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I first lived in Spain, and learned the language, more than 30 years ago.

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG to realize that what I’d learned in high school and subsequent classes in Barcelona and Madrid was only useful up to a point. Yeah, I could employ the subjunctive when called for, and I could even manage the complex form of the conditional contrary to fact. But it was only after I’d been there for a while and heard the idiomatic expressions that pepper everyday Spanish that I felt I could really converse, even make jokes.

One of my teachers, both in the classroom and in the bars, was a man named Miguel. Miguel was a very educated man with an enormous vocabulary which he was always exercising on me. I learned much of this from him.

1. Tonto(a) de remate

“Stupid to an extreme degree.” Remate literally means a “rekilling” and is the word used when a soccer scoring shot bangs hard into the back of the net instead of just trickling over the goal line. I first heard it used by my friend Miguel to characterize his boss, Pedro.
Tonto de remate by matadornetwork

2. Hasta el rabo, todo es toro

“Until the tail, it’s all bull.” Bull doesn’t have the same sense it does in English (i.e., bullshit). One could translate this in two ways: “Don’t count your chickens ’til they’re hatched” or, even better, “I know you’re telling me this, but I’ll believe it when I see it.” So, I guess in this case, toro does mean bullshit.
Hasta el rabo by matadornetwork

3. Tomar el pelo

“To take hold of the hair.” But what it really means is to “pull one’s leg,” as in “make fun of.” Like when you call someone tonto de remate.
Tomar el pelo by matadornetwork

4. Mas cara que espalda

“More face than back” is the translation, but in English it means you have a lot of “cheek” or perhaps “you’re a little big for your britches.” It takes a lot of cara, for example, to call your boss tonto de remate to his face.
Mas cara que espalda by matadornetwork

5. Corto de luces

Literally, “short of lights.” In English we’d say “not the brightest bulb on the tree,” or “the elevator stops short of the top floor.” You get the idea. Miguel might have also said that about Pedro.
Corto de luces by matadornetwork

6. Mas feo que Falla

“Uglier than (Spanish composer Manuel) Falla.” Before the Euro, Spain’s money was pesetas. And the picture on the 100 peseta note was Manuel de Falla, who wrote some beautiful music, but was no George Washington when it came to rugged good looks. I’m pretty sure Miguel also said this about Pedro.
Mas feo by matadornetwork

7. Cachondo(a)

This is a word that you have to be a little careful about. It means different things in Spain and in Latin America. In Spain, to say someone is cachondo means that they’re jovial, perhaps even a little goofy. Or maybe just in a perpetual good mood.

In Ecuador, where I also lived, I once described a woman as cachonda, and received a table full of shocked looks. It seems in Latin America cachondo means horny or oversexed. It’s the word used for a female animal when she’s in heat. Sluttish might actually be a good translation, when applied to a human. That took a lot of explaining to keep from getting a drink thrown at me.
Cachondo by matadornetwork

8. Coger

This is a perfectly good and useful word in Spain. It means “to take hold of” and is used in many idiomatic phrases. When you hand someone something, you’ll say to them, coge, which just means “here, take it.” You use coger, for example, to say Esta mañana cogi el autobús (“This morning I caught the bus”).

In Mexico, however, coger means something entirely different. If you said that last sentence in Mexico City, you would have just said, “This morning I fucked a bus,” which would be confusing at best. Be careful.
Coger by matadornetwork

9. Porquería

I love this word. It means “something pertaining to pigs,” and therefore is used for anything that is similar to a smelly pile of garbage, (but certainly not the marvelous Spanish jamón serrano.) As Miguel said once, Trabajar por Pedro es una porquería. “Working for Pedro is like working in a pig sty.”
Porqueria by matadornetwork

Miguel really hated Pedro.

Language Learning

 

About The Author

Tom Bartel

Tom Bartel is a retired journalist who is now traveling the world. He blogs at Andean Drift.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1601880086 Beth Kovars

    I think porqueria here in Chile is used more like “bullshit,” “crap,” or “foolish”… Less to do with “messy/dirty” and more to do with the unbelievable nature of stupid-ness.

    • Chicapop

      In Spain we use it also in that sense, at least I use it like that :)

  • Pantelic Nina

    Cachondo in Spain has the same meaning as the one that warranted the awkward reaction.

    As for ´hasta el rabo, todo es toro´ I used it as a translation for one of my favorite English expression: ´it ain´t over till the fat lady sings!´

    • Pantelic Nina

      great choice of expressions…and poor Pedro!

  • http://twitter.com/onSanity angelica

    word of warning, cachondo/a also means horny in spain, it just depends how you use it….

  • Kaley

    In my experience, cachondo means both, depending on the context.

    These are great expressions. It makes me think of how my boyfriend’s mother referred to his apartment (which was cheap and had lots of problems) as a “porquería.” Hah.

    • http://johnpostill.com/ John Postill

       Yes, in Spain there’s a crucial difference between “estar cachondo/a” (to feel horny) and “ser un cachondo/una cachonda” (to be funny, jovial, mischievous, a bit mad). The latter meaning can also expressed through the phrase “cachondo mental”.

  • Markopolo1998

    We must have a good Spanish teacher. She grew up in Colombia and taught us at least 6 of these expressions.

  • curiosidad

    What is Pedro’s surname?

  • http://www.luxuryaccommodationsblog.com/ Luxury Accommodations Blog

    Muy util!

  • Malorluq

    In Spain cachondo can have both meanings, the difference is the verb: SER un cachondo is first meaning (funny, jovial, good mood) but ESTAR cachondo is second (horny).
    Sorry guys for you both SER and ESTAR is TO BE. SER is more permanent, an essence, and ESTAR is more a position or situation.

  • http://matadornetwork.com/community/onlysky onlysky

    Laughed through the whole thing.  Thanks for the heads up!  Gotta love cultural idioms, and I will be having funny thoughts all day about buses.

  • Kate_Sedgwick

    Ha!  We use porquería in Argentina, too. For a long time, I thought is meant something was absurd, like “a why bonanza.” I was very surprised to find out it had something to do with pigs…

  • merken

    I completely agree with you Beth! I live in Concepcion.

  • Samyled

    I really liked the explanation you provided about the word “COGER” in Mexico. As Mexican, I have to say “True that!”; however, it depends on the contexts too. We tend to use more the verb “tomar [to take/to take hold of]” than “coger [to take/to take hold of]“. I think “COGER” means “to take/to take hold of”, but as slang in Mexico it means “to fuck”. I remember once my university hosted a lecture about the art of translating into Spanish. The lecturer was a Spanish writer who used to translated from Slavic languages into Spanish and vice-versa. He was telling how he met an import German translator in Russia! He said he had found a coin on the street so that he tried to take it. He used the word “coger” and kept talking but five minutes later he came up with: I am so sorry I meant “tomar”… Nobody can help laughing! Of course, everybody had perfectly understood what he had said. I personally did not notice he had said that word until he clarified the sentence! Funny but true story!

  • Juan Botías Agea

    I disagree with your explanation of “hasta el rabo, todo es toro”. That’s an idiom based on bullfighting, where the torero has to be always aware of the bull, even if it’s with its back to him.

    So the expression means that you can’t relax when the hardest part of something has already passed, because even the little details can make you fail.

  • Sage Yelito

    I am not saying that #6 is wrong … but I live in Madrid and I’ve never heard that phrase. We would use: ”Eres más feo que el Fary comiendo limones” or “You’re uglier than Fary (a singer) eating lemons”. 

  • Xabi

    Lo de “más feo que Falla” no lo había oído en mi vida, debe de estar bastante anticuado, porque sí lo había oído con otros personajes de la cultura popular española. Lo de cachondo, también tiene el significado de “horny” en España, son 2 acepciones que se deben saber cuándo usar.  Lo de coger, al igual que en México, se usa igual en Argentina y otros países de América Latina y no se dice “trabajo por Pedro”, se dice “trabajo para Pedro”. Se deberían revisar un poco estas cosas antes de publicarlas.

  • http://www.hotel-matina.com/ Santorini Hotel

    Very nice, Thank you

  • Anonymous

    It’s “trabajar PARA Pedro”. ^_^

  • guest

    I think most of the words are only used in that context by people in Spain..I’m a spanish native speaker but I don’t use some of those expresions at all, and some others are used in my country but with a different meaning

  • Horacio

    No creo que “remate” en “tonto de remate” tenga que ver con “rematar la pelota”, sino con el hecho que “remate” significa además “auction”. En pasado, un bien o un objeto se “remataba” porque uno quería deshacerse de él o porque había sido embargado y  era evidente que se obtendría por él menos dinero que el que realmente valía. “rematar” una cosa es tratar de deshacerse rápidamente de ella…

  • Anonymous

    As some people said, “cachondo” also means “horny” in Spain; I think it was Lola Flores or some other big Spanish figure of the sort who once famously said that prostitution was necessary because otherwise the boys would get “cachondos” with decent girls. “Coger” in other countries in Latin America means the same as in Mexico. People there do know that in Spain it means something else, but still, it always makes an impression, which may be compounded when combined with the word “concha” (which in Spanish means “seashell” but that in South America is also a slang word for the female sex organ), as it happened to a Spaniard who at a posh banquet in Trelew, Argentina, praised the beautiful local beaches, where he had been strolling and “collecting beautiful seashells” that morning. That remark, made in real castizo Spanish, was a real sensation.

  • Nilda Rivera

    Creo que se las voy a pasar a mis chiquillos… ;)

  • Agu Walulik

    Good post!

  • Somer Thee Oneh

    Hello everybody, very good article, some of those expresions are like “Espadas de doble filo”(-two edges sword- I don´t know if in Englis there´s an idiom for that). I agree with “swanoftuonela c”. So I learned English by myself, but estudied it last year for enforce my grammar etc. BTW I´m Dominican, what means Spanish speaker, I want to have some pen pal for practicing my English and maybe for learning another languages, if some want to practice Spanish and help me find me somer_s@twitter or at my facebook.

    • Lara Sánchez

      Hey i want to learn spanish and I can help you with.english and my.language too.btw im from Malasia

  • Adrienne Stinson

    Good post, but Cachondo means horny in Spain too, so be careful using it.

    This is coming from a girl with 2 years in Madrid and Spanish husband.

  • Emma Broadley

    Excellent post! Here are some others for anyone who is interested: http://www.succeed-at-spanish.com/spanish-slang.html.

  • Arturo Stojanoff

    Hahaha, wtf I don’t even know what half of these mean and I’m a native Spanish speaker. They sound really Mexican. I guess they probably are useful there though. Some are pretty common though.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

    • Sergio Muñoz Paino

      Well Arturo I’m a native speaker from Spain and I know them all :). They are quite common expressions.

  • Anonymous

    Spanish is very rich in idiomatic phrases. It must be very difficult for english speakers to understand it. Try Chilean spanish for example, it is quite funny to say at least.

  • euge

    I’m a native Spanish speaker and I didn’t know half of them

  • Andrés Aymat

    “Coger” also have the same meaning in Spain than in Latin America, but it is not as common.

    • zxcvb

      “Coger” has that meaning only in Mexico, not in all Latin America.

  • John Grant

    “putada” también es una palabra muy muy útil en el mundo hispanohablante… “Este trafico es una sola putada!!!”

  • rtyb

    I’m a native Spanish speaker, and if you let me tell you: this article’s tremendously biased. I don’t know what “variant” of Spanish the writer speaks, but certainly you won’t hear that ANYWHERE in Latinamerica. And if you were to listen to that, or even say it: seldomly gets mentioned, and expect to be looked upon as in “Dafuq’s up with this dude and his TV expressions?”; really, delusional and ridiculous is the only i can think of. Don’t use those expressions: They’re neither useful, nor good.

    I didn’t even knew those, and i speak it natively… That must tell you something.

    PS: This whole post’s full of grammatical hideousness, in both Spanish and English.

  • goula

    embarazada no significa “embarassed” y excitado no significa “excited”

  • Margaret Nahmias

    Porqueria is filth and trash in the figurative sense, some of bad quality.

  • Lala

    Thanks for your review . There is a mistake in your sentence: As Miguel said once, Trabajar POR Pedro es una porquería. “Working for Pedro is like working in a pig sty.” The right way in spanish is “Trabajar PARA Pedro…”

    • JL

      “Trabajar por Pedro” could be translated as “Working in Pedro’s place”

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