Here’s one of those common but troublesome words that seems to have a zillion unrelated meanings. The dictionary defines “chapa” as a sheet of metal, but depending upon what country you’re in, it can mean “padlock”, “license plate”, “auto body” or “police officer”. Even within some countries, it can carry multiple meanings which vary by context. Let’s take a look at two of its most common meanings, and the two which I heard used most frequently while living in Mexico:
1) “metal lock” or “padlock” – In urban Mexico, almost every house has a gate. When residents head out for the day, they secure the gates “con chapas”. These are the same as “candados”, which is the dictionary-approved term.
2) “police officer” – This usage comes from the metal “placas” or badges which police officers wear. In theory, the term “chapa” is a synonym of “placa”, but in colloquial speech it is used to refer to the police themselves: “¡Corre! ¡Vienen las chapas!”
Ironically enough, I have yet to hear the term used in its “correct” form, but I’ve also never needed to buy a sheet of metal in a Spanish-speaking country. It’s evident, however, that most of its colloquial uses are variations on a single theme; namely, the use of metal. There are a few esoteric exceptions however- in Spain, a “chapa” can be a boring speech or a homosexual act, and in Peru it is occasionally used as a synonym of “apodo” or nickname.
As a fun experiment, ask your Spanish-speaking friends what “chapa” means to them. You may get a variety of answers and discover that, for being such a simple word, no one totally agrees on its meaning. It’s worth archiving “chapa” in your brain just in case you hear it sometime, but rest assured that there are easier ways to express its myriad meanings- “candado”, “placa”, “carrocería” and “policía” are dictionary-tested ways to translate “padlock”, “license plate”, “auto body” and “police officer”, respectively. Default to these words and save “chapa” for street talk…