One of the best ways to blend in with locals while traveling is to be well versed in the vernacular. We spoke to our local experts around the world to bring you some useful slang from the streets of cities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
The French have an argot—a language used by groups to prevent outsiders from understanding (friendly, eh?)—called verlan, which is a type of slang created by inverting syllables (sort of like pig Latin). This is actually quite popular in common parlance, with words like teuf (a party, or to party = faire la teuf, from fete) and meuf(woman, from femme). Here are some words that tourists might find useful on the streets of Paris:
Ouais = instead of oui
Coucou = Hey there (very casual)
Schez-pas = I don’t know (reduced version of je ne sais pas)
Fringue = clothes
Bouffe = food
Un express / un petit cafe = espresso; for the latter, they don’t really mean a small coffee, it’s still an espresso.
Un pot = a drink (prendre un pot = get a drink)
Sous = money. This is actually old French and it’s made a comeback.
C’est dingue ! = It’s strange / crazy!
Mince! / oh la vache! = Darn.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Italian is peppered with slang and abbreviations that have taken on a life of their own. Here are some useful verbal phrases to impress the locals on your next trip to Italy:
Che schifo! = How disgusting!
Che palle! = What a pain!
Daje! = Come on!/Hurry up! (The Roman version of wider Italian “dai!”)
Bo – accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, translates as a nonchalant “Haven’t got a clue.” It can also mean “I don’t agree with you, but I’m not going to get into an argument about it right now.”
Mortacci tua ! = Your death! (especially used by drivers with a bit of Roman road rage)
Scialla = Relax.
‘ nnamo = Let’s go (from “andiamo“).
Amo’ =for “amore,” when you address your loved one
Teso’ = for “tesoro” (literally “treasure”). You often hear parents addressing their little children in this way.
Believe it or not, Berlin has its own dialect. Berliner Schnauze (literally, Berlin snout) is thought to originate with East Low German—which, though rejected from the 16th century on in favor of standard German, was retained in parts and evolved into theBerlinisch that can be heard on the streets of the capital today.
One defining feature is that the “g” sound is replaced by a “j” (pronounced softly in German, like the English “y”). So “Guten Morgen (good morning)” would be “Juten Morjen” (pronounced “yooten moryen”). Similarly, the “ich” sound (“ich” means “I” in German) is pronounced “ick,” which (conveniently) happens to be much easier for native English speakers to wrap their mouths around.
Typically known for being somewhat rough around the edges, this traditional vernacular is actually quite charming, and has given rise to numerous little sayings and rhymes such as:
Ick gloob, meen Schwein pfeift—literally translated, this means: “I believe my pig is whistling,” and has a similar meaning to the English idiom “Knock me down with a feather!”
Ick liebe Dir
Ick liebe Dich
Wie’s richtich is’
Det wees ick nich’
Ick liebe Dir
Uff alle Fälle.
Which roughly translates to:
I love you [dative case]
I love you [accusative case]
Which one is right
I do not know
I love you
In any case.
The broad New England accent has evolved its own language of sorts.Here are some of the most well-used quirks of the Bostonian tongue:
Bubblah = (drinking) water fountain
Packie = package store = liquor store
Spa = neighborhood corner shop where you’d buy cigarettes or milk
Cella = the basement of your house
Wicked = most, very, a superlative
Suppah = dinner, last meal of the day
Cockney rhyming slang is a traditional and fun extension to the English language; it originated in the East End of London, and is still used by Londoners at times. It was widely used by criminals who wanted to talk without being understood, and later adopted by honest citizens for the same reasons.It works by choosing a two- or three-word phrase ending in a word that rhymes with the one you want to hide. You can then drop the rhyming word for even more clandestine chat. An early example is the phrase “apples and pears,” which is used for stairs. Instead of saying, “I’m walking up the stairs,” you’d say, “I’m walking up the apples.” Got it?
Listen carefully and chances are you’ll hear some of these on the streets of London today:
Adam and Eve =believe. “I don’t Adam and Eve it.”
Brown Bread = dead. “He’s brown bread.”
Cream Crackered = knackered. “I’m totally cream crackered.”
Dog and Bone = phone. If someone’s phone is ringing: “Is that your dog barking?”
Lady Godiva = fiver. A five-pound note… “He owes me a Lady.”
Loaf of Bread = head…”Use your loaf.”
Pork Pies = lies. “Stop telling porkies!”
Rosy Lee = tea. “Fancy a cuppa Rosy?” See also: drink.
Ruby Murray = curry. “Fancy a Ruby tonight?”
Sherbert Dab = cab. “I’m taking a Sherbert home tonight.” __See also: taxi.
Syrup of Figs = wig. “You can tell he’s wearing a syrup.”
Whistle and Flute = suit. “Nice whistle, mate.”
Though you might struggle with the notoriously tricky intonation of Chinese languages, there’s still a way to play locals at their own game when it comes to slang: Just use email or SMS. As a way to save money on text messaging, as well as avoid censorship, the Chinese use the pronunciation of each number to create a kind of code that can be deciphered phonetically. For example, the numbers are pronounced as follows (the numbers after each written pronunciation indicates the tone, of four, that should be used):
0 = ling (2)
1 = yi (1)
2 = er (2)
3 = san (1)
4 = si (4)
5 = wu (3)
6 = liu (4)
7 = qi (1)
8 = ba (1)
9 = jiu (3)
10 = shi (2)
So, if you are crying or sad, you can write “55555” (i.e.”wuwuwuwuwu“). Here are some more examples:
5376 (wu san qi liu) = I am angry.
8147 (ba yao si qi) = Don’t be angry.
56 (wu liu) = bored.
517 (wu yao qi) = I want to eat. Fun fact: The number for McDonald’s in China, which offers 24-hour delivery, is 4008-517-517, i.e. 4008-I want to eat-I want to eat.
520 = “wu(3)er(2)ling(2)” or “I love you.” To say “I love you” is “wo(3)ai(2)ni(3)” and that sounds very similar.
Then sign off your message with 88. The number 8 is pronounced “ba” in chinese which sounds like “bye,” so instead of writing it, you can just write “8” or “88”—or “888888888”!”
Natalie Holmes is with Context Travel walking tours, a company chosen as one of Condé Nast Traveler’s top travel specialists. Learn more about local language quirks over on the Context Travel blog.