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Why do people in Spain say tío and tía all the time?

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Why do people in Spain say tío and tía all the time?
Ever wondered why Spaniards, in particular young people, use "tío" or "tía" very often in conversation? Photo: Elevate/Unsplash

You may have noticed that many young Spaniards call people "tío" (uncle) or "tía" (aunt), even if they’re not related to them. Here's why and how to use this slang correctly.

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Colega, hombre, tronco, loco, chaval, compi, quillo, amigo - there’s a wide array of ways to refer to friends, acquaintances or even strangers in an informal way in Spanish. 

But none are quite as widely used across Spain as tío (if it’s a guy) and tía (if it’s a girl). 

It’s something that not only non-Spanish speakers find surprising, even Latin American people in Spain consider it bizarre as this is exclusively a Spain-based habit (with the exception of Cuba). 

Tío/tía are used directly to refer to someone in a friendly and familiar way, in a similar way to how Brits say mate or Americans say dude or man. 

It can also be used indirectly to talk about a person whose name isn’t known, such as saying “there was a guy/girl” (Había un tío/tía). 

Some people drop it into conversation all the time at the end of sentences, what Spaniards call a coletilla (an afterthought speakers add to the end of sentences without realising). 

¡Claro, tío! (Of course, man!), ¡Ya, tía! (I know, mate!), ¿En serio, tío? (Really, dude?)... the list goes on.

So why do Spaniards refer to people they know and don’t know as uncles or aunties?

In our Spanish Word of The Day section, we often dig around to try to get to the bottom of Spanish word origins, but in this particular case there is no clear explanation. 

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Some sources have suggested that the widespread use of tío comes from Spain's gipsy population, as many Spanish slang words originate from gitano speech or their caló language, such as molar (to like), pirarse (to leave) or sobar (to sleep).

Spain’s gipsies often refer to people as primo (male cousin) or prima (female cousin), something which has also been adopted by young people in Spain, although it’s not as common as saying tío/tía

There’s another interesting theory. In Luis Besset’s 1905 edition of Spanish Slang Dictionary (Diccionario de Argot Español), the writer refers to how the term tío had come to be used to refer to delinquents or despicable men, and tía to speak about rude or loose women. 

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Somewhere along the line, this usage became mainstream and started being used in a more affectionate manner to refer to all kinds of people. 

To be clear, tío and tía are still used to talk about someone’s uncle or auntie, and if you say mi tío, it will be understood as being “my uncle”, not “my friend”. 

But tío or tía by itself is the go-to word for young Spaniards when talking to friends or others in an informal way. It can also be used in the plural, tíos or tías

Chileans instead have huevón, Mexicans say güey, Argentinians say flaco or che, every country and dialect has its favoured and often unique slang to refer to friends affectionately.

So the next time you’re in Spain and someone calls you tío or tía, they don't think you two are related, it just means they’re comfortable enough with you to talk to you in a more laidback way. 

 

Examples:

¡Qué pasa tío!

What’s up, dude!

 

¡No jodas, tía!

Stop shitting me, girl!

 

El tío no se cansa.

The guy never gets tired.

 

Había una tía en la oficina que no conocía.

There was a chick in the office I didn’t know.

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