Spanish Idioms

Who you callin’ an idiom?!

Don’t worry, an idiom is not an insult, though the two words (idiot/idiom) do share a common etymology from Greek. While “idiom” refers to a phrase or saying particular to one place or language, “idiot” also originated from a patronizing way to refer to an ignorant layman or a “private person” who was isolated or outside of the public community.

So what makes an idiom an idiom? Thinking of the Greek root idio- (meaning “one’s own, personal, or distinct”) is helpful here, because an idiom is often like a private or inside joke inside a community. A word-for-word-translation of an idiom will often leave another speaker scratching their head because of the figurative or metaphorical meaning which can be completely unrelated to the literal meaning of the phrase. Idioms often have long, disputed histories where they’ve undergone shifts in meaning several times to arrive at the current understanding in a culture or language.

In some cases, different figurative idioms have evolved with the same meaning in different languages. For example, the English idiom “kick the bucket” means to die. But, interestingly, other languages have similar idioms to playfully describe a sensitive topic like death: kopnąć w kalendarz (“kick the calendar”) in Polish, casser sa pipe (“to break his pipe”) in French and tirare le cuoia (“pulling the leather”) in Italian.

Using Spanish Idioms

There are an estimated 400 million native Spanish speakers in the world. Spanish is also the official language of 20 different countries. As you might imagine, the Spanish spoken in these diverse places differs in many respects. Luckily, depending on where you plan to use your Spanish, you can select Latin American or European Spanish when signing up for Lingvist’s online Spanish course. Idioms can be shared by the worldwide community of speakers or be as regional as to find use only in a certain county or province. This means that there are thousands of idioms to discover while learning Spanish!

As you may have guessed, because idioms are so particular to a language or region, knowing when to use an idiom can be tricky for a non-native speaker. A great way to get familiar with idioms is through authentic media, such as Spanish podcasts, movies in Spanish, or social media. Of course, you’ll need your level of non-idiomatic Spanish to be high enough to recognize when a phrase doesn’t quite make sense, so make sure to sign up for Lingvist’s online Spanish course to improve your overall level of Spanish.

Idioms stick together like white on rice

One important tip to keep in mind is that idioms usually function as whole lexical units, meaning that they act more like a single word in a sentence than individual ones. For example, in English it would sound strange to say “The bucket was kicked by the man” because “kicked the bucket” acts like one word that can’t be split up or moved around. This means that as a Spanish learner, you should approach idioms as new vocabulary items. In general, though, you can change the verb in an idiom to match the person/gender of the subject.

Spanish Idioms

The use of idioms (just like slang) is always changing as it spreads through global media and interaction between cultures. The following idioms are divided into European or Latin American, based on where they’re more popular, but feel free to try them out with Spanish speakers worldwide – you’re sure to have a fun discussion either way!

Without further ado, check out these Spanish idioms!

Latin American Spanish expressions:

Latin American Spanish IdiomEnglish Literal TranslationSimilar English IdiomCountry
Sólo quien carga el cajón sabe lo que pesa el muertoOnly the one who loads the drawer knows what the dead person weighsNo one else can understand another’s burden but the bearerMexico
Matar pulgas a balazosTo kill fleas with bulletsTo use a sledgehammer to crack a nutMexico
Ratón que corre ligero patina llegando a la cuevaA rat which runs quickly slides when entering its holeHaste makes waste / Rome wasn’t built in a dayPuerto Rico
No hay que vender el cuero antes de matar al venadoThe leather must not be sold before killing the deerDon’t sell the fur until you’ve killed the bear / Don’t count your chickens before they hatchGuatemala
Cuando digo iguana es porque le he visto el raboWhen I say iguana, it’s because I’ve seen the tailTo know something like the back of your handPanama
Con tigre delante no hay burro con reumatismoThere aren’t any donkeys with rheumatism when there’s a tiger aroundSurvival of the fittestVenezuela
Después de ojo sacado no vale Santa LucíaAfter you lose an eye there’s no use in (praying to) Santa Lucia (Patron Saint of Eye Illnesses)What’s done is doneColombia
Porque me veas vestido de lana no creas que soy ovejaJust because you see me dressed in wool, don’t think that I’m a sheepBeauty is only skin deepUruguay
A cada cual le llega su santoEveryone meets their saintTo meet one’s WaterlooArgentina
Cuando el río suena piedras traeWhen the river sounds, it’s bringing stonesThere is no smoke without fireCuba
European Spanish IdiomEnglish Literal TranslationSimilar English Idiom
De tal palo tal astillaA splinter is like the wood it came fromThe apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
Ahogarse en un vaso de aguaTo drown in a glass of waterTo make a mountain out of a molehill
Costar un ojo de la cara / un riñónTo cost an eye of one’s face / a kidneyTo cost an arm and a leg
El hábito no hace al monjeThe habit doesn’t make the monkClothes don’t make the man
Saber algo de muy buena fuenteTo know something from a very good sourceTo hear something straight from the horse’s mouth
¡Que me quiten lo bailado!Let them take away what I have danced!We’ll always have Paris
Andar a la carreraTo walk at a “race” paceGo pedal-to-the-metal
¡A otro perro con ese hueso!Take that bone to another dogYou’re pulling my leg
Nunca llueve a gusto de todosIt never rains to everyone’s likingYou can’t please everyone
Hablar a mil por horaTo talk a thousand per hourTo talk a mile a minute
Tomar el peloTo pull someone’s hairTo pull someone’s leg
Ser pan comidoTo be eaten breadTo be a piece of cake
Dar en el clavoTo hit the nailTo hit the nail on the head
Entre la espada y la paredBetween the sword and the wallTo be between a rock and a hard place
Matar dos pájaros de un tiroTo kill two birds with one throwTo kill two birds with one stone
Perder los estribosTo lose the stirrupsTo fly off the handle
Estar como una cabraTo be like a goatTo be a little nuts
No tener pelos en la lenguaTo not have any hairs on your tongueTo tell it like it is
Estar hecho un ajíTo be made a chiliTo be made angry

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