact, wrap

Castilian Spanish: amarrar → tie/fasten


In Castilian Spanish, “amarrarse” is a very romantic term as it means to tie the knot.

So you may understand if I really cannot think of any reasons why in Latin American countries such as Colombia, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, "amarrarse" is more about spirited journeys than the serene union of hearts.

Latin American Spanish: amarrarse → get drunk

Castilian Spanish: amarrarse → tie the knot


The Spanish word “apurar” from Spain usually does not really match with the meaning the Latin Americans give to “apurar

In Spain, "apurar" is an artistic call to bring a creative endeavour to completion, a meticulous process that involves refining and completing a task.

In Latin America, particularly in countries like Mexico, "apurar" takes on a sense of urgency. It's a call to "hurry up."

Latin American Spanish: apurar → hurry

Castilian Spanish: apurar → finish (refine and perfect)


This is the second term you really need to pay attention to, as this Spanish word that is used both in Spain and Latin American countries has completely different meanings.

Let's imagine you are at a market in Spain, where vendors beckon you to "coger" fruits or whatever catches your eye.

In Spain, "coger" is a versatile verb, inviting you to take, grab, or seize items with a sense of ease and ownership.

Now, the meaning of "coger" takes an unexpected turn in Latin America.

In countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, "coger" also means to engage in a romantic or sexual context, a colloquial usage that might raise eyebrows in other Spanish-speaking regions.

Latin American Spanish: coger → to take, grab, or seize sth / additionally: sexual context

Castilian Spanish: coger → to take, grab, or seize sth


It’s true that "devolver" can be translated into “to return” both if the speaker is from Spain or Latin America, but you should always check the context!

In Spain, "devolver" is an invitation to "return" or "give back" a purchased item, emphasising customer satisfaction and fair exchanges.

In Latin America, particularly in regions like Mexico, when someone says "voy a devolver," they're referring to "go back" or "return" to a location.

Latin American Spanish: devolver → go back

Castilian Spanish: devolver → give back


"Sé cómo manejar."

This is a great example of Spanish words that are different in other countries.

This sentence is both grammatically and logically correct, and can be understood by any native speaker.

However, those from Spain will appreciate your managerial skills. Latin American ones will be happy to know about your ability to "drive" with confidence and skill.

Latin American Spanish: manejar → drive

Castilian Spanish: manejar → manage, run


Imagine you’re in Cadiz, strolling through a bustling plaza, when a friend exclaims, "¡Para!".

In Spain, "parar" is a call to "stop," whether it's halting in your tracks or putting an end to an action.

Quite the opposite, in countries like Mexico, when someone says "vamos a parar," they're inviting you to "stand up" or "rise," suggesting a change in physical position rather than a cessation of movement.

Latin American Spanish: parar → stand up

Castilian Spanish: parar → stop


This is a verb you can hear often at Spanish stadiums, especially during football matches. In fact, "tirar" means to "throw".

However, in Latin America, "tirar" takes on different meanings depending on the country.

In Chile, Colombia, and Cuba, "tirar" refers to actions related to driving, transporting, or carrying, emphasising movement.

In Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela, "tirar" can mean to "close something with force," particularly a door, adding a touch of emphasis to the action.

In the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, "tirar" can mean to "say or utter an insult."

Latin American Spanish: tirar → drive, close sth with force, say or utter an insult.

Castilian Spanish: tirar → throw

What a Ride!

I hope you enjoyed the wild ride through the maze of Spanish words that are basically shape-shifters, pulling a quick switcheroo depending on whether you're chilling in Spain or soaking up the Latin American vibes.

Remember that these Spanish words are like the cool kids who change their outfits depending on where they are.

And in case you mix them up, laugh at the mistake and don’t give up!


Fabia Parodi

Fabia Parodi  

Fascinated by foreign languages and cultures, Fabia Parodi was determined to be a polyglot since she was a child. Fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish and competent in Mandarin Chinese, Fabia is an experienced language teacher, translator and multicultural marketing specialist. 

When in class, she always make sure to include graded and authentic materials in her lessons to expose students to foreign cultures and to introduce a more natural use of the language they are learning. The two things she loves more than languages are travelling and exchanging stories with people from all over the world. 

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