What Does ‘Mande’ Mean in Spanish?
Have you ever heard someone using the word mande in Spanish? It’s usually a way to reply to a question not understood or to ask what’s needed.
Well, this simple and apparently harmless word has an incredible backstory that strongly resonates in the Mexican past.
Keep reading to discover why Mexicans reply with a strange mande or mande usted when called. Learn the actual meaning of the term and the correct way to reply to it.
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Why Do Some Spanish Speakers Say ‘Mande’ When Asked a Question?
Let’s do an experiment: ask a Mexican any question and make sure he or she can’t hear it properly. Chances are that in most cases they will reply with a simple mande in Spanish.
This begs the question, what does ‘mande’ mean in Spanish?
What Does ‘Mande’ Mean in Spanish?
Mande is the second-person conjugation of the verb mandar which means “to order” or “to command.” However, it uses the formal second person (you) which is usted, instead of the informal one, tú. Remember this part, as we’ll see that it’s important to understand this interesting piece of Mexican slang.
In any case, if you want to translate the term mande in Spanish, its literal meaning is something like “command me” or “give me an order.”
Weird, right? Wait, it gets better.
A Curious Piece of Mexican Slang
Although this strange way to answer a question in Spanish has its roots in Mexico, its use has extended to some other countries in the Americas.
That said, you have to understand that when someone replies with a mande in Spanish, they’re not asking you to actually give them an order. As with most Mexican slang, the word has a completely different meaning than its traditional usage.
Remember that slang is informal language. It is usually spoken rather than written and is unique to particular groups of people. A definition that perfectly fits the term mande in Spanish, except perhaps for the informal part.
When someone replies to you with a simple mande in Spanish, they are actually asking “What?” As in, “Can you repeat that?” or “What do you mean?”
So, why the mande?
Historical Origins of the Term Mande in Spanish
Another characteristic of Mexican slang is that most of the time you can trace its roots to Mexico’s conflicted past. In this case, the word in question seems to go back all the way to the colonial era in Mexico, when the country was part of the Spanish empire.
During those times, the indigenous people in la Nueva España or “New Spain,” were basically slaves. Although they were supposed to be free men, indigenous people were forced to work for the Spanish Señor or “Lord,” who after the Spanish conquest became the landowners of most of the territory that had belonged to the indigenous.
This situation created a society of castes, with the Spanish on top of a complex pyramid based on the purity of blood and mixing of races.
Anyway, when the Spanish Señor called one person in any of the inferior levels of the pyramid, the expected reaction was one of submission and expediency. Hence the famous (or infamous) mande in Spanish. The indigenous person was expected to receive an order, so the right way for that person to answer was by asking for that order to be given. The meaning was more like “What can I do for you, my lord?” or even “Please give me an order so I can serve you.”
Mande vs Mande Usted
A second version of the mande reply in Spanish exists: mande usted. Saying mande usted is redundant, as the usted is implicit in the mande. If you were using the informal form of the second person tú, you would say mandas. So, there’s no need to add the usted.
However, it was a way of highlighting the difference in social positions between the two people engaging in the conversation. Only the person in the lower social position would call the other person usted. A Spanish Señor would have never called an indigenous or mixed-race person usted.
Imagine a Señor coming out of his comfortable hacienda to the edge of the working fields to call one of his workers shouting:
Juan hears that somebody is calling him, stops whatever he’s doing and runs to the hacienda to report himself with the Señor.
– ¿Qué? – Juan would inadvertently ask, only to receive a punch in his face while the Señor shouts angrily at him for answering with such disregard for the difference in social position between the two of them.
– ¡Mande! – the Señor would shout at Juan, commanding more respect.
– Mande usted. – Juan would say, defeated and with his dignity destroyed once again.
So, the mande usted form was just a way to underline that submission.
What About ‘Qué’?
¿Qué? or “What?” is the right way to answer in Spanish when you don’t understand a question or you’re not sure about what somebody is asking you. All that background about the origins of mande in Spanish is just an interesting reminder of how languages are living creatures that evolve in amazing ways.
When I was a child, my mother and every other Mexican mother I knew would educate their children to answer with a mande whenever they were called. Nobody stopped to think about the origin of the word or what it actually meant. It was just a custom that everybody would follow and nobody really knew why or when it had started.
If you ever hear someone replying with a mande in Spanish, understand that this is not a sign of submission, but just a person following an old tradition.
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In other words, say ¿qué? to answer when someone calls you. In Mexico the mande is still in use, but once you know the story of its origins, I don’t think anybody would recommend using it.
Now that you know how to reply in Spanish, book a free trial class with one of our native Spanish-speaking teachers and answer their questions the right way.
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