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Venezuela's president employs populist — and sometimes vulgar — language.
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.’”