One of the fun things about learning other languages is discovering the existence of words you didn’t even know you were missing until you found them; words you’ve been reaching for your whole life but could never find in the pages of English dictionaries.
Today, on International Women’s Day, for wholly unrelated reasons, I found one such word. I was looking up the way Colombians use the word “tranquila,” which technically translates to “calm,” but is also a common way of saying “Don’t stress, it’s chill.” It’s a great word. People say it to me all the time when I start to flush with shame buying gum, my oafish gringa fingers unable to discern the difference between a 500 peso coin and a 200 as I dig through my wallet and an agitated line begins to form behind me.
In the process of making sure tranquila meant what I thought it meant, I found this comment on a blog post, referring to the word “berraca.”
“Berraca can also be used to describe a badass (cool) hard working woman who gets what she wants (fierce) ie. Ella es UNA berraca.”
What! Where has this word been all my life? Further research has led me to discover that a berraco, or verraco, is technically a boar used for breeding, but the meaning of the word extends far beyond its literal translation, and in several different directions depending on context. According to the blog “Colombian Spanish,” the term can refer to someone who is “exceptionally able,” though it can also describe someone who is exceptionally pissed, or in other cases, to indicate a large quantity of something or for emphasis.
Like many words in Spanish, berraco is gendered—the male version is berraco; female is berraca. Either version can be a great compliment, but I think berraca holds a special power for women. Our catalog of flattering language is generally rooted more in our looks or amenability than intelligence or toughness—berraca, near as I can figure, melds competence and bad-assery into one compact term.
Before you start throwing this around, know that, again, context is key:“Ser berraca,” implies intelligence, while “estar berraca” tends to refer to anger. Its usage also varies by country. In Colombia, it’s usually positive, meaning “brave, determined, gutsy, a team player, hard worker, someone who doesn’t give up and does dangerous but worthwhile things.” In Peru, however, it can have negative connotations, referring to someone who is garish, crude or overly loud, though those attributes, particularly for women, can be two sides of the same coin, depending on who is doing the judging.
Go figure, though: It can also mean “horny.” Happy International Women’s Day!