Lunfardo is “a form of Buenos Aires slang that originated in the underworld. It draws on many languages, including Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German and several African languages” according to the Oxford Spanish Dictionary.
This 'underworld' the definition speaks of includes prisoners, immigrants, and the tango scene of the late 19th century. The language was invented so that prisoners could speak to one another with out their guards catching on to what they were saying. The word "lunfardo" itself is a derivation from the Italian word used to mean "outlaw". Mixed in with this prison-speak were words from the growing immigrant cultures of that time and gauchos.
Lunfardo is still proudly spoken in Buenos Aires, mainly, and has spread to other cities such as Rosario and Montevideo, Uruguay's capital. This heavy use of slang often makes even fluent Spanish speakers a bit confused when conversing with a porteno (person from Buenos Aires). This distinct language is a source of pride for those living in Buenos Aires and makes for colorful conversation among locals.
One characteristic of lunfardo is called 'vesre' in which syllables are reversed. The term vesre is an example re-verse -> verse. Examples of this include: tango becoming gotán, café con leche (coffee with milk) becoming feca con chele, and hotel becoming telo.
Lunfardo: A Few Examples
- buchón - snitch, informer to the law (from the French bouillon)
- boliche – dance club
- chochamu - young man (vesre for muchacho)
- cerebrar - to think something up (from cerebro, "brain")
- guita - money
- pibe - like "kid", a common term for boy or, in more recent times, for young man
- quilombo - racket, ruckus, disorder, mess
- garpar - to pay with money
More About Lunfardo
There are some excellent articles and blog posts regarding traveler's explanations and experiences with lunfardo. Be sure to check out the links below for even more insight into this curious aspect of Buenos Aires language.