Ever feel like you’re flogging a dead horse by using the same old Spanish phrases that don’t get the reaction you were hoping for?
It might be time to add a little animal flavor to your Spanish.
We don’t mean you should suddenly start impersonating animals. (Though by all means, don’t hold back if you feel inspired!)
Nor are we suggesting you listen to hours of Spanish dogs to figure out if they really do say “guau guau” instead of “woof woof.”
We mean it’s time to learn some Spanish idioms involving animals. And luckily for you, we’re about to let the cat out of the bag on the animal-related expressions you’ll actually hear Spanish speakers using.
Why You Should Learn Spanish Animal Idioms
Apart from giving you an excuse to think up a list of animal idioms in English and use them at every opportunity, learning animal idioms is a good way to add extra spice to your Spanish with minimal effort. All you need to do is learn the following phrases and when to use them, and voila! You’ll have them up your sleeve, ready to use when appropriate.
And when you do surprise your friends with your musing on cats, dogs, monkeys and parrots, you’ll definitely impress them. Then you can tell them that you’re a dark horse, and teach them some idiomatic animal phrases in English. Bring on the cultural exchange!
10 Slick Spanish Expressions Involving the Fiercest of Fauna
1. Más peligroso que mono con navaja
This means “more dangerous than a monkey with a knife,” which, I think you’ll agree, is a pretty dangerous image. You usually use this to describe someone who is clumsy, and likely to cause an accident. For example, if someone is carrying a tray full of china, and is likely to drop it you can say, “Es más peligroso que mono con navaja.”
The closest English equivalent is probably “like a bull in a china shop” or “as dangerous as a loaded gun.” If you merged the Spanish and this last English phrase together you would get más peligroso que mono con una arma cargada (more dangerous than a monkey with a loaded gun), which makes a great phrase describing the ultimate danger, but unfortunately is my own invention. You heard it here first. Feel free to try it out, it might even catch on.
2. Sentirse sapo de otro pozo
“To feel like a frog in another hole” is the Spanish way to say that you’re out of your depth, or out of your comfort zone.
You could say “Me siento sapo de otro pozo” when you start a new job, when listening to a conversation that you can’t understand, or during any situation where you feel out of place. To remember this phrase, just think of a lost frog trying to find his lily pad, and you get the idea.
3. Tener la piel de gallina
“To have skin like a hen” doesn’t mean you have turned feathery, but in fact is the Spanish equivalent to having goosebumps (think of a plucked chicken and you’ll get the idea).
This is a very useful phrase that you can say whenever you do get goosebumps, and is much more sophisticated than simply saying “Tengo frío” (I’m cold).
4. Más ciego que un topo
In Spanish, you’re not as blind as a bat, but as blind as a mole (un topo). This is an easy phrase to fit into everyday conversation, though you may have to switch the lights off to be able to use it.
Then you can say, “¿Quién apagó la luz? ¡Ahora estoy más ciego que un topo!” (Who turned out the lights? Now I’m as blind as a mole!)
You could also also use it to describe someone else, for example, “Mi abuela es más ciega que un topo” (My grandmother is as blind as a mole).
Remember to change ciego to ciega if you’re talking about a woman, and also note the difference between ser and estar here: Use ser to describe someone who’s always blind, and estar to describe temporary blindness.
5. Pájaro que comió, voló
This phrase roughly translates literally to “A bird who has eaten, flies away,” and doesn’t really have an English equivalent. It’s usually used at the end of a meal to signify that the guests are ready to leave (in a polite way), as they are satisfied.
You can also use it to make a joke, as either the guest or the host, that the guests just came to eat, and now they are leaving. It’s almost the equivalent of a parent saying to a teenager “You treat this place like a hotel!” but doesn’t include any references to having clean sheets or room service. It’s also a much nicer thing to say.
6. Perro que ladra, no muerde
This translates literally to “A dog who barks, doesn’t bite,” and the English equivalent is describing someone as all talk and no action.
You can use this phrase much the same as you do in English, to say that someone who talks a lot or makes a lot of fuss isn’t going to do anything threatening. This phrase is also similar to “His bark is worse than his bite.”
7. Tener la vaca atada
This phrase is sometimes shortened to tenerla atada (to have it tied), and translates literally to “to have a cow tied up.” This phrase has nothing to do with English idioms like “to be tied up” or “to have your hands tied,” though.
It actually refers to someone who was born into wealth and doesn’t have to work or worry about their finances, or someone who has a successful business or something that will always make them money. It’s similar to having a “cash cow” in English.
You can use it to describe a rich friend who made a million-dollar app and doesn’t have to work, or even to describe a pop star who has written a hit Christmas song, and will be able to live off the royalties for the rest of their life.
8. El que se quema con leche, ve una vaca y llora
This phrase refers to learning from your mistakes (or transferring your fears, depending how you look at it). It translates literally to “He who burns himself with milk, sees a cow and cries,” and suggests that the person has learned from burning themselves on the milk, and will be more careful in the future (by avoiding cows, or just being scared of them).
You can use this phrase to say you have been hurt in the past, and that’s why you’re going to be careful now—for example to protect yourself at the beginning of a relationship. Or you could use it when you burn yourself on milk, and hope you don’t see a cow anytime soon.
9. Más vale pájaro en mano, que cien volando
This phrase means “It’s better to have one bird in your hand, than 100 flying birds,” which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The equivalent in English would be “A bird in hand is worth two in a bush,” which seems a little understated, compared to the 100 flying birds in the Spanish version.
You can use this phrase when you feel like 100 birds have escaped you and you’ve just managed to hold onto one. For example, if you’ve just read 100 expressions and you’ve only managed to retain this one. Remember not to worry, the one thing you do have is very important, as the phrase says.
10. Tomar el toro por las astas
This phrase means “to take the bull by the horns,” and is one of the few Spanish animal idioms that is the same in English and in Spanish. You may also hear cuernos instead of astas, and coger instead of tomar, depending on where you are in the world.
This phrase means the same as in English, and you can use it when you’re ready to confront a difficult situation head on. For example, if you’ve decided to challenge yourself by learning even more animal idioms, say “Voy a tomar el toro por las astas” and then go for it!
It’s now up to you to grab that bull! After all, you know what they say: You can lead a horse to water…
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