CARACAS — In his frequent television appearances President Hugo Chavez is known for springing surprises. He has insulted world leaders, caught his defense minister unawares by ordering unexpected military maneuvers — he has even danced to hip-hop, rolling punches like a prize boxer.
After a decade, it would seem that Chavez's unconventional manner would no longer have shock value. But in a recent live broadcast he still managed to astonish some of his countrymen when he christened the first Venezuela-made cellular phone the "Vergatario."
“We’re going to call it the ‘Vergatario.’ It’s the number one,” he said with a smirk in a televised meeting with the Chinese vice president, Xi Jinping. Now, Vergatario has no direct translation in English — but it is essentially the equivalent of slang expressions such as "badass."
In Spanish, "verga" is a ship’s mast, but it is also used to describe a penis. "Vergatario" describes someone with the biggest penis — a huge compliment in this macho society. By implication it qualifies something as "the best."
The word has its origins in 13th century Spain, said linguistics expert Manuel Bermudez of the Venezuelan Academy of Language, who has closely followed the development of what he calls “Chavez-speak.” The first evidence of the word's use was by the Spanish poet Gonzalo de Berceo, who compared a saint’s arms to "vergas," or blocks of wood.
“But in Chavez’s political language, ‘vergatario’ semantically refers to the mast and the genital organs of men and animals, especially the bull,” Bermudez said. “Beyond that, it means good or well done.
“If you say a man is ‘vergatario,’ it means he is a real man, from the point of view of his masculinity and from a physical point of view. Here in Venezuela a macho man is 'vergatario.' A man who gets things done is 'vergatario.'"
Chavez’s rhetoric is peppered with popular expressions derived from baseball, boxing and army slang. Recently, he told U.S. President Barack Obama to “go wash his suit,” an expression popular in Venezuelan slums. In translation it means he should “go wash his ass,” Bermudez said.
The often-vulgar expressions that Chavez uses are part of a populist ploy that exasperates his enemies and delights his followers, Bermudez said.
“Venezuelans love that florid and elaborate language full of jargon and slang words,” he said. “It’s for the proletariat man. It’s calculated — that kind of discourse reaches the people. And for that reason he has retained his popularity. They say: ‘Chavez is a man like us.’”
Chavez saves his best insults for his political opponents. In recent years he has resuscitated colloquialisms to belittle them, variously labeling them "pitiyanquis" and "escualidos."
"Escualido" is a popular term from the llanos or plains of western Venezuela. It is used to describe something that has “little color or quantity,” Bermudez said. “Chavez uses it to point out that the opposition has few followers, but notice how since the opposition has grown to 5 million he no longer uses it as much,” he said.
"Pitiyanqui," which derives from the French word "petit" (small) and the word Yankee, originated in Puerto Rico. It has been used by several Venezuelan leaders to describe the way the country’s political classes dote on the U.S.
Although such expressions have entered the Venezuelan lexicon thanks to Chavez, the opposition has at times embraced them as badges of identity. They have even found their own retorts: After Chavez spent billions of dollars buying arms from Russia and invited its navy to dock at one of Venezuela’s ports, they took to calling him a "pitiruso."
And the phone? It will be manufactured using Chinese technology and will feature a camera, radio and MP3 player. At a retail price of just $14, its backers claim its the cheapest in the world. It will be launched, appropriately, on Mother’s Day.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Venezuela:
Hugo Chavez is rewriting history
The "E" word: Venezuela and the return of expropriation
Venezuela's media is caught in a vicious circle