10 Fun Spanish Idioms

This month has me teaching intensive English courses and setting up theater plays for my younger students. Spain’s having its first heatwave of the year, and a student of mine may have puked orange salmorejo right on my shoes. On the upside, I’ve had three of my old college roommates and a few other friends come visit me in Spain over the past couple of months, which has made for memorable weekends and a much-needed change of pace.

This week, I’ll entertain you with funny Spanish sayings that crack me up:


1. De perdidos, al río.

Literal translation: From lost, to the river.
Real meaning: In for a penny, in for a pound; we’ve nothing to lose!

I’ve also heard this expression when there’s been a generous pouring of wine and beer, which makes me think it also means “from drunk to wasted”.


2. Dos tetas tiran más que dos carretas.

I learned this one from one of the very cheeky school directors I used to work with. She asked me if D-Man would be coming to visit me in the States that summer, and I told her it hadn’t crossed my mind since we had just begun dating. She slyly responded with, “Remember…dos tetas tiran más que dos carretas.”

Literal translation: A pair of breasts are more powerful than a pair of oxen.
Meaning: Don’t underestimate the power of a woman’s influence.


3. Media naranja.

This one’s just cute.

Literal translation: Orange half.
Real meaning: Soul mate.



4. ¡Se te va a pasar el arroz!

Though this is usually directed at women, D-Man gets this from his family all the time because he’s (mutually) in no rush to have children yet.

Literal translation: Your rice is going to overcook!
Real meaning: Your biological clock is ticking.


5. ¡No me tomes el pelo!

My elementary-school students and I have an inside joke where if a student is absent, the next day, when he/she student shows up to class, we all pretend there’s an exam. The previously absent student briefly freaks out before realizing we’re all grinning mischievously, and will occasionally exclaim: “¡Paréis de tomarme el pelo!”

Literal translation: Quit pulling my hair.
Meaning: Quit pulling my leg.


6. Poner los cuernos.

Literal translation: Put the horns on (someone).
Real meaning: To cheat on someone; to be unfaithful.

I can only assume that this expression comes from Spain’s bull-fighting subculture. Since el torero is the one leading the bull on before making the bull another victim in the sport of bullfighting, perhaps putting a pair of horns on someone means you’re making them the bull and a victim of your infidelity.

Update: Shannon has shed light on the origins of ‘poner los cuernos’: “…in English lit of yore, cuckolds were referred to/depicted as wearing horns (a nod to the mating habits of stags, who lose their mates if they lose to another stag in a fight and thus are left holding only their horns). Of course, that could all be total coincidence…oddly enough, there’s a phrase in Russian that roughly translates to the same thing: “наставить рога” is “one who attaches horns” but really means more “one who has cheated on someone”.


7. ¡Qué fuerte!

Adding a bit of street Spanish to the mix, ¡qué fuerte! is usually used as an expression of exclamation or surprise. There’s no equivalent in English, and the closest thing it would translate to would be something along the lines of, ‘Holy crap!’ or ‘No way!’.

Literal translation: How strong!


8. Ni harto de vino.

A favorite.

Literal translation: Not even if I were drunk (on wine).
Meaning: Over my dead body. Not in a million years.


9. ¡Qué mala leche!

Literal translation: What rotten milk!
Real meaning: To be in a horrible mood, to have a bad temper (and bad intentions), or to have bad luck.


10. !No me toques los cojones!

Once upon a time, I found myself locked in a 4-hour car drive to Vegas with D-Man and our friend Jeremy (we were meeting more friends in Vegas). D-Man and Jeremy were sitting up front, having an English-Spanish intercambio. Jeremy wanted to know how to pick up girls and fend for himself on his next trip to Spain, and this was one of the manly phrases D-Man thought important.

Literal translation:
“Don’t touch my balls.”
Meaning: Don’t mess with me.


What funny expressions do you know in other languages? :)


45 thoughts on “10 Fun Spanish Idioms

  1. Brilliant – they kind of so make sense when you think about them and are probably no less odd than some of our English language ones ;) I think we´ve all made the classic mistakes too (well, you probably less than me as I was a beginner) of getting words all mixed up or not understanding the double meanings – like huevos!

    • Yes, the huevos one I didn’t even know! And it’s curious how in English huevos are usually assigned to the female. I definitely entertain myself with the literal translations, they’re hilarious and I love that they sometimes make no sense at all!

  2. Haha I loved reading this post! Spanish is full of weird phrases. One of my favorites is “estar aburrido como una ostra” – literally “to be as bored as an oyster.” But it actually means “bored to death.” Thanks for a fun post!

    • Happy as a clam, bored as an oyster. It seems shellfish are entitled to their personalities! ;)
      I think every language has its odd phrases – even our modern day ones are pretty whack if you stop to think of them. I’ve heard people say really strange things, only to find that it’s some reference to pop culture I’m not familiar with… like Jersey Shore. >:(

  3. I was wondering what happened to you in blogging land- busy busy busy with work!

    Loved this post. I’ll have to read this a few times to commit these idioms to memory. I like how you included little stories or tid-bits from your experiences!

    • You know what they say: you learn the best through experiences! I’ve been über busy, but I’m definitely going to catch up on my reading tomorrow morning. I haven’t forgotten you!

      P.S. Can’t wait to see you and A. next week! :) I’ll email back in a bit.

  4. Ooh I love ‘orange half’! I love learning expressions in other languages…I can’t think of any funny ones at the moment, but now I find sometimes I’ll want to express a feeling, but it’ll be a phrase I learned in Chinese or French and there’s no equivalent in English (like ¡Qué fuerte!), and then I spend all this time trying to explain the phrase to an uninterested friend because I prefer it to any English substitute. Aren’t languages great?

    • Learning expressions are one of my favorite things about languages. It gives you a different way of seeing things, and even allows you a different way of FEELING, if that makes sense. The ¡qué fuerte! one is great, because that’s exactly how it feels sometimes – STRONG, almost like a shove to your chest.

      By the way, I’ve heard of great Chinese expressions that have had me rolling. Having a “bad temper” in Chinese translates as “to eat dynamite”, and a whiny, spoiled brat is referred to as having the “princess disease”. I love it!

  5. #6 actually exists in German and Italian, too! There’s even a verb in German. ;)
    My favorite idiom is from Bulgaria (of course!”) “Plashish kutsche sas salam” “You’re trying to scare a dog with salami” – I guess the meaning is obvious ;)

    • Italian and German, too?! WHERE did that phrase come from? I was confused by it for the longest time, and kept asking David why the CHEATER didn’t wear the horns, thinking that the “horns” meant you were devilish or something. I finally got that it was the victim who got them… and came up with said conclusion. I’d really love to know where it came from and WHY.

      Haha, I love “You’re trying to scare a dog with salami”. I’m going to try to use it. :)

      • The phrase comes from the notion a millennium ago about a cuckold, a man married to an adulterous wife, envisioned as wearing horns…alluding to the defeated stag who forfeits his doe when defeated by a stronger buck. It’s a common word-picture in most European languages due to the pervasiveness of Catholic thought in the middle ages. ;-)

    • Haha, I loved it! I totally forgot to mention the “Estoy hasta los cojones” one, but perhaps one ball one was enough. They really are quite obsessed with their cojones here!

  6. In Afrikaans:

    “Elke pot het a deksel”
    Literally: Every pot has a lid
    Figuratively: Every person has a soul-mate


    “Stille water dieper grond; onder draai die duiwel rond!”
    Literally: Still waters, deeper ground; the devil churns beneath
    Figuratively: Not everything is as innocent as it seems / the quiet ones are the most dangerous.

    There are loads more! This was so much fun :)

    • Oooh, the still waters one has an unsettling and poetic feel to it… I like it.
      In Spanish there’s a similar phrase: “Mosquita muerta”, which means “dead fly”, and makes me laugh because all I can visualize is a fly playing dead before picking itself up off the windowsill and buzzing around again.

    • In Spanish for this one it would be “Del agua mansa libreme Dios, que de la brava me libro yo” and the literal translation would sound something like: Save me God from the meek water, I’ll save myself from the wild one. (Sort of…)

  7. If Jeremy’s trying to pick up women, I don’t think he’s going to tell them: “don’t touch my balls.” LOL

  8. ooh fun list! Love the orange half. I’m going to to all language nerd here on #6…I wonder if the Spanish saying has any ties to the archaic English “cuckold” (the husband of an unfaithful woman)…cuckold is an old English term derived from cuckoo (I guess because the female flits from mate to mate?)…so anyhow on to the horns…in English lit of yore, cuckolds were referred to/depicted as wearing horns (a nod to the mating habits of stags, who lose their mates if they lose to another stag in a fight and thus are left holding only their horns). Of course, that could all be total coincidence…oddly enough, there’s a phrase in Russian that roughly translates to the same thing: “наставить рога” is “one who attaches horns” but really means more “one who has cheated on someone”.

    • First of all, I love it when nerds go all nerd.
      Second, it’s really, REALLY interesting to me that cuckolds were depicted as wearing horns as a symbol of stags’ mating habits in old English lit. That’s two victims of infidelity in the animal kingdom rolled into one (and OF COURSE the female is implied as the wrongdoer). Not to mention the idiom is found in Russian, German, AND Italian. I think your explanation of the idiom might be right on the money.

    • There are a ton I forgot! I did this quick list off the top of my head, and it looks like I’ll have to include a Part 2! I love “no pasa nada”. It’s Spain’s hakuna matata. :)

  9. Very fun post! I especially liked your explanations of what they mean. As a language lover myself, it’s always cool to see how other cultures represent different ideas through words.

    • A friend once told me that dominating another language gives you a “new soul”. You become familiar with different ways of expressing ideas, and it really allows you to see things in another culture’s perspective!

  10. I love it! Will be travelling to Spain with my husband and his family at the end of July, and I’ll be practicing “media naranja” as it’s a cute one. But I guess I should really be ready to fend off any comments about my “rice” possibly “over cooking”, since we have no babies on the horizon ;) Love the blog!

    • Well you know what they (as in they, I mean me) say: When you have overcooked rice, make ARROZ CON LECHE! (It’s one of my favorite desserts). I’m not sure if you can start out making it with already cooked rice, but it’s worth a try!

  11. fun, fun, fun post!! Lifelong Spanish learner here and I only knew of one of these. always fun to learn more! I love media naranja too :)

    • I already have another 10 ready for a future post. After I posted this one, I realized there were so many others I had forgotten about!

    • I have fun teaching my students English expressions (even as simple as ones like “easy breezy”), and then giving them the literal translation in Spanish. They think we’re an odd people.

    • Just memorize these and their contexts, and then randomly throw them out at first opportunity. I’m sure you’ll get plenty of hoots! (Errr, be careful with the rice one though).

  12. I just came across your blog and this post, which I love. Idioms are so much fun! I wanted to mention that for the first idiom I have generally heard the English equivalent “in for a penny, in for a pound.” (Although in more casual settings I tend toward the poker-inspired “might as well go all in!”)

  13. Once I heard on the radio that “to put the horns on someone” comes from the Viking tradition. The chief could have sex with any wife in the clan, but he did not want to be disturbed doing it, so he used to hang a horn on the door so the husbands will know what was going on. ;)

    I hope I have helped you!
    Love the post!


  14. I am afraid to say that the first one, “De perdidos, al río”, doesn’t mean what you said. It is not “from better to worse” but more something you would say when you are in a bad situation or you have a problem, and the only solution (or the only one that seems feasible at the moment) is to do something even worse. Then you say “De perdidos al río”, some sort of “Fuck it, there is nothing else I can do, and even if I know that it might be worse doing this, at least I don’t stay here doing nothing”. I am not too sure if I am making myself clear enough :)

    The “from better to worse” in Spanish is “Salir de la sartén para meterse en el fuego” (Leave the pan to jump onto the fire) or “Salir de Guatemala para meterse en Guatepeor” (so, Leave Guatemala to get into Guateworse. Obviously, Guateworse doesn’t exist, but as “mala” in Spanish means “bad”, we just change it to “worse” to make the idiom ;)).

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