Cuba has not been an exception to the fact that many references to flora, fauna, place names, religion, history, literature and others have given rise to phrases that are widely known and used, indicating a Cuban flavour in everyday speech and constituting the unique elements of our brand of Spanish.
For example, as elements in general usage, we have “siquitrilla” which is the wishbone or clavicle in birds. In Cuba we say “partir la siquitrilla a alguien” (to break someone's clavicle) in the sense that we would like to stop someone from enjoying certain economic or work privileges, etc.; and also with the connotation of killing someone.
Furthermore, the term “malojero”, which in Spain refers to the person selling “maloja” (a corn plant only used to feed horses), is used in Cuba in the expression “grillo malojero” that indicates a woman who is excessively thin and rather unattractive.
The word “yagruma” which designates a Moracea type tree having large palmate leaves that are green on the outside and silvery on the inside is used in the saying “como la yagruma”, referring to a false and hypocritical person.
The term “güiro” that refers to plant having a squash-like fruit with a tough, yellow skin when it dries is used in the popular expression “perder guiro, calabaza y miel”, when you are referring to having lost it all, generally in situations where you have not made a decision at the right time.
As for expressions related to the animal kingdom, the phrase “saber más que las bibijaguas” applies to a person who is very skilful and shrewd, and “a paso de jicotea” refers to a way of walking and doing things slowly and with no regard for the passage of time (at a snail’s pace).
From place names, a few phrases stand out, like “meter La Habana en Guanabacoa” (put Havana into Guanabacoa). Guanabacoa is a municipality in the Cuban capital and so the expression means you are trying to put something into a space that is much too small for it.
In daily speech, other elements appear which show the Cuban flavour and which come out of purely linguistic roots. These tend to deal with literary, historical, political and religious events intimately linked to the Cuban reality and which, therefore, have given rise to the formation of phrases that are widely used by the people.
Connected with literature, we have the expression “¿Y tu abuela dónde está?”(And your grandmother, where is she?), originating in black Cuban poetry. This phrase is used as a criticism of people who are trying to cover up the fact that they are mulatto by taking advantage of certain physical traits that will allow them to pass for white.
In connection with history, “caer como un 20 de mayo” (to fall like the 20th of May) means that you have fallen with great force onto someone, since the 20th of May in 1902 was when the Neo-Colonial Republic was installed in Cuba and it stayed in place for more than half a century, keeping us under the aegis of the United States.
Expressions related to religion stand out for their popularity. One that can be heard frequently is “tener que ir al babalao” (having to visit the Babalao). Babalao is the name for a priest in Santeria, the Afro-Cuban cult, and this expression is used whenever people have, or complain about having, lots of bad luck.
Subírsele el santo a alguien is yet another saying connected with religion and it indicates the moment in which a person falls into a trance during a Santeria ceremony. On the street, this saying is also used whenever a person loses their self-control.
Sayings connected with famous people are also very popular, but not too many Cubans today really know the stories about these people to whom they are referring and some even doubt that they actually existed. This is due to the fact that the people referred to lived many years ago and so for many Cubans the saying only has meaning because of its popular usage and not for the events that gave rise to it.
For example, “volar como Matías Pérez”, refers to Matías Pérez, a Cuban amateur aeronaut who took off in his balloon in June of 1856, and nothing was ever heard of him again. The saying applies to those who disappear without leaving a trace.
Another well-known expression is “no salvar ni el médico chino” (not even the Chinese doctor can save him): its origin is attributed to the Chinese physician Chan Bom Bia who lived in Cuba in the second half of the nineteenth century and who, as the story goes, cured patients for whom there was no hope left. The saying is used when the state of a patient is such that no possibilities to save him exist or when something is in such poor shape that it is impossible to fix it.
Generally speaking, language usage manifests regional, gender and generational differences. A Havana resident will not express himself in the same way as a person living in Santiago, a city slicker will not talk the same way as a peasant, a man expresses himself differently from a woman and a youth will talk differently from an old person. The manner of speaking is not homogenous nor does it remain frozen in time; national speech patterns are constantly growing and evolving and we, the Cubans, are intricately liked to this phenomenon.