Colombia’s Special Word for ‘You’

After Altair Jaspe moved from Venezuela to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, she was taken aback by the way she was addressed when she walked into any shop, cafe or doctor’s office.

In a city that was once part of the Spanish empire, she was no longer “señora,” as she would have been called in Caracas, or perhaps, in her younger years, “muchacha” or “chama.” (Venezuelan terms for “girl” or “young woman.”)

Instead, all around her, she was awarded an honorific that felt more fitting for a woman in cape and crown: Your mercy.

Would your mercy like a coffee?

Will your mercy be taking the appointment at 3 p.m.?

Excuse me, your mercy, people told her as they passed in a doorway or elevator.

“It brought me to the colonial era, automatically,” said Ms. Jaspe, 63, a retired logistics manager, expressing her initial discomfort with the phrase. “To horses and carts,” she went on, “maybe even to slavery.”

“But after living it,” she went on, “I understood.”

In most of the Spanish-speaking world, the principal ways to say “you” are the casual “tú,” and the formal “usted.” But in Colombia there is another “you” — “su merced,” meaning, “your mercy,” “your grace” or even “your worship,” and now contracted to the more economical “sumercé.”

(In some parts of the Spanish-speaking world there is yet a different “you” employed — the hyper casual “vos.”)

In Bogotá, a city of eight million people nestled in the Andes Mountains, “sumercé” is ubiquitous, deployed not just by taxi drivers and shopkeepers to attend to clients (how can I help your mercy?), but also by children to refer to parents, parents to refer to children, and (sometimes with tender irony) even by husbands, wives and lovers to refer to each other (“would your mercy pass the salt?” or “your mercy, what do you think, should I wear these pants today?”).

It is used by the young and old, by urbanites and rural transplants, by Bogotá’s most recent past mayor (“trabaje juiciosa, sumercé!” she was once caught on camera yelling at a street vendor, “get to work, your mercy!”), and even by the front woman for one of the country’s best-known rock bands, Andrea Echeverri of Aterciopelados.

The Spanish founded Bogotá in 1538 after a brutal conquest of the Indigenous Muisca people, and the city soon became a center of colonial power.

“Sumercé” is indeed a relic of that era, and scholars have documented its use as a sign of courtesy in institutional relationships (a letter from the governor of Cuba to the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1518); a sign of respect in families (one brother-in-law to another in 1574); and, in particular, as a sign of servitude from slaves or servants to their masters.

But modern-day advocates of “sumercé” say that its current popularity lies in the fact that it has lost that hierarchical edge, and today signifies respect and affection, not reverence or a distinction of social class.

Ms. Jaspe said she eventually came to see “sumercé” as a casual term of endearment, as in “sumercé, qué bonito le queda ese sombrero.” (“Your mercy, how lovely that hat looks on you.”)

After Colombia gained its independence from the Spanish in the early 1800s, “sumercé” hung on in the department of Boyacá, a lush agricultural region in central Colombia, just north of Bogotá.

Jorge Velosa, a singer-songwriter and famous voice of Boyacá (he once played Madison Square Garden in the region’s traditional wool poncho, known as a ruana) recalled that in his childhood home “sumercé” was how he and his siblings referred to their mother, and their mother to referred to them.

“Sumercé,” he said, was a sort of middle ground between the stiff “usted” — used only in his house as a preamble to a scolding — and the almost overly casual “tú.”

Eventually, “sumercé” migrated south along with many Boyacenses, to Bogotá, becoming as much a part of the lexicon of central Colombia as “bacano” (cool), “chévere” (also cool), “parce” (friend), “paila” (difficult), “qué pena” (sorry) and “dar papaya.” (Literally, “give papaya,” but more figuratively, “act oblivious.” As in: “Your mercy, don’t act oblivious in the street, you’ll get robbed!”).

For the most part “your mercy” has remained a feature of central Colombia, and is rarely used on the country’s coasts, where “tú” is more common, or in cities like Cali (“vos”) and Medellín (“tu,” “usted” and sometimes “vos.”)

But in the capital and its surroundings, “sumercé” is emblazoned on hats, pins and T-shirts and incorporated into the names of restaurants and markets. It is the title of a new documentary about Colombian environmental activists. And it is celebrated in songs, podcasts and Colombian Spanish lessons across Spotify and YouTube.

“At this point it marks no social class,” said Andrea Rendón, 40, of Bogotá. “We are all sumercé.”

A recently released music video, “Sumercé,” by the rapper Wikama Mc, embodies the folk-cool status the phrase has achieved.

In a house party scene that could be set almost anywhere in the Colombian Andes, the artist sports a ruana while celebrating the “Colombian flow” of the female object of his affection, who he brags “dances carranga” — folk music popularized by Mr. Velosa — and also reggaeton, modern party beats popularized by international megacelebrities like J. Balvin.

“Talk to me straight, sumercé,” he raps, before offering his girlfriend a cordial tip of his traditional felt hat.

The song has attracted more than 18,000 views since it was uploaded to YouTube in December. Impressive, considering the artist has 500 followers on the platform.

Ms. Echeverri, the rock star, linked her use of the phrase to a punk aesthetic, which seeks a “horizontal” relationship with everyday people. (In a recent video interview she used it to draw the program’s host closer, speaking of a remake of one of “those songs that maybe your mercy has heard so many times.”)

Sumercé, she explained in a separate interview, “is affectionate, but also respectful.”

Not everyone sees it that way, of course. Carolina Sanín, a well-known writer, has criticized those who argue that “sumercé” is so ubiquitous in Colombia that it should be embraced, uncritically, as a cultural norm.

Even in a region known for its pronounced inequality, Colombia’s class divisions remain particularly entrenched. It takes the average poor Colombian 11 generations to reach the national median income, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, two more than in Brazil, three more than in Chile and five more than in Argentina.

Decades of violence have reinforced these barriers, allowing a small group to amass capital and territory. To some, “sumercé” can feel like a perpetuation or even a celebration of these hierarchical relationships.

“Not paying into the social system and accumulating land have also been referred to as ‘our custom,’” Ms. Sanín wrote on Twitter.

“Words are important,” she continued. “With words, paths to justice are forged.”

A linguist in Bogotá, Javier Guerrero-Rivera, recently surveyed 40 Colombian university students, and found that 85 percent said they were not bothered by the term, and felt a sense of respect and tenderness when it was directed at them. Another 10 percent felt indifferent toward the phrase. Just 5 percent said the term was dismissive or made them uncomfortable.

Juan Manuel Espinosa, deputy director of the Caro and Cuervo Institute, which is dedicated to studying the particularities of Colombian Spanish, said that he believed the social division described by people like Ms. Sanín was precisely what attracted many Colombians to the word.

“‘Sumercé’ is a way to create a connection in a very fragmented society,” he said.

Jhowani Hernández, 42, who operates office cleaning machines, described using “your mercy” with his wife, Beatriz Méndez, 50, a housekeeper, “cuando me saca la piedra” (Colombian for “when she makes me angry”) but mostly “para dar cariño” (“to show affection”).

Still, Daniel Sánchez, 31, a documentary filmmaker in Bogotá, said that he had moved away from using “sumercé,” after he began thinking about “the whole background of the phrase,” meaning “that servile and colonialist thing that is not so cool.”

Now, when he wants to convey respect and affection, he employs a different, less fraught Colombianism: “Veci,” meaning simply “neighbor.” As in: “Veci, don’t give papaya in the street, you’ll get robbed.”

Simón Posada contributed reporting from Bogotá.