Language determines how we think. Well, at least, that’s one way to think about it. (But you know — the chicken, the egg, forever and ever.) (Amen.)
In university I discovered the essays of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who wrote about linguistic relativity. “Whorfianism,” as it is sometimes called, refers to the idea that the way a language is structured affects the cognition and world view of those who use it.
You may notice that this argument is extremely relevant in regards to conversations that the world is currently having (on race, gender, identity, bodies, socioeconomics, etc.), and the idea that we can choose carefully the words we use, and which we don’t use, in order to affect change in society and move away from outdated and unjust structures. And just as we can pick and choose the words we use to affect change in society and within our minds, we can also do the same by creating new words or adapting words from other languages.
Becoming fully bilingual in a language that is not my native tongue as an adult (not to mention assimilating to a culture that is not my native culture), has been one of the greatest flashes of my life. What’s a flash? Oh, you don’t know? Well, keep reading. Allow me to expand your mind with an insider’s scoop on my favorite Argentine slang word.
A flash doesn’t exactly exist, but it’s there. It isn’t something that necessarily happens, but it has definitely occurred to you.
I’m trying to think of where to start; what is the most simple, accessible definition of flash (the noun) and flashear (also sometimes spelled flayar or flashar)(the verb)? I’m just going to dive right in.
You know when you get upset? You feel bad. Something made you feel bad. Is that thing bad in and of itself? Badness is either objective or subjective, and we never know which is which, although sometimes we flash that we are pretty sure it’s one or the other, but a flash is subjective.
Maybe you thought somebody said something or did something to you with mal-intent (or, mala onda, as we say in Argentina). You can’t stop thinking about it, looping over and over in your head. Did they really mean it like that? Or are you just flashing? If this happens to you a lot, in English we might say you’re “neurotic.” But, it could be that you just flashear fuerte. (You flash intensely.) The fact that it’s “just a flash” doesn’t mean you imagined it (many internet definitions would have you believe that to flash is simply “to imagine”). No — it was/is really there, in you, occupying you, passing through you, making you see things a certain way in a certain situation in a certain moment in time.
I’ve found that the use of “flash” can be really helpful in expressing what goes on in your mind, and what’s up with your emotions. In conversations about unpacking past trauma, recognizing destructive patterns, understanding how I react in certain situations and how I relate to others, I use it a lot. It’s a concept that helps create a separation between you and your thoughts. Which can allow you to better analyze how one influences the other, and how they influence your reality.
And this idea of flashes and flashing is present in interactions within your mind and between individuals, but also between groups, and globally (re: cold war). For example, with the conversation surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, or Coronavirus, we have ever-multiplying groups of people who see the issues from drastically different angles. They have different flashes. (And each individual is also being “fed” a unique flash by social media algorithms.) Have you tried explaining racism to your Trump-supporting uncle who “doesn’t see race”? Yeah, it doesn’t work. Your uncle doesn’t share your same flash. His flash is different. Are our flashes so different that they can’t even coincide and coexist in the same society? It certainly seems that way to me. But then again, that’s just my flash, yours may be different. And mine may be different as well within the next few seconds, minutes, or months, because a flash is always temporary (and often fleeting). In fact now that I’m re-reading and editing what I wrote last night, and I’m in a more optimistic flash, and I’m thinking “aw, why did I say that about how it seems that our flashes are so different that we can’t coexist!?”
Are you familiar with the expression “gaslighting”? It’s probably either happened to you or you’ve done it to another person. (Most likely both, if you’re being honest with yourself.) People who are really good at manipulating can make you flash whatever they want you to flash. Or, you ever dated a person who seemed like they were really into you, said they were in love, that they would care for you and be attentive to your needs in the relationship, etc, etc, and all of a sudden they’re not into you anymore and they say that you were “never together”? (Sincerely hope this hasn’t happened to you but hey, ever tried dating in the 21st century?) They make you feel like you flashed the whole thing!
In Argentina we have the expression, “comerse el flash,” (to eat the flash). Was it you that flashed? Like, the flash originated from you and never had basis in a shared reality? Or was it the other person/entity that made you eat the flash? They made you eat the flash that you were together, but then didn’t want to eat that flash themself. Or they got bored with that flash and wanted a different one. Just like you make your bed to lay in it, we flash our flashes to flash in them. Or not. But anyway, what a flash it was! Maybe the good flash of falling in love is worth the bad flash of heartbreak. Maybe the flash of learning from mistakes will make you stronger. (Or at least allow you to eat the flash of being stronger/ flash that you are stronger.) And the same type of flash manipulation that can happen in relationships happens on a massive scale as well (re: marketing, mass media).
So yes, we have bad flashes (mal flashes) and good flashes (buen flashes), and one can either flashear bien (flash good) or flashear mal/malflashear (flash bad). You ever been walking alone at night and hear a motorcycle come up close to you and you flash motochorro? (A motochorro is like a pickpocket or mugger but they steal your shit while mounted on a motorcycle and going very fast…things that happen in big cities with big income inequality.) That’s a bad flash. If you’re lucky, it was just a flash, and the motorcyclist is just someone delivering for Uber Eats, and not a motochorro. But if not, you’ll have to eat the bad flash of getting your stuff stolen, and being pretty shaken up afterward.
You ever make friends with your neighbors during quarantine through a rooftop-adventuring cat, (like in one of the stories from this article we published last month) and written messages passed back and forth tied around its neck? That’s a good flash. And then they invite you over to “socially distance” (which apparently has become the new way to say “hanging out” in the US, or at least from what I gather from the way my friends there have been using the term) and it turns out you have a lot of stuff in common, like, very similar flashes, and you become BFFs? (did you “pegar onda” at some point, which is like when you “really hit it off” with someone (romantic or otherwise) and is part of two very important categories of Argentine slang which are those involving the words “pegar” and “onda.”) Now that is an excellent flash.
A person can flash this or that, like a child playing dress-up flashes princess or firefighter, or Kanye flashes God, and Donald Trump flashes war on Twitter. You can flash either [insert person/character/archetype here] or [insert thing/situation/concept here]. A good equivalent to this particular usage in US slang would be the expression “on some ____ shit.” Kanye is on some God shit. Trump is on some Nazi shit. My four-year-old is on some princess shit. Since the quarantine started, my roommate has been cooking a lot; she’s been flashing Top Chef. And as a result, my other housemates and I have been flashing fancy restaurant eating her food. In fact, we were talking about cooking the other night; one of my roommates never really cooks and we were trying to encourage him to try it. He started to look up recipes online, and another roommate said “no, no, no, don’t do that, you’ve just gotta feel it; use your intuition.” And I said, in defense of my other roommate (because I thought well, hey, maybe not everyone has “cooking intuition”): “Pero uno puede seguir una receta. No siempre hay que flashearla.” (But one can follow a recipe. You don’t always have to flash it.) (Yes, I’ve spent the last month taking notes from real life conversations in preparation for writing this article.)
Which brings me to the expression “flashearla” (to flash it). So, what is the “it”? Well, one could interpret it as implying “thing,” which would explain why it’s always “la” (the word “thing” is feminine (unless you’re talking about a coso, a masculine thing, which would be best translated perhaps as “thingamajig”) and “la” is the article used to refer to feminine nouns). This is an interpretation that makes sense to me, but a real linguist might offer another explanation, (If I’m not a real linguist, what does that make me? Well: I flash linguist.) and besides, an etymological understanding of what the “la” refers to is entirely irrelevant to being able to use and understand the expression.
In the previous example, “flashearla” referred to cooking based on intuition, as opposed to following a recipe. So in this sense, the expression means to use your creativity, to improvise, to go with the flow and see what comes out of it. But here’s another way it can be used: my roommate and I went out to get some eggplants and breadcrumbs the other day. And although there is a “chino” (Hold on, after I finish talking about flashearla I am going to go on a quick tangent about what a “chino” is in Argentine culture.) two blocks away, he said “let’s go to the other one” referring to a chino ten blocks away on the other side of the train tracks. “Why?” I asked. “Para flashearla,” he said (to flash it). Was there any logical reason we went to the other one? Was it because they tend to have better produce there? No, no, it was just to…switch it up, to be spontaneous, have an experience different than what would have been expected. In English we have the expression “wild card” (to wild card, to pull/play a wild card) which I think is a pretty good equivalent to this particular usage of flashear.
Okay, bear with me while I digress on a totally-relevant-to-the-discussion-on-language-and-flash tangent about “chinos.” So, “chino” is the word commonly used to refer to the supermarket/convenience stores which can be found every few blocks throughout the city of Buenos Aires, that are typically owned and operated by Asian immigrants and Argentinians of Asian descent. Many of these people are from China, and “chino” is the Spanish demonym to refer to a person from China. But many of these people are from Korea, or Japan, or Vietnam, or other places that are not China. (And also many of them were born and raised in Argentina.) But it’s quite commonplace in Argentine culture for people to refer to all folks of Asian descent as “chinos” (In much the same way that certain geographically ignorant/culturally insensitive people in the US might refer to all South/Central American immigrants as “Mexicans.”) And yes, that’s problematic (conflating the cultural identities of a large and ethnically diverse group of people by referring to them all by a demonym which may or may not represent their national identity), but also when you then use that demonym as a general term to refer to a type of business, you are taking it a step further and also conflating the already-conflated identities of all those people with their expected role within the society and economy.
And when I say that using a term is “problematic,” I’m not saying “fuck you you’re a terrible person if you say that!” I’m just saying, we can be aware that certain words carry certain implications related to complex realities (i.e. flashes) within our societies that directly or indirectly cause problems for certain groups of people. (And we can then make an informed decision about whether we want to use the word that perpetuates a certain status quo, or use a different one.)
Also, while I’m expanding your mind by flashing linguist and going on tangents about demonyms, isn’t it interesting that in Spanish all demonyms can be used interchangeably as adjectives or nouns, but in English there are certain demonyms which are only used as adjectives, and others which can be used as either nouns or adjectives? For example, you wouldn’t say “a Chinese walked into a bar,” you would say “a Chinese woman/man/person walked into a bar.” But you could perfectly well say either “An Australian walked into a bar” OR “An Australian guy walked into a bar.” And then we have other demonyms which have noun forms and adjective forms, like “A Pole walked into a bar,” OR “a Polish person walked into a bar.” And then we have people from the United States. Hmm… Before I get back to explaining flashear, can we just take a moment to recognize how problematic (re: US imperialism) it is that there are over fifty countries in the two continents (or one, if you were educated in Argentina — different countries, different flashes, am I right?) that comprise America, but the demonym for people from the United States is…American? I always tell my English students, this is the most embarrassing thing about the English language. And when I can get away with it, I teach the demonym as “US American.”
So, yeah, like I was saying and like many before me have said, the language we use is a reflection of the structures in our mind, which are a reflection of the language we use, which is a reflection of the world we live in, which is a reflection of the structures in our mind, which are a reflection of…uhh, I’ll stop there before this gets controversial.
Now let’s talk about psychedelic drugs. You guessed it — they make you flash! Like for example “man, I flashed so hard on that pepa we took at Festival de Sellos last year!” Flash can refer to a temporary hallucination or state of mind, positive or negative, drug-induced or otherwise. Sometimes in conversations you respond, or start to respond, to something another person said, but as you’re in the middle of saying your response or right after you’ve finished saying it, you realize that you misinterpreted (either aurally or conceptually) what the person said, and since your response was based on that misinterpretation, you then hopefully have a chance to explain before the conversation moves on, that “ohh, wait, okay, oops, I flashed that you meant…” Or other times you think someone said something to you and you say “what?” and they say “…I didn’t say anything.” Or you see someone on the subway who looks like someone you know, and you go up to say hey but then you realize it’s not them.
These types of flashes are ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives, and often harmless, but they can be very dangerous and have serious consequences, too. Like for example, you flash that the light is green when it’s red, or you flashed that there wasn’t someone in your blind spot but actually there was. Or you’re a trigger-happy cop who flashes that someone is threatening you when they’re not. Another usage of “flash” within this same vein (hallucinations, psychedelia, etc.) is similar to the English expression about having one’s mind blown. For example, on your way out of seeing Fin del Mundo play live, you might say “me hicieron flashear!” (they made me flash) or “fua, flashé!” (wow, I flashed!) which would be similar to saying something like “that show blew my fucking mind!” And, another similar one, is that it can be used to refer to what we call “daydreaming” in English.
Man, it’s pretty darn flashero how many different usages of flash there are! I’m only just now getting to the adjective “flashero” which can be used to describe something/someone that makes you flash, or is prone to flashing, or is otherwise reminiscent of the concept flash. It’s most commonly used the same way we use “awesome” in the US, but it doesn’t necessarily carry the same positive connotation; it could also be used to describe something really weird or scary or otherwise surprising or out of the ordinary. Like how we might call something “trippy” or “wild” or “far out.”
Then we have the adjective/past participle flasheada/o. I could say “estoy flasheada” (I’m flashed) which would be like saying “I’m flashed out!” or “I’m totally flashed.” And there’s the noun una flasheada, which would be like saying… a flash-ation, or…flash-ola, or even flash-o-rama. Takin’ it down to flash town, you feel me? Like…have you seen The Midnight Gospel? That show is una flasheada.
Another thing to remember about flashear is that it’s slang. Your Argentinian grandma probably doesn’t say it. It’s relatively new, it’s contemporary, it’s an anglicism (adapted from the English word “flash”), and not everybody experiences it the same way (meta, right?). And every time it’s used its meaning expands and deepens (which is true for every word ever).
If you’ve read this far, I think I’ve given enough examples and explained enough usages (although I assure you there are more) that you now have an idea of what it means to flashear, and if you’re up for the flash, could even start incorporating versions of it into your lexicon and creating new usages. I promise, you won’t regret it. (I feel a little bit like the character from Mean Girls who wants “fetch” to happen.)
Whorf argued that “a change in language can transform our appreciation of the cosmos,” (click the link to read a really flashero and relevant-to-the-current-times essay on language, mind, and reality written in 1941!) and I agree. Our minds, relationships, societies, and (dare I say it) beyond, are all being constantly influenced (and vice versa) by the language we use. So if I can offer a long-winded and poorly-organized yet down-to-earth explanation of a really fascinating word from Argentine slang to English speakers via an online arts and culture magazine, I can flash that I’m doing something somehow meaningful with my life. So thanks.