Wicked Weird: Do You Know These 10 Odd Spanish Words?

Although I have been learning Spanish for years, I still frequently rely on hand gestures and charades when I just can’t find that perfect vocabulary word.

For example, one day I came home from my job as an ESL teacher and my friend asked how work was.

I told him, “It was okay. The students were very….”

And instead of completing my sentence, I mimed a student shouting, throwing a pencil and running around.

He thought about it for a second. “¿Alborotados?” he asked.

I looked the word up online: Rowdy, disorderly, excited.

Exactly! And just like that, I added a useful and uncommon vocabulary word to my lexicon.

Language learning is often like that. You pick up new, specific vocabulary words based on the situations you find yourself in. Eventually, those words come in handy.

Read on for ten more weird (and weirdly useful) Spanish words to work into your vocabulary.

Why Learn Weird Spanish Words?

Spanish dictionaries generally include about 100,000 words, but the active vocabulary of a native Spanish speaker hovers between 5,000 and 10,000 words.

So, why bother learning specific, uncommon words, if you’ll only get the chance to use them in a few social situations?

As any language learner can tell you, languages frequently do not translate directly. Thus, learning a new language means changing the way you think about and relate to the world around you. There’s something exciting and interesting about learning a phrase or word in Spanish and thinking, “Huh, there’s no way to say that in English!”

Sometimes, unique or untranslatable words can provide a window into a different culture. Take, for example, the word sobremesa (noun: the act of sitting around a table and talking long after a meal has ended). English has no equivalent word, and the fact that it exists in Spanish shows just how common a practice sobremesa is in many Spanish and Latin cultures.

Not to mention, learning unique, strange and unexpected Spanish words will undoubtedly pay off when you’re talking with a native speaker and know that absolute perfect vocabulary word!

How to Expand Your Spanish Vocabulary

The words in this list go beyond the scope of most standard vocabulary lists. You probably won’t find them on popular language-learning apps either.

One of the best ways to learn strange and specific vocabulary is to immerse yourself in the language. But if immersion isn’t possible, try these techniques:

Read for weird words

It can be difficult to pick up new vocabulary while speaking, because it means breaking the flow of the conversation to ask what a specific word means. Reading, on the other hand, is a great way to pick up new vocabulary because you can pause, take notes and use a dictionary.

Poetry is an especially great resource, because poets frequently employ uncommon, emotionally evocative words. Novels, magazines, articles and short stories also work, of course.

Here is my technique: Sit down with your text and a small notebook. Copy down unfamiliar words you come across, but don’t stop to look them up as you go. Try to make sense of the text using context clues. When you reach the end of the story, chapter, poem or article, go back and look up your unfamiliar words. Now skim the story again—did the new vocabulary change your understanding?

Think or write in Spanish for five minutes a day

Sit down with a pencil and paper and just write about anything: your day, what you had for dinner last night, your sixth birthday party, something that’s been bothering you. If you don’t love writing, just sit in a calm place and switch your inner monologue to Spanish or pretend like you’re conducting a conversation with a Spanish friend.

The point of this exercise is to recognize gaps in your Spanish vocabulary. By writing or thinking about whatever is on your mind, you’ll be testing your ability to speak about a wide variety of topics in Spanish. Unless you are an advanced speaker, there will undoubtedly be moments where you’ll have to stop writing and think, “Wait, how would I say that in Spanish?”

When I do this exercise, I put English words in brackets to signify the gaps in my Spanish vocabulary. So I might end up with a sentence like “Estaba muy cansada pero también un poco [restless].”

When my writing time is up, I can go look up the bracketed words and write them in the margins so I don’t forget them for next time.

Learn a new word every day

Many websites highlight one uncommon or useful Spanish word every day. I particularly like the Word-a-day service by DonQuijote.org, which provides not only a word and definition but also the word’s origin, an example of its usage and a list of related words.

The website SpanishDict even has a service that will conveniently email a word of the day to you every day!

10 Weird Spanish Words You Won’t Believe Exist

1. Madrugar

Part of Speech: verb
Meaning: to wake up very early in the morning

The literal translation of the verb madrugar would be “to dawn.” Its Real Academia Española definition is “to wake up at sunrise, or very early.”

I use this word all the time in Spain, because I actually do have to wake up before the sun rises to get to my teaching job on time! It is a very useful word for when my friends are trying to convince me to stay at the bar for one more round of drinks: “No, no puedo, tengo que madrugar mañana.” (No, I can’t, I have to wake up early tomorrow.)

Of course, I could just use despertarme muy temprano (wake up very early), but the word madrugar packs a bit more of a dramatic punch.

This word is also featured in the wise Spanish proverbNo por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano.” (Waking up early doesn’t make the sun rise earlier.)

2. Dominguero

Part of Speech: noun
Meaning: a city-dweller who drives into the countryside on weekends

The word dominguero comes from the word domingo (Sunday). It refers to that specific brand of tourist who leaves the city center on weekends and holidays and heads out to the countryside with their bermuda shorts, barbecue grill and carful of kids.

Domingueros are also the reason for hours-long weekend traffic jams heading out of and into the city. The term is a bit pejorative, so use it carefully.

The word dominguero can also be an adjective, in which case it refers to something typical of Sundays or frequently used on Sundays. For example, the phrase ropa dominguera (Sunday clothes) is the equivalent of the English phrase “Sunday best.”

3. Picotear

Part of Speech: verb
Meaningto eat small quantities of lots of different types of food

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Are you the type of person who hovers by the snack table at a party? Do you strongly believe that cheese platters and hors d’oeuvres make any social engagement more enjoyable?

If so, then you will undoubtedly find many uses for the verb picotear.

Additionally, there’s a convenient noun form to describe the type of social event where one can picotearun picoteo.

4. Gentilicio

Part of Speech: noun
Meaning: a word used to describe somebody from a certain place

The words uruguayo (Uruguayan), madrileño (person from Madrid), andaluz (person from Andalucía) and neoyorquino (New Yorker) are all examples of gentilicios: adjectives that describe where you come from.

The most common usage of the word gentilicio, especially for non-native speakers, is to ask: “¿Cuál es el gentilicio de [place]?” (What is the correct adjective for [place]?)

Whip this question out when you forget words like guatemalteco or costarricense, or when you’re unclear on the difference between a bonaerense (person from the province of Buenos Aires) and a porteño (person from the city of Buenos Aires).

5. Tocayo

Part of Speech: noun
Meaning: a person who shares your first name

As a teacher in Spain, I have so many students named Laura, Javier, Nuria and David. And don’t even get me started on Marías and Alejandros—I tend to have at least one or two per class!

This can make it difficult for me to remember all my students’ names (“Sorry, are you María S. or María M.?”) but at least I got a cool new vocabulary word out of it.

Alejandro B., Alejandro P. and Alejandro R. are tocayos—people who share a first name.

6. Arroba

Part of Speech: noun
Meaning: @

One night while backpacking in Argentina, I wanted to check my email at a hostel. But I couldn’t figure out the foreign keyboard, so I had to clumsily ask in Spanish, “Where’s the, uhm, the little thing, like an “a,” with a circle, you know? The thing for email addresses?”

He stared at me, confused, and then finally responded. “Ah. Arroba.

The word has since come in handy many times while dictating my email address over the phone to new friends, co-workers and various public servants.

The arroba also accomplishes a unique function in Spanish: It allows Spanish-speakers to be gender-neutral in their writing. In Spanish, many words to describe people have gendered endings, with an “o” for males and an “a” for females. Traditionally, when referring to a mixed-gendered group, Spanish speakers default to the masculine “o” ending.

However, those who want to emphasize the fact that they are referring to all genders use an arroba, since it looks kind of like a mashed-up “o” and “a.” For example, a Spanish speaker might start a group email with “¡Hola a tod@s!” (Hello everyone!). When apartment hunting in Spain, I frequently saw listings that read “buscando compañer@ de piso” (seeking male or female roommate).

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7. Botellón

Part of Speech: noun
Meaning: an event, frequently outdoors or in a public place, where young people meet to drink alcohol together before heading to bars or clubs.

If you wander through a park or plaza in a Spanish city at about 11:30 p.m. on a Friday, there’s a good chance you’ll see a group of young people, dressed to kill, holding liters of beer and various plastic bottles of indeterminable content. This is a botellón, and it is a thrifty social practice common among Spanish teenagers and university students.

8. Sesear

Part of Speech: verb
Meaning: to pronounce one’s c‘s or z‘s with an “s” sound

There are many differences between Latin American and European Spanish. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is in the way the two continents pronounce their c’s and z’s.

In Spain, these two letters are pronounced with a lisped “th” sound. In Latin America, on the other hand, these letters sound identical to an “s.”

The word zapato (shoe) in Spain would sound something like “thapato,” whereas in Latin America it would sound like “sapato.”

The verb to describe speaking with a Latin American pronunciation is sesear.

9. Manía

Part of Speech: noun
Meaning: An excessive fixation on one small, specific thing

The versatile word manía covers all sorts of things: bad habits, superstitions, pet peeves, obsessions, and so on.

Often, people will talk about their manías with a hint of irony or self-deprecation. They know that their fixation is silly or unreasonable, but they obsess nonetheless!

For example, I have a friend whose car radio volume must always be set to a number that ends in 3, 5 or 7. To explain herself to a Spanish speaker, my friend could shrug and say, “Es una manía que tengo.” (It’s a weird fixation I have.)

10. Trámite

Part of Speech: noun
Meaning: each step that must be carried out in order to complete a transaction or process

If you have tried to apply for foreign residency in a Spanish-speaking country, I can almost guarantee that you are familiar with the term trámite.

One possible definition for this word would be “annoying bureaucratic stuff”—the many little routine tasks you have to complete in order to get something done. Some similar English phrases are errands, arrangements or red tape.

Use the word trámite with the verbs hacer (to do) and realizar (to accomplish).

Tengo que hacer algunos trámites antes de viajar a Irlanda. (I have to sort some things out before I travel to Ireland.)


These unique Spanish words might not come up in conversation every single day, but they are still worth learning! How many of these uncommon words can you work into your vocabulary?


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