Published November 17, 2014
NEW YORK -- It can be tossed off almost harmlessly like "damn" or dropped like an F-bomb.
On the streets of New York's diverse Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, it can be heard expressing joy, frustration and outrage.
Perhaps most notoriously in pop culture, it punctuated the film dialogue of 1983's "Scarface."
Now a public high school teacher is suing the city after he was suspended and fined $15,000 for what school officials say was misconduct for using it in his Manhattan classroom.
The word, "cono," (COHN'-yoh) can be offensive. But that sometimes depends on how it's used and which ethnic group is using it.
It's literal translation refers to the female sexual organs, according to the Royal Spanish Academy in Spain. But the institution charged with regulating the Spanish language says the word also can express "diverse states of emotion, especially surprise or anger."
The teacher, Carlos Garcia, declined to be interviewed. But his attorney, Sergio Villaverde, said his client didn't use the word. He also claims the court interpreter mistranslated the term during Garcia's disciplinary hearings.
"The interpreter didn't understand the way that the word is used," Villaverde said.
But Bruce Rosenbaum, a city attorney, said "the hearing officer properly found that Mr. Garcia used inappropriate language in class and that the penalty imposed was warranted."
New York is home to tens of thousands of immigrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean. One ethnic group's profanity can be another's everyday slang.
Among immigrants from the Dominican Republic, where Garcia is from, the word is so widely accepted it became the focus of a popular online video clip.
The chameleonlike nature of the word is exemplified in the video clip posted by Sir Nube Negra called "Speak Fluent Dominican" where the host gives examples of "cono" to express: "Damn, girl, looking fine. Very Nice," "Stop bothering me!" and "I heard your mother died. I am so sorry."
In one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods, Jackson Heights, there was disagreement over the degree to which the word could be considered profane -- and whether a teacher should be punished for uttering it in the classroom.
Michael Izquierdo, a Dominican-born worker at a nutritional supplements shop, said that the word can be pronounced when you're happy, sad or agitated.
"El cono is used for everything," he said, adding that a teacher could use it to commend a student without it being considered offensive. "It just depends on the tone that you are using with it."
But Augusto Ayala, a worker at a nearby coin-operated laundry, said the word is considered lewd by Ecuadoreans like him -- and best avoided among strangers.
"If you don't know the person, you can't use it with him," said the 42-year-old from Cuenca.
Down the street at a bakery, 85-year-old Dolores Melo said it depends on where the person who speaks it is from.
"For example, in Colombia we're not accustomed to using it," said the retiree, who is from Cali but has lived in New York for 40 years.
She had some sympathy for teachers who use the word in the classroom -- but not much.
"For an educated person, that word isn't right," she said. " If you're going to teach children, well, it's also not good for you to say it."
Feliciano Gonzalez, 47, selling produce outside at a nearby farmers market, said he didn't think that a teacher saying the word in class merited punishment. "In my country, Mexico, it's not a bad word," he said, adding that he might use it if he were accidentally hurt, like in the phrase, "Ay, cono me di."
"In different countries, it's bad, and in others, it's not," he said.
Ricardo Otheguy, a professor of linguistics at the City University of New York and founder of a language research institute there, said context, intonation, whether it was fully articulated and the extent to which its use was premeditated would need to be assessed to determine whether its use was objectionable.
Nevertheless, he said the term is an expletive. "I don't think there is any getting out of that," he said in an e-mail.
The city's Department of Education accused the tenured teacher of inappropriately bandying about "cono" in class between 2008 and 2009 at the High School of International Business and Finance in a predominantly Dominican neighborhood.
Garcia's lawsuit says a hearing officer inappropriately relied on a court interpreter as a witness, and that the regulation of acceptable language in the classroom is vague. "There are no list of words that are prohibited," he said.
One student testified at a hearing earlier this year that Garcia would use "cono" when the classroom was unruly. Another student, identified as G.T., testified he had heard Garcia drop it at least three times a week.
During cross examination, G.T. said he didn't "really know" what "cono" meant in English.
"You don't know what it means?" asked Damon S. Levenstien, an attorney who represented Garcia at the hearing.
"Well, in Dominican Republic, like, people say it all the time, but for other people, like it means something," G.T. said. "They feel bad when people call them that."
The hearing officer wasn't tone-deaf to the word's mutability, calling it "a Spanish idiomatic expression."
"As such, its meaning cannot be discerned by looking to a literal translation," Martin F. Scheinman wrote in his decision. "Rather, as with any idiom, the meaning must be determined from the context in which the word is used."
He said there was sufficient evidence to support school officials' argument that Garcia had "lost composure and engaged in impermissible conduct for an educator."
"Cono" is not the first word to cause confusion or consternation in the U.S.
For instance, "Cojones," which literally translates to "testicles," can be a slang expression for strength or boldness. Volkswagen AG used the expression "Turbo-Cojones" on a series of billboards in 2006, but pulled the campaign in three cities, including New York, after a backlash from Spanish speakers.
Nevertheless, context is key in a multilingual, pan-Hispanic metropolis -- though it's not everything.
"In a setting where people of so many different Latin American origins come together, the norms of what constitutes acceptable language in a classroom, and what constitutes vulgarity or profanity, might perhaps be more relaxed than in the home countries," Otheguy, the linguist, said. "But it remains true that cono is probably a word to be avoided in the classroom."