12 Thought-provoking Spanish Proverbs for Language Learners
You’re hanging out, sipping a mate with your Argentinian amigos. One guy is leisurely checking the news on his smartphone.
Reading about an older, unpopular politician, he says, “Yerba mala nunca muere.” What?
Spanish proverbs like this often pop up out of nowhere.
Disguised as non-sequiturs, they show up in the middle of conversations you thought you were following.
This proverb translates to, “bad weeds never die.” Confused, you look at your yerba mate gourd and wonder if you’re drinking “bad weeds.” What’s he saying? Is this some type of Argentine Spanish slang? Your friend senses your dismay, and in an atrocious Billy Joel imitation, he starts singing “Only the Good Die Young.” Then it clicks—terrible people (like that particular politician) are the weeds in this figurative expression.
¡Felicidades! You just learned a Spanish proverb.
As you continue the conversation, your friend might say, “la mentira es un bicho de patas cortas.”
It literally translates as “lying is a short-legged creature.” In essence, it implies that if your lies are inconsistent, people will eventually catch on to you.
The Proverbial Culture of Spanish Proverbs
Proverbs play a key role in Hispanic language and culture. In his 1885 book titled “Andalucia, Ronda and Granada, Murcia, Valencia, and Catalonia; the portions best suited for the invalid,“ author Richard Ford notes:
The constant use of the refrain (proverb) gives the Spaniard his sententious and dogmatical admixture of humor, truism, twaddle, and commonsense. A proverb well introduced is as decisive of an argument in Spain as a bet is in England.
Although this still holds true in the 21st century, sometimes, the grammar and word choice is often quite formal. These sayings might trigger a “say what?” reaction in anyone studying modern, colloquial Spanish, but they provide an amusing vehicle for expanding your Spanish vocabulary.
Learning Spanish proverbs can also help you discover lesser known words. Consider this proverb:
A quien madruga, Dios le ayuda
It literally means “God helps those who rise early.” This is the Spanish equivalent of “the early bird catches the worm.” The intransitive verb madrugar means “to get up early.”
Other Spanish proverbs reflect the attitudes of a specific region. For instance, when waiting a long time for something, Uruguayans might use the phrase “El tiempo pasa. El 104 no.” This proverb, often seen as graffiti in Montevideo, refers to the infrequent 104 bus, which travels through the Pocitos barrio (neighborhood) in Montevideo. So, by learning this proverb, you also learn about what you can expect if you take the 104 bus in Pocitos!
Spanish proverbs reflect the culture, history and philosophies of the various Spanish cultures. Studying them helps you do things like read Don Quixote and other great historical works: entirely in Spanish.
12 Thought-provoking Spanish Proverbs for Language Learners
Here’s a list of the most popular Spanish proverbs. Some are specific to certain regions of Spain, Central or South America. Others came from Spanish literature.
1. No es tan bravo el león como lo pintan.
Literal Translation: The lion is not as fierce as he is made out to be.
In English, we would say, “his bark is worse than his bite.” This proverb implies that a person who seems fierce might be a reasonable human being.
2. El que no llora, no mama.
Literal Translation: The one that does not cry, does not suck.
In other words, the child who doesn’t cry, does not get nursed. This is the equivalent of the English “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
3. A río revuelto, ganancia de pescadores.
Literal Translation: At troubled waters, fishermen gain.
The proverb implies that there’s always someone waiting to profit from the disadvantages of others. It’s interesting to note that the word revuelto also means scrambled and disorganized. Throughout Latin American history, cultural chaos has triggered dictatorships. Thus, the “fishermen” gain from the disorder.
4. A las mujeres bonitas y a los buenos caballos los echan a perder los pendejos.
Literal Translation: Beautiful women and good horses are corrupted by idiots.
Self-explanatory. This proverb comes from Mexico, a country with many horse and women proverbs. Here’s another example: “No compres caballo de muchos fierros, ni te cases con muchacha de muchos novios.” Don’t buy a horse with many irons, or marry a girl with too many boyfriends.
5. Lavar puercos con jabón es perder tiempo y jabón.
Literal Translation: Washing a pig with soap is to lose time and soap.
This popular Spanish proverb implies that some things are simply a waste of time. A similar English language quote comes from George Bernard Shaw: “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
6. El que lee mucho y anda mucho, ve mucho y sabe mucho.
Literal Translation: He who walks a lot and reads a lot, sees a lot and knows a lot.
This is one of the many proverbs that dot the pages of “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha,” (AKA Don Quixote) by Miguel de Cervantes, and it also happens to be one of my favorites. The proverb encourages travel and scholarship.
7. ¿Qué locura o qué desatino me lleva a contar las ajenas faltas, teniendo tanto que decir de las mías?
Literal Translation: “What madness or folly leads me to count the faults of others, having so much to say about mine?”
Another Don Quixote quote. Note the Spanish formatting of a question, with the upside down question mark at the beginning and the right-side-up question mark at the close of the sentence. The closest English equivalent to this Spanish proverb is “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
8. La senda de la virtud es muy estrecha y el camino del vicio, ancho y espacioso.
Literal Translation: The path of virtue is very narrow and the road of vice broad and spacious.
Yes, yet another “Don Quixote” derived proverb. Its meaning is self-explanatory.
9. A caballo regalado, no se le miran los dientes.
Literal Translation: Don’t look at the teeth of a gift horse.
In other words, accept a gift, or accept good luck, and do not criticize. The English language equivalent is “Never look a gift horse straight in the mouth.”
10. Como agua para chocolate.
Literal Translation: Like water for chocolate.
Author Laura Esquivel used this Spanish proverb as the title of her book. In certain Latin American countries, especially Mexico, hot chocolate is made with water instead of milk. The cook boils the water, then drops the chunks of chocolate into the pot. The saying, “como agua para chocolate” describes an emotional state: either boiling over in anger or in passion.
11. Las cuentas claras y el chocolate espeso.
Literal Translation: The accounts clear and the chocolate thick.
Speaking of chocolate, this Spanish proverb is often used in reference to business. It advises you to clarify the terms, and examine the accounts of any business relationship, before getting to it. It compares clear accounting to chocolate, which is best when it’s thick.
12. Donde hay gana, hay maña.
Literal Translation: Where there is desire, there is ability.
This one is straightforward. In other words, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This could apply to anyone who started studying Spanish as an adult. Because, to quote another Spanish proverb, “Nunca es tarde si la dicha es buena.” Better late than never.
So now you’ve really got something to chew on—if you haven’t learned Spanish proverbs yet, it isn’t too late. Better start now, rather than never!