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A Nasty Little Syllable

Spanish Pinpointed

Modern conversations in Mexico are frequently interspersed with the word “güey” —pronounced “way”— which means several things and, just as often, nothing.

The word it derives from —buey— means ox, and was in finer times considered vulgar and insulting when applied to anyone. Its figurative meaning is that of mug, or sap, a connotation it still retains under its new spelling. In one of those changes in common usage which come about without anyone noticing exactly where or when, the “b” was replaced with a “g.” And that, users will defensively assure you, takes the curse off it.

Now the word güey is common in banter among all kinds of people, although particularly the younger generations. Use of it has grown and its meanings are manifold, changing with the context and even the intonation.

¿Qué onda güey? can easily be translated as “what’s up dude?,” while ¡qué güey eres! still means what a fool you are, ¡Oye güey! “Listen man … ” and so on. It can also simply mean guy, and while it generally refers to males, girls also occasionally use it when talking among themselves.

Its proliferation in everyday conversation is indicative of an overall decline in language standards from the street market to the boardroom, and it’s perhaps not strange therefore that the word is seldom written with the corresponding umlaut to indicate that the “u” is to be pronounced and not merely there to make the “g” preceding the “e” hard-sounding, as in the case of “maguey,” the succulent used to make pulque which is pronounced “magay.”

The word has been abused to the extent that it has developed a meaningless fill-in role, and appears in some monologues once every three or four words. In this sense, it is seen as a mere substitute for vocabulary. Some time back, a local bookstore chain cottoned-on to the popularity of the monosyllabic, multi-purpose “güey” with an advertisement that said: “reading, güey, will increase, güey, your vocabulary güey.”

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