Language determines how we think. In keeping with the same existential tautology that brought us “It is what it is,” “la montaña es la montaña,” and, most notably, “I am that I am.”
Isn’t it? Aren’t I? Welcome to Argentine Slang to Expand the Mind, the series where I contemplate linguistic relativity in the context of Argentine slang and my own experiences with language and culture. In other words: how do we talk, what do we say, what do we mean, what words do we use and why, and how does that affect our worldview and the way we relate to each other, ourselves, and the outside world?
And by “we” I suppose I mean myself and my projections of the people I’ve interacted with in my life, because that is, after all, all I know, and what has directly dictated my experience of language and been directly impacted by my expression of language (but yeah, if we’re talking about indirect impacts there’s obviously a lot more factors at play). And I think it’s important to recognize, if I’m going to be writing about language, that that experience is 100% unique to me. Even if it does coincide with the experiences of other people (or so I should hope).
And I think it’s important to recognize, if I’m going to be writing about culture, that all the conclusions I draw about “US culture” or “Argentinian culture,” and the comparisons I make between the two, are based on my experiences living in those two countries, but in many ways have more to do with who and what I’ve come in contact with as I’ve moved through the world, than with borders or national identities (which impact but do not define culture). Does that make sense? So, take everything I say (and everything anyone says, for that matter) with a grain of salt.
But the fact that I’m writing from my experience doesn’t make what I have to say less valid or real. It just means that someone could stumble upon these articles and think all my interpretations are totally whack and couldn’t be further from The Truth, and that would be valid too. And in a world where communication and collective understanding rely so heavily on something as capricious, volatile, and untameable as language, those types of discrepancies happen all the time.
This is the fifth installment of the series. Here are some links to check out the previous articles: so far I’ve written about flashear, onda, ahre and chan, and anglicismos.
Today I’m going to talk about some of the ways we express certain emotional and mental states here in Argentina.
Starting with…drumroll please…paja! Uff, qué paja, che. So, paja can be used to refer to three different things, that I’m aware of: straw, like for making a hat or lining a stable; a wank, which is not a word that I’ve used much because it’s not popular in the US, but I think it’s the most similar because it’s a noun that refers to the act of masturbation (I’m going to have a wank = me voy a hacer una paja [I’m going to do myself a paja]) and also has an accompanying noun (which in Spanish is also an adjective because, fun fact, in Spanish most adjective word forms can also be used interchangeably as nouns) for describing a certain type of person who may or may not necessarily wank a lot (wanker = pajero); and the third one, which is the one I’ll be focusing on here.
We can think of paja as being like, the opposite of motivation, interest, impulse, desire. (Or, like the opposite of ganas, which I will talk about in a future article). It’s related to the idea of laziness (pajero is most commonly used to refer to a person who is lazy, does nothing all day, doesn’t put in the effort) or just not wanting to do something, not feeling like it, being turned off by something (in a non-sexual way). It’s not a personality trait or a part of who you are, but rather, it’s something you can have, it’s something that can be given to you by a situation, a person, a concept, an object, or anything really, or it can show up unprovoked. And just as it can be given to you, it can be taken away, go away on its own, or you can rid yourself of it. Think of the interjection “ugh” in English. Something that makes you say “ugh” is something that gives you paja.
Here’s some examples:
Tengo tanta paja que ní me puedo levantar de la cama. (I have so much paja that I can’t even get out of bed.)
Se me fue la paja de ayer, hoy sí voy a poder activar. (Yesterday’s paja has left me; today, I’ll be able to get on my shit.)
Tomé unos mates para quitarme la paja. (I drank some mate to rid myself of paja.)
Me da paja hablar con él. (Talking to him gives me paja.)
Apago mi cámara durante las reuniónes de Zoom porque me da paja que me vean. (I turn off my camera during Zoom meetings because people seeing me gives me paja.)
Me da paja la gente que se cree superior. (People who think they’re superior give me paja.)
We can also say that something (usually a situation) is una paja, and that would be like saying it’s a drag, or that it sucks. It could be that it’s boring, inconvenient, unfair, upsetting, unideal, annoying, unfortunate, unappealing…or any mix of those things. If something is a paja, it’s probably something that you don’t want to do, or that you wish wouldn’t have happened, or that you would rather not associate with but don’t have a choice. It’s not typically used to refer to something tragic or grave (although it could be, depending on the attitude and style of the person speaking).
We have another word that’s quite similar to paja, and that’s fiaca. As I was writing yesterday, my roommates started debating the difference between paja and fiaca. One of them said that there is no difference; paja and fiaca are the same. The other explained that he sees fiaca as being more positive, like, he associates having fiaca with being cozy and comfortable, not wanting to leave a place or get up to do something because you’re enjoying your chill time. I don’t personally agree with either of those analyses, which just goes to show how different our understandings of words can be.
For me, fiaca is a more severe, more debilitating type of paja. It’s less fleeting, it’s more like…a condition, like having allergies or a headache, but with respect to energy level and mood. If you have fiaca you probably will have fiaca all day, whereas paja is more prone to arise and fade away during different moments of the day or more in relation to specific circumstances. As an excuse for not wanting to go out and do something, tengo fiaca is more like saying “I’m feeling under the weather” and tengo paja is more like “I’m just not feeling it.” I also think of fiaca as being more closely associated with fatigue, and being tired or burnt out in a physical sense, than paja (although these symptoms also overlap with those of paja).
The funny thing about fiaca that someone who lives in the US might have trouble understanding, is that it’s like…actually an acceptable excuse to get out of obligations. I mean, not every obligation, obviously, but there are many situations where, in US culture, it would totally not fly to be like “Um yeah I’m not going to make it because I’m like feeling low energy and unmotivated.” People would be like “What the fuck? She’s not coming because she’s tired? Are you fucking serious?” But in Argentina, it’s like, if you have fiaca, and you say, “Sorry, I’m not going to make it cause I have fiaca,” it’s like “Oh, okay. She’s got fiaca so she’s not coming, guys!” and everyone else is like “Oh, okay. She’s got fiaca.” But having paja is not quite as effective an excuse as having fiaca. At least, that’s my take.
There’s an English term I know, executive dysfunction (disfunción ejecutiva in Spanish, although I’ve never heard this term used in Spanish, and there’s not even a Wikipedia page for it), which I think of as being closely related to paja. Executive dysfunction has to do with the brain not being able to efficiently carry out processes related to organization, time management, and the completion of tasks. It might manifest as, for example, you say to yourself in your head (unless you are one of those people who don’t have an internal monologue — which, that shit stays blowing my mind, by the way — as you can imagine for a person who is obviously fucking obsessed with words), “Okay, time to go brush my teeth now,” but you just stay there, immobile, willing yourself to get up and do it but you can’t, something in your mind is blocking you from putting the command into motion. Al final no pude cepillarme los dientes porque me agarró una paja pero bien fuerte. (I didn’t end up being able to brush my teeth because I got hit with a really intense paja.)
Executive dysfunction and Executive Dysfunction Disorder (when the dysfunction becomes chronically debilitating) are related to a slew of other disorders which have become well known and are commonly talked about in the US, but I find that they haven’t really “caught on” here, in terms of reaching a tipping point of absorption into mainstream culture. I mean, for example, ADHD (of which executive dysfunction is considered a common symptom). You walk into any room of 20-somethings in the US, and you start talking about ADHD, everyone knows what you’re talking about. Why? Because everyone and their brother has either been diagnosed themself, or known someone who’s been diagnosed, or had that one friend (probably more than one friend) who made money off their Adderall prescription in college. And, let’s not forget about that one friend who got hooked on Ritalin as a child and is now a meth addict.
But that’s not the reality here in Argentina. When it comes to talking about certain mental disorders which are so commonly talked about in the US, I’ve received many a puzzled look upon mentioning them here. TDA qué? (ADH what?) I mean, in the US I would be very hard-pressed to find a cohort who had never heard of, say, Bipolar Disorder, but here I’ve actually found myself in the position of having to explain what it is multiple times. Also, friends are baffled when I tell them that as a teenager/young adult, I was prescribed a whole series of pharmaceutical products to treat various mood disorders. Like, damn, are you really that fucked up? I mean, no, it’s not that I’m that fucked up. It’s just that I was raised in the US, where they diagnose you and medicate you for literally cualquier cosa (any old thing; heavily implying that that thing in question might be bullshit). Of my friends in Argentina, I can think of only three who I know to take or have taken medication related to a mental health issue. Whereas, among my friends in the US, that number is easily in the dozens.
But then, de repente, (de repente literally means “suddenly,” but in contemporary Argentinian slang it is also used to indicate an element of irony) we have the statistic that Argentina has, literally, more therapists per capita than any other country in the world. And the fact that here, having regular sessions with a psychologist or therapist is about as common as breathing, and carries little to no stigma (not to mention it’s actually accessible), which is a far cry from how things are in the US, where many people would be flat-out offended by the suggestion that they seek therapy (not to mention it can cost you easily 300USD out-of-pocket per session). And how about mental health leave from a job? Here, it’s actually a thing that you can do. I actually know people who’ve done it. And staying home from work because you have fiaca, even though it’s not considered a diagnosable “disorder,” is also not unheard of or entirely looked down upon. Whereas in the US, getting paid time off work because you suffer from clinically diagnosed Major Depressive Disorder is the biggest ahre ever.
When I started thinking about writing about paja, and bringing it up with my friends to see what analyses came up in conversation, one of my friends followed a line of reasoning that lead us to a place of thinking that the fact that paja is so commonly used here could reflect a normalization of something that shouldn’t be thought of as normal. Like, maybe it would be better for Argentinian humanity if things like paja were taken more seriously. But then again, maybe not. Because on the other end of the spectrum we’ve got the visibly unideal mental health dynamic that predominates in the US, where the narrative tends down a (in many cases dangerously) slippery slope from talking about qué nos pasa (literally: what happens to us; in this context refers to what mental processes, emotions and thoughts are going on within us) to talking about disorder, diagnosis, and medication.
But anyway, I digress. Actually I don’t digress, because it wasn’t a digression at all because the way I see it, every percieved social issue or cultural quirk is inexorably interwoven with the language according to which it exists.
I think a lot of the language used here (and in Spanish in general, as opposed to English) to talk about moods and emotional states, begets a more developed understanding of the transience of emotional phenomena, which I flash helps me have a healthier relationship with my emotional realities. After all, according to science (fun fact I learned recently), emotional responses in the body last only 90 seconds. If we continue feeling the emotion after 90 seconds, it’s because we have built up a narrative (with, you guessed it, words and language) around it that continues to loop in our thoughts, causing the emotional response to happen over and over again.
Call me crazy, but I feel like the English language has more of a propensity for getting us bogged down in negative emotions than Spanish. And I feel like Spanish is, dare I say it, a more efficient (so as not to say better) language than English for talking about our emotional realities. Hear me out. First of all, we have ser and estar which give us the ability to quickly and easily differentiate between states of being which require a lot of vueltas (literally: turns; in this context: extra words and clarification) to express clearly in English, and that goes a long way in terms of streamlining communication related to how we are. Secondly, in Spanish we use passive and reflexive structures that allow for a distinction between emotional state and self that doesn’t really exist in English. For example, the reflexive structure of “me siento _____ [emotion]” (“I feel,” a conjugation of sentirse, literally: to feel oneself) (Not like in the Beyonce way, though; in the reflexive way.) conveys what is the entity that does the action of feeling, and what is the entity within which the feeling is felt, and what is the feeling that is felt there. (And, yeah, you might say well, the entity that does the action of feeling (“I”) and the entity in which the feeling is felt (“I”) are the same entity! Okay, sure. But the only reason we think of “I” as a singular entity, is because we only have one word for it. Chan.) Whereas in English, when we say “I feel” there is no such implied distinction within the linguistic structure. And many times we don’t even say “I feel” to express our emotions, but rather, “I am” which conflates one’s feelings with their very own existence.
My truth is that I find it easier to talk about my emotions in Spanish than in English, even though I’ve been speaking English my whole life and Spanish for less than half. I feel it offers better linguistic tools for talking about what happens in the head and heart.
I mean, it’s like how people say that English is an especially efficient language for things like engineering because it has lots of prepositions and ways to express specific spacial relationships and movement of things in relation to other things (whereas Spanish, on the other hand, has very few prepositions, and you often have to give a lot of vueltas to describe things related to movement and position in a precise way), and that’s a reasonable conclusion. So it’s not any less reasonable to argue that Spanish is especially efficient (or at least, more efficient than English) for processing emotions.
I only know two languages well, but I believe quite strongly that each and every language has something special to offer us. Gives me a lot of FOMO, actually, only knowing two languages. Anyway, that’s a wrap for this edition of Argentine Slang to Expand the Mind. Hope you liked it, stay tuned for the next one, and good luck keeping the paja at bay.