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.”

The Ohio State University Is Trying to Trademark the ‘The’ in Its Name

As any good Ohioan knows, there’s a big difference between an Ohio state university and The Ohio State University. But with countless other public colleges across the state, including the similarly named Ohio University, it’s not hard for out-of-towners or prospective students to get confused. To further distinguish themselves from other institutions (and to capitalize on merchandise opportunities, no doubt), The Ohio State University is pursuing a trademark for the The in its name.

According to Smithsonian.com, trademark lawyer Josh Gerben first broke the news on Twitter, where he shared a short video that included the trademark application itself, as well as examples of how the university plans to use the word on apparel. One is a white hat emblazoned with a red THE, and the other is a red scoop-necked T-shirt with a white THE and the Ohio State logo beneath it. Gerben predicts that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will initially deny the trademark request on the basis that those examples aren’t sufficient trademark use, but the university would have an opportunity to try again.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that university spokesperson Chris Davey confirmed the trademark application, saying that “Ohio State works to vigorously protect the university’s brand and trademarks.” He’s not exaggerating; the university has secured trademarks for legendary coaches Urban Meyer and Woody Hayes, plus more than 150 trademarks and pending applications across an impressive 17 countries.

The school's 2017 request to trademark the initials "OSU" provoked an objection from Oklahoma State University, which is also known as OSU, but the two schools eventually decided that they could both use it, as long as each refrained from producing clothing or content that could cause confusion about which school was being referenced.

The Ohio State University, perhaps most famous for its marching band, public research endeavors, and legendary athletic teams, is not impervious to social media mockery, however.

Ohio University responded with this:

And the University of Michigan, OSU’s longtime sports rival, suggested that it should trademark of:

However bizarre this trademark may seem, it's far from the weirdest request th Patent and Trademark Office has ever received. Check out these colors and scents that are also trademarked.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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