One of the first things foreigners and mainland Spaniards notice when they’re in the Canary Islands is the bizarre word locals use to talk about a bus or coach: la guagua (usually pronounced wa-wa).
It’s neither slang nor a trendy abbreviation young people prefer: everyone from regional politicians to pensioners will use it, and if you choose to utter bus or autobús instead, the locals will automatically know you don’t live in the archipelago.
So how did guagua come to be the quintessential Canary Spanish word?
One that together with other linguistic idiosyncrasies such as the absence of the past perfect tense and the pronunciation of “z/c” as an “s” make it instantly possible to recognise a person from the Canaries (if you speak Spanish that is).
Unbelievably, guagua – a noun which sounds like an onomatopoeia for a baby’s incessant crying – is believed by some to be derived from American English.
To be more exact it’s thought to be an abbreviation for Washington, Walton, and Company Incorporated, an American transport company which manufactured some of the first passenger carriers towards the mid and late 19th century.
Their longwinded company name was reportedly shortened on the side of their vehicles to Wa & Wa Co. Inc., which in turn become “gua-gua” as the “w” is rarely used in non-anglicised Spanish.
The word could have been exported from Cuba to the Canaries given the mass migration between the islands on either side of the Atlantic during the 19th and early 20th century.
Photo: Secret Tenerife/Flickr
However, historical records show its first usage in the Cuban press around 1850, before any American transport company started operating on the island.
Together with Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the Canaries and Cuba are the only four places in the Spanish-speaking world where buses are usually called guaguas.
The theory that guagua is somewhat a ‘bastardisation’ of English words certainly rings true when considering other laidback interpretations of other ‘English-Canary words’.
There’s “papas Kinegua” which refers to the King Edward potato variety, “bisne” for business, “bistec” for beef steak or “cambullonero”, used to refer to a merchants who “come buy on” ships that arrived at the docks in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
There are three other theories about the origins of the word “guagua”: that it’s derived from the English word “waggon”, that it originates from the Ngu languages of African slaves in Cuba (“awawa” meaning to ‘move quickly’) or that it’s simply an onomatopoeia derived from the sound the bus’s claxon makes.
Whatever the real origin of the word guagua, all of the theories are truly fascinating (and somewhat comical) examples of linguistic evolution.
Did we mention that in Chilean Spanish guagua means baby? No? That’s a story for another day, then.