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9 Ridiculously Useful Spanish Expressions

by Tom Bartel May 2, 2012
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.

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