If you spend any significant amount of time socializing in México, or even here in some parts of the US, “¿Qué onda?” is a question you simply can’t escape from. Like tacos or mezcal, it is an absolute staple of Méxican culture! So let’s take a look at the meaning of this phrase and its origins.
A common greeting in Mexico and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, “¿Qué onda?” doesn’t have a truly direct translation. The word “onda” in Spanish is the English equivalent of “wave” or “ripple.” So if you took it literally, “¿Qué onda?” would technically mean “What wave?” Certainly, that doesn’t sound like it adds up to much. However, it’s actually an informal greeting that can be more of less interpreted as “What’s up?” Now, you’re probably asking yourself how you get from one to the other, right? Well, “¿Qué onda?” is an expression that took hold in the youth culture of México during the 1960s, and is still in high use today. “Ondas” here are not only “waves” in the seafaring sense, but also in the same way we talk about radio waves or invisible influencing forces – in other words: it’s a way to ask how are things going or what is happening. Another way to use this expression is by adding mala or buena to onda to describe a person or situation. For instance, “¡Qué buena onda!” is a great way to respond to a friend who just told you she got a raise at work. Or you could also say “Mi jefe es buena/mala onda” depending on how much you esteem your boss. Like so many Mexicanisms, it is versatile and highly malleable.
Along with ¿Qué paso?, ¿Qué tal?, and the vulgar ¿Qué pedo?, “¿Qué onda?” is a pretty straight-forward way to say “what’s up” to someone in México. Nonetheless, it is important to note that with a few hand gestures and a change in the tone of your voice, “¿Qué onda?” goes from “what’s up” to “do you got a problem?” in a hurry, so be careful with how you use it!