10/21/2011 02:01 EDT | Updated 12/21/2011 05:12 EST

Latin Americans at the Pan American Games separated by the same language - Spanish

GUADALAJARA, Mexico - The United States and England are often described as two countries separated by a common language. So imagine the potential for confusion, curiosity and laughs around the Pan American Games, where Spanish — in all its variations — is the official language of about half of the 42 competing nations.

"There are lots of different words, but the first ones we want to learn are the vulgarities that others use," Colombian water polo player Carlos Toro said.

Modesto Aguero, a sports commentator on Cuban television, recalls making his first visit to Mexico 35 years ago, a 20-something looking forward to a night out. He was stumped when he understood his Mexican friend to suggest the following.

"Let's go jump on a semitrailer truck, go to town and find a couple of older women."

Semitralier truck? Old women?

"Hey, I didn't come to Mexico to go out with old women and to ride around in an 18-wheeler. Let's go a find a car and some young women," Aguero remembered saying.

It was all in Spanish, but the meanings differed quite a bit.

"Viejas," the usual word in Spanish for "older women," can be used colloquially in Mexico to also mean young women. But not in Cuba, where it carries only the usual meaning.

The word "camion" in Spanish usually refers to an 18-wheeler, but in Mexico it means "bus."

"These were words or ways of speaking that I didn't know," Aguero recalled.

The list of differences approaches infinite. Innocent verbs or nouns in one country can be supercharged words in another, often referring to something sexual. The names for fruits and vegetables, kinds of fish, cuts of meat invariably cause confusion. Then add the varied pronunciations to the brew.

In a shopping mall near the Pan American Games venues, several banners welcome Spanish speakers, each one tailored to the slang of Argentina, Colombia or Venezuela.

Even the word "padre," which every beginning Spanish student knows means father, has an additional meaning in Mexico, where it can mean cool — as in, "That shirt you're wearing looks cool."

An older person in Mexico is often referred to as a "ruca." That same word in Peru means prostitute. And a judgmental person in Mexico is called "juicioso." In Colombia the word suggests the opposite — good behaviour.

Back to the bus.

Guagua is the word Cubans use for bus. In Chile and parts of Argentina, it means a young child. In Mexico, essentially the same word is a childlike way of saying dog.

"Of course, there are always small differences," Venezuelan tennis player Luis Martinez said. "But you figure it out by travelling and learning."

Many Latin Americans understand the language of baseball, particularly those from the Caribbean, Mexico and Venezuela. But most Argentines or Chileans are clueless in any language and have no real way to describe the sport.

This is similar to Americans who are puzzled when Australians or Englishmen talk about cricket with expressions like "googly" or "LBW" or "silly mid-on."

Karla Rojas, a 28-year-old student from Guadalajara, recalls being an exchange student in Spain a half dozen years ago and, as many Mexicans abroad, she was craving a taco or fresh tortillas made by a tortillera, or tortilla maker.

Seems harmless enough. However, the innocent Mexican words brought only confusion and blushing.

The word "taco" is the one Spaniards use for "swear words" — as in, he swears a lot, or uses many "tacos."

A tortilla for Spaniards is the traditional potato omelette — nothing to do with the flat corn pancakes, the staple of the Mexican diet. And a "tortillera" in Spain is an off-colour word for a lesbian.

Burrito, another common Mexican entree, has nothing to do with food on the Iberian Peninsula, meaning only a small donkey.

Even the word for T-shirt can cause confusion. Cubans call them, of all things, "T-shirt," while in Mexico it's "playera," in Argentina's it's "remera," and in Spain it's "camiseta."

"There can be humour in some of these," Carlos Gonzalez of the Cuban state news agency said, "but they can also cause problems."

Just try catching a bus.


Associated Press writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.