Why Trump Uses Mock Spanish

The real reason the president says words such as loco and hombres

For Trump, loco fits into his own pejorative arsenal when caricaturing the mental instability of his rivals. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

When Donald Trump tweeted Thursday morning that Democrats “have gone absolutely ‘Loco,’” the most surprising thing about it was that he had never called anyone loco on Twitter before.

There was a time last fall when Trump couldn’t stop using the Spanish loanword for crazy in speeches and interviews. As the Factba.se database of presidential statements reveals, from late September to early November, Trump used loco at no fewer than 10 different events. Most of the time it appeared in his rambling stump speeches supporting Republicans in the midterm elections. He kicked things off on September 29 in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he said of Democrats, “These people are—they’ve gone crazy; they’ve gone loco.” Perhaps pleased by the reaction the word got, he came back to it later in the same speech, referring to critics of his meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: “They don’t know what to do. It’s driving them crazy, they’re loco, it’s driving them crazy.”

He kept up the loco theme at campaign stops in Tennessee, Minnesota, Kansas, Nevada, Missouri, and Indiana, wielding it against unnamed foes in party politics and the media. At a news conference on October 1, he said of the press: “They’re worse now than ever. They’re loco, but that’s okay. I put up with it.” And on October 10, in an interview with Shannon Bream on Fox News, he went after the Federal Reserve Bank for raising interest rates: “The Fed is going loco and there’s no reason for them to do it.”

But after the midterms, Trump seemed to tire of the adjective, until he broke it out again this week on Twitter. The on-again, off-again pattern resembles his infatuation with another Spanish borrowing: hombres. Trump famously warned of “some bad hombres” coming across the Mexican border in a debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he continued inveighing against “hombres” who were variously “bad” or “tough” or “rough” as part of his alarmist campaign rhetoric on border security. But the word did not join his Twitter repertoire until last month, when he tweeted, “The bad ‘hombres,’ of which there are many, are being detained & will be sent home.” By putting hombres in quotation marks, he was perhaps signaling its foreignness, while at the same time self-consciously quoting his own memorable usage from the debate three years ago. (In Thursday’s loco tweet, the word was both bracketed by quotation marks and capitalized, a one-two punch of Trumpian emphasis.)

Trump’s use of hombres and loco illustrates what the late linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill termed “Mock Spanish,” an anglophone appropriation of Spanish words that, she argued, can serve as “a site for the indexical reproduction of racism in American English.” In her 2008 book, The Everyday Language of White Racism, Hill presented “tough hombre” as an example of “Cowboy Anglo Spanish” that persisted from early frontier usage thanks to reinforcement in Western movies—no doubt how Trump was exposed to the word hombres.

When Trump referred to “bad hombres” in the 2016 debate, Adam Schwartz, a specialist in Spanish-language education at Oregon State University, wrote that “Donald Trump just made it a hell of a lot easier for me—and for all of us who teach about language, race and racism—to talk with students about Mock Spanish and the power of covert racist discourse.” Schwartz observed that while “hombre itself might not be a racial slur,” Trump’s use of it crystalized “the scope of that word’s injury, its offensiveness, its oppressive potential.”

As for loco, it too represents a remnant of English-Spanish linguistic contact along the western and southwestern frontier. According to Cowboy Talk: A Dictionary of Spanish Terms From the American West by Robert M. Smead, the word goes back to 1844 in American English, used in conjunction with locoweed, a poisonous plant that caused a distemper in cattle called loco or locoism. Like hombre, it was kept alive in the limited lexicon of anglicized Spanish found in cowboy movies.

Jane Hill noted in her book that loco has exemplified one pattern of Mock Spanish, the euphemistic substitution of “vulgar” English words with “insulting, lewd, or scatological” Spanish equivalents. She observed that it could be used for political name-calling in conjunction with other typical Mock Spanish elements, such as the article el and the suffix -o, as when Rush Limbaugh called the former Democratic congressional leader Dick Gephardt “El loco poco Dicko.”

For Trump, loco fits into his own pejorative arsenal when caricaturing the mental instability of his rivals. He has used crazy in his nicknames for various Democratic leaders (Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, Maxine Waters) and for members of the media (Jim Acosta, Mika Brzezinski, Maureen Dowd, Megyn Kelly). The -o ending comes out in the Trumpian use of psycho (for Joe Scarborough and Bette Midler) as well as wacko (for Sanders, Pelosi, and others). While loco provides a Mock Spanish spin, it is clearly of a piece with these other “crazy”-sounding epithets. And it just could be yet another kind of “I’m rubber, you’re glue” projection used by Trump as a defense mechanism whenever his own mental fitness comes into question.