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.”

Why is Winnie the Pooh Called a Pooh?

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Since A.A. Milne published the first official Winnie the Pooh story in 1926, the character has become beloved by children across many generations. Milne’s writing clearly struck a chord, and the character’s many subsequent TV and film adaptations have endeared him to an even wider audience.

But why is Winnie called a Pooh rather than a bear? Given that most children (and grown-ups, for that matter) have a different idea of what a Pooh is, how has the name stuck?

The answer lies back in the 1920s.

In fact, when first introduced by Milne, Winnie wasn’t even Winnie. Initially, he went by the name of Edward Bear, before changing to Winnie in time for that aforementioned official 1926 debut. The "Winnie" part of the name came from a visit to the London Zoo, where Milne saw a black bear who had been named after the city of Winnipeg, Canada.

As for Pooh? Well, originally Pooh was a swan, a different character entirely.

In the book When We Were Very Young (the same book that introduced Edward Bear), Milne wrote a poem, telling how Christopher Robin would feed the swan in the mornings.

He told how Christopher Robin had given the swan the name "Pooh," explaining that “this is a very fine name for a swan, because if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him."

Milne indeed knew what he was doing by using such a word. The names "Winnie" and "Pooh" were soon brought together, and Winnie the Pooh was born. Milne still took a little time out to explain why Winnie was a Pooh, though.

As he would write in the first chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book, “But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh."

It's not the most convincing explanation, but it's a formal explanation nonetheless.

Not that the reasoning ultimately mattered too much. The name stuck, having never seen a focus group in its life. A much loved childhood character, with a vaguely funny name, would go on to superstardom. And even be honored with his own holiday, Winnie the Pooh Day, which occurs annually on January 18th.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why is Winnie the Pooh Called a Pooh?

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Since A.A. Milne published the first official Winnie the Pooh story in 1926, the character has become beloved by children across many generations. Milne’s writing clearly struck a chord, and the character’s many subsequent TV and film adaptations have endeared him to an even wider audience.

But why is Winnie called a Pooh rather than a bear? Given that most children (and grown-ups, for that matter) have a different idea of what a Pooh is, how has the name stuck?

The answer lies back in the 1920s.

In fact, when first introduced by Milne, Winnie wasn’t even Winnie. Initially, he went by the name of Edward Bear, before changing to Winnie in time for that aforementioned official 1926 debut. The "Winnie" part of the name came from a visit to the London Zoo, where Milne saw a black bear who had been named after the city of Winnipeg, Canada.

As for Pooh? Well, originally Pooh was a swan, a different character entirely.

In the book When We Were Very Young (the same book that introduced Edward Bear), Milne wrote a poem, telling how Christopher Robin would feed the swan in the mornings.

He told how Christopher Robin had given the swan the name "Pooh," explaining that “this is a very fine name for a swan, because if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him."

Milne indeed knew what he was doing by using such a word. The names "Winnie" and "Pooh" were soon brought together, and Winnie the Pooh was born. Milne still took a little time out to explain why Winnie was a Pooh, though.

As he would write in the first chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book, “But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh."

It's not the most convincing explanation, but it's a formal explanation nonetheless.

Not that the reasoning ultimately mattered too much. The name stuck, having never seen a focus group in its life. A much loved childhood character, with a vaguely funny name, would go on to superstardom. And even be honored with his own holiday, Winnie the Pooh Day, which occurs annually on January 18th.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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