Mexican X-plainer: No Way, Güey

David Bowles
Swap Language
Published in
4 min readJun 5, 2019


Earlier today my wife and my daughter were speaking to each other in Spanish. Their exchange went like this:

Wife: No, güey, así no se hace.
Daughter: Ya sé, güey. Espérame tantito.

My home has reached MAXIMUM GÜEY.

How did this happen? What, you may ask, does that word even mean?

First, let me get something out of the way. There are many neo-Mexicanists who purport that “güey” is somehow derived from or related to the Nahuatl word “huēyi,” which means “big” or “grand.”

I’m sorry to disillusion folks. I would love to have more indigenous words in Spanish. However, this is an extremely fanciful folk etymology. There’s no evidence for any connection. The similarity in sound is a simple linguistic coincidence.

For the real origin of güey, we need to go back in time a few thousand years.

In Classical Latin, the word “bōs” meant, generally, “bovine animal.” The accusative form (when the word was a direct object, etc.) was “bovem.”

However, in Vulgar Latin (the dialect spoken by the working class), that “v” was dropped (via elision): *boem.

Vulgar Latin, of course, was the dialect that evolved into our modern Romance languages. That word for “bovine animal”? It became the Spanish word “buey” through these stages:

bovem -> *boem (VL) -> *bue -> buey

Note that the Medieval Spanish “bue” is the same as the word in Italian and Asturian.

Over time, rather than a generalized word for any bovine, “buey” came to specifically mean a castrated bull … an ox.

Un buey.

(By the way, the more common Spanish word “toro” [bull] is from the Latin “taurus” and “vaca” [cow] from Latin “vacca.”)

Have you ever been around oxen? They are slow and plodding, big and dumb.

But strong.

That’s why SO MANY sayings exist in Spanish that compare a certain type of man to an ox.

  • “Al buey dejarlo mear, y hartarlo de…



David Bowles
Swap Language

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.