The first Chilean I ever met, (to my knowledge at least), let's call her P, convinced me with each conversation following our introduction that she had mistaken me for someone else. As far as I was aware, she could recognise my face, my conversation and even my Facebook profile. What she seemed to struggle with was my name.
Now "Lizzie" is not too complicated to remember. Granted in a spanish-speaking mouth it either transforms into the god-awful "Lithie" or the quite smooth-sounding "Lissie". I also answer to "Liz" and, occasionally, "Elizabeth". I'm not fussed. I answer to a "you" or grunt or even an impassioned gesture in my general direction. P, however, seemed to think my name was "Po". An odd predicament.
Imagine my surprise (and concern) upon my arrival in Chile to find that almost everybody I met suffered from the same confusion as P. "Po" seemed to me a ubiquitous character, looming over every conversation; addressed at the end of every affirmative (yes) or negative (no). Should I leave my number? "Sí po." Do you sell facewash? "No po." Shall we watch a movie? "Claro* po!"
After grasping that this "po" was used more as a filler than a form of addressing me, I was struck by two fascinating facets of this omnipresent word:
1. It's only used in Chile. (And it's used like it's going out of fashion.)
2. No one seems to know where it comes from.
Both these points are interesting on different levels. The first because it is very rare to encounter a linguistic element in isolation in Latin America, given that the majority of the countries speak the same language. You can hear the use of "Chevre" (cool) in both Colombia and Venezuela. "Vos" is used instead of "Tú" (you) in Argentina, El Salvador and pockets of other countries. But in the art of "Po", Chile seems to stand alone.
The second point is interesting because, in all fairness I haven't dedicated that many-an-hour to the study of the origins of "po", and yet it seems that the general public (or at least the general public within my vicinity) are no better informed that I. The most interesting theory I've heard, which is highly plausible, is that it is a Chinese expression that has serruptitiously infiltrated the language. From where? I hear you ask, as did I. Well, in short, a couple of hundred years ago there was this little scuffle (or rather large scuffle) between Peru, Bolivia and Chile, known as the War of the Pacific. It is generally acknowledged that Chile emerged the winner of the war, and this is (according to legend and some sources) largely due to the fact that mistreated Chinese labourers from Peru defected and migrated to Chile, joining the Chilean army and thus strengthening their numbers. There is some argument that points towards the strength of the indigenous people of Chile warming to the Chinese for their similarity in appearance, but this is hard to prove on many levels.
I will probably never find where this "po" comes from, when or how he began, or perhaps even why he continues to hang on the end of every Chilean sentence. In short, no sé po...
*Claro= Of course