spanish-idioms-3

17 Spanish Idioms You Should Know But Don’t

Has a Spanish speaker ever told you that you are from the year of the pear?

If yes, how rude of them!

Has one of your Spanish-speaking friends confessed to being without white? Or in leathers?

Don’t worry if odd Spanish phrases like this have left you feeling a little confused—it happens to the best of Spanish students.

If you aren’t fried (see #15 below) and want to feed your curiosity with answers, come in and take a sit.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, and that one dog over there, I come bearing an idiom post once again. Freshly baked. Still hot, directly from the Spanish oven. So, I hope you are hungry.

Learn a foreign language with videos

Why Should You Learn Spanish Idioms?

Idioms. During the last few days I have been wondering what to write about idioms. Paradoxically, nothing came to mind. I say “paradoxically” because there are so many idioms in the Spanish language—and pretty much any other language, for that matter—that anyone could spend their whole life writing about them. That is just one important reason why you have to learn them: There are many Spanish idioms, and they frequently appear in conversation. There is so much to write about, yet I was suffering from the so-called BPS, or Blank Page Syndrome.

Writing about idioms is not so easy as explaining grammar or giving advice on how to improve your speaking skills. Idioms are an abstract entity, often with layers of meaning, nuance and humor. That is exactly why it is so very important to spend time studying Spanish idioms. You won’t understand what they mean in conversation if you haven’t already learned them. You either know what idioms mean or you don’t—you usually can’t guess their meanings from context alone.

Then I remembered that making lists is my favorite pastime. I love making lists. If I am preparing a new class, I make a list. If I am packing, I make a list. When I am bored, I make lists. Grocery shopping, housework, books I want to read… list, list and list. Hello, my name is Franko, and I am a list freak. So, I am going to give it to you straight. A minimalist list of Spanish idioms, served cold, with their literal meanings, figurative meanings and usage examples on the side. A serious, politically correct, mature list of Spanish idioms. But no humor or jokes this time.

Wait, did you guys seriously buy all of that? I was just kidding! I will teach you these Spanish idioms with a good dose of humor and cultural tangents, as always. Just buckle up and have fun! Spanish idioms are so worthwhile to learn because they are irreverent, tongue-in-cheek and just plain funny. Knowing these will add a dose of humor to your current Spanish knowledge, and will help you put a smile on the faces of native Spanish speakers.

17 Spanish Idioms That Are Just Plain Awesome

These idioms come from my personal experience with Castilian Spanish (Castellano, from Spain) but they can be used in all regions of the Spanish-speaking world. Of course, some regional variations may apply—if you are not sure about which idioms are used in a certain country, ask a local friend. Chatting about idioms is always fun, anyway!

Alternatively, you can also listen to authentic Spanish videos like the ones on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. 

If you’re looking for a method to familiarize yourself with Spanish as well as deepen your knowledge of the culture, FluentU is the best way to go!

1. Estar en la edad del pavo

Literal translation: to be in the age of the turkey

English meaning: to be at that awkward age (teenage years)

When referring to those awkward teenage years, we talk turkey.

In Spanish, we have a tendency to exaggerate and make extreme comparisons. This idiom, however, is one of those with which I have to agree 100 percent. I have also been a teenager, and I know how turkey-like my own behavior was at times.

You may think that teenagers and turkeys do not have anything in common, but have a look again.

Still nothing? Okay, let me help you.

Imagine a circle of teenagers talking about boys and girls that they like like. Can you hear the awkward laughter in the distance? Doesn’t it sound like turkeys gobbling? Maybe that doesn’t ring true for you, but I think I can still convince you.

Do you remember when you were growing up and your voice started to crack? Well, that cracking is called gallo (cock, rooster) in Spanish, another reference to domesticated birds.

Do you remember the awkward things you said and did when you were 15? Do you ever look back at them and want to disappear from the face of the Earth? Those silly, awkward things can be called pavadas in Spanish—things a turkey would do.

You may or may not agree that a teenager’s behavior can be as weird, silly or awkward as a turkey’s behavior (or vice versa), but Spanish does not care if you agree. Remember, the Spanish language is full of irony and humor, and this expression is a perfect example of that. Have a look at this example:

Miguel, tienes 35 años ya, deja de hacer el tonto. ¡Ya no estás en la edad del pavo! — Miguel, you are 35 already, stop playing the fool. You are not at that awkward age any more!

Teenagers won’t feel offended if they hear están en la edad del pavo, because they know it and they use this expression as well. Now go find a group of human turkeys and practice this expression.

2. Temblar como un flan

Literal translation: to tremble/shake like flan

English meaning: to shake like a leaf / like jelly

Temblar como un flan can also be phrased as ponerse como un flan (to become a flan) and estar como un flan (to be like a flan).

This is one of those very descriptive comparisons almost everybody understands right away.

In English, you can shake for many different reasons and you will express it accordingly—like a leaf, like jelly, like Jell-O, like a dog, like a Polaroid picture. In Spanish, we use como un flan almost universally for any kind of situation that makes us tremble or shake:

Después de ver a su amado, empezó a temblar como un flan. — After seeing her beloved, she started shaking like jelly.

Are you nervous because you are about to sit an exam? Very probably, you will be temblando como un flan.

Are you afraid because of the spider in your room? You are definitely temblando como un flan.

Are you about to propose and you don’t know how the other party will react? Yes, you are temblando como un flan.

Even when you have the flu and you are shivering with cold, you can say that you are temblando como un flan.

It doesn’t matter the feeling, the situation or the context. This delicious expression can be used every time you shake, tremble or shiver.

¡Buen provecho!

3. Darle la vuelta a la tortilla

Literal translation: to flip the tortilla/omelette

English meaning: to turn the tide

I am sure most of you are already familiar with tortillas, but the word tortilla can also refer to an omelette. No matter what type of tortilla you are talking about, it needs to be flipped during cooking.

Did you know you can use a tortilla to your advantage?

Darle la vuelta a la tortilla is such a normal, culinary phrase that it seems like it should always be understood literally. The truth is that this delicious meal hides a second layer of meaning inside.

Imagine that you and your friends are playing football against another team, and your side is losing quite badly. Then, the situation starts to change and, by the end of the match, your team wins by a huge margin of three goals. What seemed an impossible dream ended up being a deserved victory.

Maybe your luck changed, maybe your team was finally able to focus and start playing for real, maybe a miracle happened or the other team’s best player broke his ankle. It doesn’t matter. (I mean, the reason why doesn’t matter—of course I would be concerned if players were breaking their ankles, you guys!)

The situation has changed, and it has changed considerably. A sure loss turned out to be a definite win. It rotated 180 degrees. A magical flip. Call it what you want. We Spanish speakers love our tortillas, so we would describe the situation as darle la vuelta a la tortilla.

Íbamos perdiendo, pero le dimos la vuelta a la tortilla y al final ganamos. — We were losing, but we turned the tide and ended up winning.

Once again, this is an expression that can be used in many contexts. Every time a situation changes completely, or a person changes their attitude or mind in such a way that you end up having a different outcome from the one you were expecting, you can say they have definitely dado la vuelta a la tortilla.

4. Ser del año de la pera

Literal translation: to be from the year of the pear

English meaning: to be very old

This is one of those expressions you need to know but should use carefully.

If something or someone is very old and/or outdated, you can say it is del año de la pera. Be careful how you utter this, because some people may be a little oversensitive and get mad.

Generally, though, using this expression is something quite normal for a lot of people in their everyday lives, and you will have a lot of situations where you will be able to use it. For example:

No te pongas esa camisa. ¡Es del año de la pera! – Don’t wear that shirt. It is very old!

Aside from using it to say someone or something is very old or outdated, you can use it to say someone lived a long time ago. You can use it to describe that something happened a long time ago, that an idea or an object is older than Methuselah, that your clothes are worn out or that your smartphone is as old as the hills. If there is something old, there is a Spanish pear!

What about you? Do you have something del año de la pera?

5. No hay color

Literal translation: there is no color

English meaning: there is no comparison / it pales in comparison

I love this expression. It may not seem special or original, but I simply love using it.

Now that you know the English translation, you should not have any problem using this idiom in Spanish, but let me give you a couple of examples so you can see it in action:

Mi coche es mucho más rápido que el tuyo. ¡No hay color! — My car is much faster than yours. There’s no comparison!

Pensaba que tenía mala suerte, pero tras conocer su historia, no hay color. ¡Pobre Marta! — I thought I was unlucky, but after getting to know her story, mine pales in comparison. Poor Marta!

6. Estar sin blanca

Literal translation: to be without white

English meaning: to be broke, not to have money

The blanca was a coin used in Spain in the 16th century. It was the least valuable coin, something like a present-day penny.

When you were without any blanca, you had no money and were a poor person. Even though we use very different coins nowadays, the expression remains with us and is applied, informally, to any person who is broke or has no money in a specific moment in time.

Although you can use this expression in order to describe any person, it is commonly used by young people when talking about themselves. Have a look:

No puedo ir a la fiesta, estoy sin blanca. — I can’t go to the party. I have no money.

He gastado todos mis ahorros para comprar un coche y ahora estoy sin blanca. — I have spent all my savings to buy a car and now I am penniless.

7. Llover a cántaros

Literal translation: to rain to pitchers

English meaning: to rain cats and dogs

I can assure you that “to rain to pitchers” sounds as weird to you as “to rain cats and dogs” sounded to me the first time I heard it. I know, it doesn’t make any sense.

Yes, if it is raining and you have a lot of pitchers or jugs in your garden, rain will fall into them, but apart from that… weird expression, granted.

The good news is that you use it in Spanish as you would use your llover gatos y perros (to rain cats and dogs), so you just need to substitute one for the other.

Have a look:

Estaba lloviendo a cántaros, así que no fuimos al concierto. — It was raining cats and dogs, so we didn’t go to the concert.

No salgas que está lloviendo a cántaros. — Don’t go out! It is raining cats and dogs.

As you can see from the previous examples, llover a cántaros is an idiom you will more likely use in its gerund form in order to describe what is/was happening. However, it is perfectly possible to use it in any other tense if you need to:

Iré de compras aunque llueva a cántaros. – I will go shopping even if it rains cats and dogs.

8. Acostarse con las gallinas

Literal translation: to go to bed with the hens

English meaning: to go to bed early

It was my father who told me to add this idiom to this list. He has a farm and takes care of a lot of animals, including hens.

I have used this expression all my life and I had never wondered what it meant before. I had a vague idea of what it could mean to go to sleep con las gallinas, but as many people do with their own language’s idioms, I had never wondered why it has this meaning.

My dad told me hens are really intelligent animals, even though we may not realize it. They can be out around the farm the whole day, but once the sun starts to set, they all go back to the place where they sleep—and they do it by themselves! Their human caretaker (my dad, in this case) just has to close the door and call it a day.

Since the hens always go to sleep when the sun sets, this idiom started to be used to describe any animal or person going to sleep very early. Now you can just say you are going to bed with the hens without having to be embarrassed about it:

Son las 4 de la tarde y ya estás cansado. Me parece que hoy te vas a acostar con las gallinas. — It’s 4 p.m. and you’re already tired. I think you’ll be going to bed very early today.

This informal expression may of course be more common in rural areas, but I am sure every Spanish speaker has at least heard of it, and most have probably used it at least once.

9. Arrimarse al sol que más calienta

Literal translation: to get closer to the sun that heats the most

English meaning: to know which side one’s bread is buttered on

This is one of those expressions that is beautiful until you know what it really means.

Indeed, knowing which side of our bread is buttered on is not always negative, but for me, it will always have negative connotations. Getting closer to the sun that heats the most will always mean that you need something and you are getting closer to the people who can give it to you, which for me is like using those people.

Anyway, there may be some contexts in which using this idiom can describe a good thing, or at least a neutral one. You don’t have to want to become a rich super tycoon in order to use this idiom. Maybe you just want to get a favor from a friend, or want your partner to cook something for you.

However, I have always used this expression not when talking about myself but others, and I have yet to use it with a positive meaning.

Since my work as a language teacher is to teach you everything, good and bad, and I really want you to be fluent in Spanish, I still think you need to learn how to use this expression. Here you have a typical example of its usage:

Michael no me cae bien. Siempre se acerca al sol que más calienta. — I don’t like Michael. He always knows which side his bread is buttered on.

10. Ser un ave nocturna

Literal translation: to be a nocturnal bird

English meaning: to be a night owl

Here we have an expression that is almost identical in Spanish and in English, and that’s a plus for me because I don’t have to write a long explanation. You already know how and when to use this idiom.

Let me just give you a couple of examples that will show you that ave nocturna and “night owl” are the same thing:

Me gusta estudiar por la noche. Soy un ave nocturna. — I like studying at night. I am a night owl.

Mi novio es un ave nocturna. Nunca se va a dormir antes de las 2. — My boyfriend is a night owl. He never goes to sleep before 2 a.m.

11. Ser como buscar una aguja en un pajar

Literal translation: to be like looking for a needle in a straw loft

English meaning: to be like looking for a needle in a haystack

It doesn’t matter if we look for them in straw lofts or in haystacks, it seems that looking for needles is in our genes.

Have you lost one of your contact lenses? It will be as difficult as buscar una aguja en un pajar, but we will try to find it.

Have you forgotten where you parked your car? Try to buscar una aguja en un pajar and you may be luckier!

Jokes aside, this expression is very common among Spanish speakers, and it is so similar to its English counterpart that it would be a pity not to take advantage of this.

You do not need any specific instructions in order to start looking for agujas in Spanish. Just remember that every time you would say the expression in English, it is a great opportunity to say it in Spanish as well:

Hay unas 2.000 personas aquí. Encontrar a María va a ser como buscar una aguja en un pajar. — There are around 2,000 people in here. Finding María is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Good luck finding your needles!

12. Dar a luz

Literal translation: to give to light

English meaning: to give birth

I think this is a very beautiful expression, not only for the fact that giving birth (excruciating pain aside) has to be one the most wonderful experiences a woman can have, but also due to the power of the metaphor.

You probably already know that luz means “light.” There are many other words related to light in Spanish, but two of them, alumbrar (to light, to give off light) and alumbramiento (lighting, illumination) are closely linked to giving birth.

When a mother is giving birth, she is alumbrando. Actually, alumbrar is something that technically happens after someone is born, but nowadays people use alumbrar with the meaning of “to give birth.” The process of giving birth, on the other hand, is called alumbramiento.

Here is the basic idea behind this idiom: When the baby is being born, he or she goes from a dark place to a place full of light. This idiom thus expresses that mother is literally giving light to her baby, and the baby is in the light instead of darkness for the first time when he or she is born.

See this example to learn how to use it in a conversation:

Lucía dio a luz a su segundo hijo hace unas horas. — Lucía gave birth to her second child a few hours ago.

13. Abrir de par en par

Literal translation: to open of pair in pair, to open from pair to pair

English meaning: to open wide, wide open

I have used this expression all my life and I knew it means to open something wide—normally a door, a window or your arms. But I had no idea about the origin of this idiom until doing some research just now.

It turns out that, a long time ago, doors used to have two pairs of leaves (dos pares de hojas). When someone wanted to open their door completely, they need to open both pairs, from the first pair to the second pair, so to speak. And, voilà! Our expression was born—or fue dada a luz, if you will.

When using this expression in Spanish, remember that you can abrir de par en par many things, not only doors. Practically everything consisting of a pair can be opened de par en par:

Te espero con los brazos abiertos de par en par. — I am waiting for you with my arms wide open.

Here you have some other examples for your collection:

ventanas abiertas de par en par — windows wide open

ojos abiertos de par en par — eyes wide open

corazón abierto de par en par — heart wide open

For that final phrase, don’t think of this as a heart being literally open. This is actually a very romantic expression. Imagine that you have opened the doors of your heart to somebody. That would be you having your heart abierto de par en par.

14. Estar en cueros

Literal translation: to be in leathers/in skins

English meaning: to be naked

Aren’t leather jackets awesome? Even fake leather jackets are awesome!

If you ever go to Spain (or Mexico, or Argentina, or any other Spanish-speaking country for that matter) and you happen to be naked, you will definitely be en cueros. Curiously enough, this expression is always used in the plural, even though we are supposed to have just one skin. Use it in the singular and you will probably not be understood.

Here is one example:

Juan siempre está en cueros.  Juan is always naked.

You can use this idiom when you don’t feel comfortable with any other way of saying “to be naked,” just please refrain from using it in formal contexts. I know, why would you want to talk about being naked in a formal meeting? Well, you never know in Spain… summers are really hot!

15. Estar frito

Literal translation: to be fried

English meaning: to be doomed, to be done for, to be asleep*, to be bored*, to be fed up*

Girl, I am done for! I lost my wallet, my boyfriend left me, my car has a flat tire… I am so, so frito!

I was supposed to take care of my mom’s plants, but I forgot and they withered… I am so frito! When she comes back from Venezuela, she is going to kill me!

Drama!

But don’t worry. You won’t always be in trouble while being frito. As you can see, I have marked with an asterisk (*) three of the meanings of the idiom estar frito. We can all agree that these three meanings are not so troublesome as the first two ones.

Let’s start with the last two ones, “to be bored” and “to be fed up.”

Use estar frito any time you are so bored you could easily fall asleep. In this case, it is very common to add the word aburrimiento (boredom) in order to add intensity to the tedium:

¡Esta película es malísima! Estoy frito de aburrimiento. — This is a very bad movie! I am absolutely bored.

Use also estar frito when you have had enough, when you are fed up with someone or you are fed up with doing something. As they say, enough is enough!

Todo esto es demasiado para mí. ¡Estoy frito! — This is all too much for me. I am fed up with it!

Finally, this idiom can be used when talking about falling asleep. Just be careful with this context! You will need two different verbs, estar or quedarse, depending on what exactly you want to say:

Nos estamos quedando fritos. — We are falling asleep.

Está frita.She is sleeping. / She has fallen asleep.

Estaba frito cuando volviste. — I was sleeping when you came back.

Note that you will also need to change frito to fritos, frita or fritas depending on the gender and number of the people being spoken about.

16. Despedirse a la francesa

Literal translation: to say goodbye in the French style

English meaning: to leave without saying goodbye, to take the French leave

I didn’t know that languages like German and English also have an expression similar to despedirse a la francesa—in English, you guys say “the Irish Goodbye” most commonly. In both English and German, you say “the French Exit.”

I thought our phrase had something to do with the common history between Spain and France. While searching for the origin of this idiom, I learned that it was a real custom in 18th-century France to leave parties without saying goodbye to the host.

Anyway, we are here to learn Spanish idioms, not French customs. Since you also have this expression in English and the meaning is exactly the same, I guess there is no need for long explanations regarding its use. Just have an example on the house:

Pepe se ha despedido a la francesa y ahora tengo que pagar toda la cuenta. — Pepe has taken the French Exit and now I have to pay the whole bill.

This idiom is very neutral, so you can use it in both formal and informal situations. And don’t worry, nunca me despediré a la francesa de vosotros (I will never give you guys an Irish Goodbye).

17. No hay tutía

Literal translation: there is no solution, there is no remedy

English meaning: no way, not gonna happen, forget about it, no dice, nothing doing

This is probably one of my favorite Spanish idioms.

There are a lot of people who mistakenly write tutía as two separate words—tu tía (your aunt), thinking it refers to your aunt—but that is a misspelling you should avoid. Tutía comes from an old Arabic word, and was used to describe an Arabic medicine that made its way to Spain through trade. Eventually, the word tutía became another Spanish way to say “remedy” or “solution.” That’s why we use it to say that something won’t happen, or that there’s no solution.

I even encourage you to share this spelling and history lesson with your Spanish-speaking friends, as they may have no idea!

The idiom is informal, but it is so universal that you can use it in many, many different contexts. It is almost always separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma, or it is written as a full sentence separately. This is convenient, meaning that you do not have to perform any verb conjugations or any kind of concordance.

I am sure you will enjoy using this idiom as much as I do. Just so you are able to see how multifaceted it can be, let me give you a couple of examples:

No irás a la fiesta, ¡no hay tutía! — You will not go to the party. No way!

Tengo que dormir, pero no hay tutía— I need to sleep, but it ain’t gonna happen. (Maybe I suffer from insomnia, or my neighbors are having a party.)

No me casaré contigo. ¡No hay tutía! — I will not marry you. Forget about it!

It doesn’t matter if the situation is formal or informal, if you are with your friends or with your boss, there will always be an idiom you can use in Spanish conversations.

Learning Spanish idioms may seem a little challenging at the beginning—especially since, more often than not, either the literal translation of the idiom has nothing to do with its real meaning or there isn’t a similar expression in English. But you should keep studying your Spanish idioms anyway.

With patience and an open mind, remembering Spanish idioms during your conversations will start to come more naturally to you.

Happy learning, and see you soon!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.

Experience Spanish immersion online!

Comments are closed.