20 Spanish Phrases You Should Be Using

iStock.com/MicroStockHub (speech bubble)
iStock.com/MicroStockHub (speech bubble)

With more than 400 million native speakers, Spanish is the world’s second most-used first language. It’s also one of the biggest contributors of loanwords to the English language, thanks in part to its globe-spanning size and the equally sizable influence of Spanish-speaking countries’ food, history, and culture on the world’s English-speaking nations.

You can probably name quite a few of these Spanish loanwords off the top of your head: Everything from tacos and burritos to vigilantes, canyons, and aficionados have found their way into the English dictionary, after all. But just as with French, English has picked up a number of old Spanish proverbs and expressions over the centuries too—many of which have not stood the test of time and have long been forgotten, or else have failed to catch on in the mainstream and ended up cast into the dictionary’s etymological footnotes.

So why not add a little fun to your vocabulary by dropping one of these 20 long-overlooked Spanish phrases into conversation?

1. Aviendo pregonado vino, venden vinagre.

This old Spanish proverb literally means, “having cried their wine, they sell us vinegar.” Feel free to use it in any situation where someone brags about their talents but, when they try to show you what they can do, makes a complete mess of it.

2. Pocas palabras.

Borrowed into English as far back as the 16th century, pocas palabras literally means “few words.” You can use it as essentially an old Spanish equivalent of “enough said!” or “say no more!”

3. Quien sabe?

English speakers first began using this Spanish expression in the early 1800s, but it’s long fallen out of familiar use. It literally means “who knows?” and can be used in response to an unanswerable question or impossible situation.

4. Un cabello hace sombra en el suelo.

Even the smallest of things can have an effect—or so implies this old Spanish proverb that essentially means “even a hair casts a shadow on the floor.”

5. Revolver el ajo.

“To disturb the garlic”—or “to disturb the broth” as another version, revolver el caldo, puts it—is to question the motives of someone who has revisited a long-forgotten matter or quarrel. Idiomatically, it’s like an English speaker re-opening a can of worms.

6. El corazón manda les carnes.

“The heart bears up the body”—or so says this old Spanish proverb that can be interpreted as a proverbial reminder that mental health is just as important as physical health: There’s no point being physically fit if you’re not happy on the inside.

7. Comiendo moscas.

Comiendo moscas literally means “eating flies,” but this has nothing to do with unusual eating habits. Instead, someone accused of comiendo moscas is easily distracted, lost in their own thoughts, or habitually wanders off down pointless tangents in conversation.

8. El que tiene boca, se equivoca.

This neat little rhyming motto literally means “he who has a mouth will make a mistake.” It’s essentially an age-old Spanish reminder that everybody makes mistakes sometime or another.

9. No por mucho madrugar, amanece más temprano.

There’s no use in rushing things—all things happen in their own time, and no sooner than that no matter how much you might want them to. It’s a reassuring thought, and one that’s nicely summed up in this old Spanish proverb that essentially means “getting up earlier won’t make the sun rise any sooner.”

10. Me pica el bagre.

To non-English speakers, hearing someone say “I could eat a horse” probably sounds more than a little unusual. Same goes for this Spanish equivalent: It might literally mean “the catfish is biting me!,” but me pica el bagre just means “I’m ravenously hungry.”

11. Quijadas sin barbas no merecen ser honradas.

If you feel you’re being overlooked because of your youth, here’s an old Spanish proverb you might want to drop into conversation. It literally means “jaws without beards deserve no honors”—and as one 19th century dictionary of Spanish expressions explained, it is a cutting reminder of “the little attention and respect which is commonly shown to young persons.”

12. Del árbol caído todos hacen leña.

“Everyone makes firewood from a fallen tree,” apparently. Or, to put it another way, when you’re already down or having a bad time, that’s when everyone will try to take advantage of you.

13. Dame pan y llámame tonto.

As an adjective, tonto means “stupid” or “foolish” in Spanish, while as a noun it’s an insult equivalent to the English “blockhead” or “dimwit.” With that in mind, among the most peculiar Spanish idioms to drop into conversation is this one—which literally means “give me bread, and call me an idiot.” Take from that what you want, but the usual interpretation here is “I don’t care what people think of me, so long as I get what I want.”

14. Ser como el puerro.

Comparing someone to a leek might not be the most immediately understandable simile you could come across, but the full version of this Spanish proverb—ser como el puerro, tener la cabeza blanca, y lo demás verde—adds a little more detail. It essentially means “like a leek, with a white head and the rest green” and is used to refer to lecherous, women-chasing old men who, despite having gray hair, are still young at heart.

15. Querer es poder.

Querer es poder essentially means “wanting is being able to.” Proverbially, it’s a reminder that if you want something enough, nothing will stop you achieving it—or, put another way, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

16. Tirar la casa por la ventana.

If you’re planning on going all-out on something or sparing no expense, then you can excuse your behavior with this choice Spanish idiom: Tirar la casa por la ventana might literally mean “to throw the house out of the window,” but it’s essentially a Spanish equivalent of “to pull out all the stops.”

17. De golosos y tragones, están llenos los panteones.

Another rhyming proverb, this time from Mexican Spanish, de golosos y tragones, están llenos los panteones literally means “the gluttons and over-eaters, the cemeteries are full of them.” In other words, don’t give in to excess—it’s not always healthy.

18. Habló el buey y dijo “mu!”

When someone who’s been quiet in conversation for a long time suddenly speaks up (and, more often than not, doesn’t contribute anything particularly original or interesting), then you can call on this old Spanish expression: habló el buey y dijo “mu!” literally means “the ox spoke and said 'moo'!”

19. Más cerca está la camisa que el sayo.

Drop this into conversation whenever someone appears to turn their back on their nearest and dearest. An old Spanish proverb meant to remind someone that close friends and relatives are closer than all others, it literally means “the shirt is closer than the coat.”

20. La gala del nadar es saber guardar la rópa.

It’s always worth being prepared for every eventuality, especially when you’re entering into a risky deal or taking on something new. And to help you remember that, there’s this old Spanish saying: La gala del nadar es saber guardar la rópa essentially means “the art of swimming is knowing where to keep your clothes secure.”

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

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