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Words to the Wise: 9 Famous Spanish Proverbs and Idioms

What should you not throw to pigs?

If you answered “pearls,” then there’s a good chance you’re an English speaker who’s familiar with the saying “don’t cast pearls before swine.”

And you probably also know that the phrase is a metaphor warning us not to waste good things (pearls) on bad people who won’t appreciate them (pigs).

But wait, what if you answered “margaritas” instead of pearls? 

If you did, then there’s a good chance that you’re a Spanish speaker who learned a very similar phrase, only when you heard it, people told you that those nasty pigs just wouldn’t appreciate margaritas—the Spanish word for “daisies,” as well as a common Spanish name and a famous, boozy cocktail.

But whatever language you learn the saying in, they both contain the same pearl of wisdom.

Today we’ll take a closer look at nine famous (and sometimes funny) Spanish proverbs and idioms and compare them with their English equivalents.

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How Can Proverbs Help You Learn Spanish?

Picking up proverbs is a fun and useful way to learn Spanish words quickly. With them, you’ll also gain deeper insight into the inner workings and historical meanings of words in any language. The only catch is that they tend to be difficult to learn if you have no comparison for them in your own tongue. The same goes for idioms, which are similar to proverbs in that they convey deeper meaning than the words they’re comprised of.

However, as you’ll soon see in the following sampling of Spanish phrases, idioms differ from proverbs in that they’re far less understandable on their own if you don’t already know some background information about them. In fact, the two Spanish idioms we’ve included below are all but unintelligible without first knowing what they mean!

And what should you do if you finish this post and realize that you’ve been bitten by the proverb bug?

There are many more common phrases and proverbs where these came from! Try these lovely resources to scratch the proverbial itch:

  • Frases Célebres: A categorized online resource of famous phrases and quotes, all presented in Spanish.
  • Proverbia: Another excellent Spanish phrase resource, this one is categorized by themes such as “nature” and “feelings.”

You can also pick up many proverbs, idioms and saying just by consuming authentic Spanish media. And you can do this with an extra-special leaning punch thanks to FluentU.

FluentU takes real-world videos, like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into Spanish learning experiences.

Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.

FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:

FluentU App Browse Screen

FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.

FluentU Videos with Interactive Captions

Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.

Interactive Transcripts on FluentU

Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.

FluentU Has Quizzes for Every Video

The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning the same video.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store for iOS and Android devices.

Now let’s look at nine well-known Spanish proverbs, including explanations of their meanings and examples of when and how to use them. As if that weren’t enough, I’ve also tracked down the English equivalents of each of these phrases so that you can grasp their meaning on a deeper level and relate them to English concepts you probably already know.

Some of these proverbs may just surprise you with how closely they resemble their English counterparts!

Words to the Wise: 9 Famous Spanish Proverbs and Idioms

Proverbs

1. Más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando.

Literal Translation: A bird in hand is worth more than a hundred in flight.

English Counterpart: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

This Spanish phrase is actually a near-perfect replica of its English counterpart, and the proverb’s meaning remains the same in both English and Spanish, regardless of where the other birds are or how many there may be.

Essentially, what you already have at the moment is more valuable than what you don’t.

When to Use This Phrase:

You can safely bust out this phrase whenever you realize that something you have right now is of greater immediate importance to you than something you may be considering.

For instance, you’ve ordered a meal that isn’t quite what you had in mind… ¡Más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando!

2. Cuando el gato va a sus devociones, ¡bailan los ratones!

Literal Translation: When the cat goes to his devotions, the rats dance!

English Counterpart: When the cat’s away, the mice will play.

This classic Spanish rhyme is actually a classic English rhyme as well. Both versions work well in verse and carry an identical message.

Give or take dancing rats for playing mice, and the meaning of this Spanish saying remains the same as its English counterpart.

When to Use This Phrase:

There are numerous occasions into which you could slip this phrase. For example, when you notice someone doing something you know they’d never do in the presence of an authority figure (such as when you see an unattended child diving headfirst into a chocolate cake), this phrase will fit right in.

3. Del dicho al hecho hay un buen trecho.

Literal Translation: From speech to deed there is a good stretch.

English Counterpart: Talk is cheap.

A reference to the divide between the talkers and the time-wasters in life, this phrase takes a charming metaphorical approach to saying, in essence, that talk is cheap.

You could also compare this to “talking the talk and walking the walk.” The meaning is much the same.

When to Use This Phrase:

This phrase is perfect for disputing questionable claims.

For example, if you’ve been promised your very own cafetal (coffee farm) in exchange for a hair dryer, then this is the phrase to use.

4. El hábito no hace al monje.

Literal Translation: The habit does not make the monk.

English Counterpart: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

We all know what it means to judge a book by its cover, but native Spanish-speakers might be a bit more familiar with the perils of judging a monk by his habit. It’s a valuable, albeit interestingly expressed insight.

When to Use This Phrase:

You certainly don’t need to be in a monastery to make use of this slightly ecclesiastical proverb!

All you need is a person, place or thing worthy of being judged by their substance as opposed to their outwardly beauty (or lack thereof).

You can succinctly remind others of this important philosophical inclination with a quick “El hábito no hace al monje.”

5. De tal palo, tal astilla.

Literal Translation: From such a branch, such a twig.

English Counterpart: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Yes, these two branch-centric proverbs mean essentially the same thing.

In other words, if one person or thing begat the other, they’re bound to be similar in some ways.

When to Use This Phrase:

This phrase is mostly fit for pointing out familial similarities (in appearance or otherwise).

For example, if you meet someone who bears a striking resemblance to their mother, you can quite astutely state “de tal palo, tal astilla” and they’ll nod in deference to your worldly wisdom.

6. Hablando del rey de Roma, por la puerta asoma.

Literal Translation: Speaking of the king of Rome, he’s appearing at the door.

English Counterpart: Speak of the devil and he shall appear.

The king of Rome might not have known about this phrase as it’s used to describe that uncomfortable instance in which someone you’re speaking ill of suddenly appears.

We use the English equivalent similarly, although it’s not usually considered negative if you only say “speak of the devil” when you see a person you’ve just been talking about. Instead, it means just that: Hey, we were just talking about you!

When to Use This Phrase:

In Spanish, this is the type of proverb that’s only used in uncomfortable situations, so hopefully you won’t need to use it at all.

However, if you ever find yourself discussing someone’s bad breath just as they come bustling through the door, you can maybe soften the blow by calling them the king of Rome.

7. Echar margaritas a los cerdos / Arrojar perlas a los cerdos

Literal Translation: Give daisies to the hogs. / Cast pearls to the hogs.

English Counterpart: Cast/throw your pearls before swine.

The Bible brought us the popular proverb “Do not cast your pearls before swine,” but the Spanish language brings us a slightly different expression than the original Bible verse.

“Echar margaritas a los cerdos” translates to “give daisies to the hogs,” and it’s commonly used to express the same sentiment as the biblical phrase.

Of course, Spanish versions of the Holy Bible translate the actual phrase a bit more accurately as “arrojar perlas a los cerdos” or “cast pearls to the hogs.” If the Bible reference doesn’t have you convinced, the phrase is even dropped into the lyrics of the Shakira song “La Tortura,” so you know it’s legit.

When to Use This Phrase:

This proverb is great for casual use—with or without actual pigs. As we already discussed in the intro, this is a good go-to proverb when people just don’t appreciate you or your efforts.

Ideally, you could mix this phrase into deep discussions on wasted time and bad company. Just as a flower would go to waste if served to a feral hog, good ideas and intelligent thoughts are all but wasted on poor company.

Idioms

8. Costar un ojo de la cara

Literal Translation: To cost an eye from the face.

English Counterpart: To cost an arm and a leg.

Excessively expensive things cost an “arm and a leg” in English, but what would you need to pay for them in Spanish?

Apparently, they’d “cost an eye from your face.”

Where else would you get an eye from? Who knows, but I’m sure these phrases mean the exact same thing in their respective languages.

When to Use This Phrase:

We all know why someone would say something like this in English and the use of the phrase is largely the same in Spanish.

Naturally, conjugation can come into play—transforming the original phrase intocuesta un ojo de la cara” (it costs an eye from your face) when referring to something that simply costs more than it’s worth.

9. Dar en el clavo

Literal Translation: Give on the nail.

English Counterpart: Hit the nail on the head.

Hitting the nail on the head or “nailing it” is the English version of “dar en el clavo.”

This means precisely what it means in English, so if you guessed as much, le diste en el clavo (you hit it on the nail)!

When to Use This Phrase:

You can make use of this phrase at the same moments in which you would typically use its English equivalent.

A good example would be when you’ve just done something right. However, if you’re letting someone else know they’ve done something right, conjugation would also alter this phrase a bit and turn it into “le diste en el clavo” (you hit it on the nail).

 

These proverbs may seem a bit exotic when compared to their English variations, but they can help you better express yourself in Spanish-speaking communities.

After all, native Spanish speakers will have been using many of these very phrases themselves their entire lives!

And you know what they say: When in Rome…


Jeff Mitchell is a native Floridian lost in beautiful Costa Rica. He’s kind of artistic and somewhat musical, but mostly just obsessed with writing. Discover more about him at Odd Nugget

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