Photo: Vlad Teodor/Shutterstock

11 Weird but Useful Spanish Expressions Everyone Should Learn

by Ana Bulnes Sep 24, 2015

1. A buenas horas, mangas verdes (“It’s too late, green sleeves.”)

Don’t try to find any hidden meanings added by the mysterious green sleeves part. We could just say “a buenas horas” (“it’s too late”), but everyone would understand, and we wouldn’t be able to confuse non native speakers. In case you’re curious, the green sleeves refer to the Santa Hermandad, a group of soldiers in the Middle Ages, whose uniform had green sleeves, and who, apparently, arrived too late often enough to inspire a popular saying.

2. Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos. (“Raise ravens and they’ll pluck out your eyes.”)

This beautiful saying could hunt you at night while you try to sleep, but hey, at least you’ll learn to be careful. It’s ok to be a good person, to help others, to be generous. But is it really? What if those people you selflessly helped turn out to be ungrateful? What if they use everything you taught them to attack you? What if everything ends up with blood, plucked eyes, and other horror movie-like scenes? You can say we’re exaggerating and a bit paranoid, but better safe than sorry!

3. Me crecen los enanos. (“Dwarfs grow up!”)

The whole version of this expression gives some context (it starts with “I put on a circus”), so you just need some imagination to get to the meaning. Picture yourself putting on a circus, getting clowns, elephants, hiring dwarfs. What if your dwarfs suddenly started growing up and stopped being dwarfs? It would be extremely unfortunate, and that’s the kind of situation we try to describe with this politically correct expression.

4. Cuando las barbas del vecino veas cortar, pon las tuyas a remojar. (“When you see your neighbor’s beard being cut, start getting yours wet.”)

It could be used to describe the end of the bearded hipsters, but we already said this a few centuries before beards were cool (when they were, you know, just normal). The meaning? Get ready for any situation or change when you see it coming. Get ready for shaved faces and sideburns becoming cool again by saying goodbye to your beloved beard.

5. En todas partes cuecen habas. (“Everyone cooks beans everywhere.”)

Would you say cooking broad beans is a suspicious activity? From now on, let’s act as if it were. We use it to say that no one is free from trouble or guilt, that no one is really an exception. Its origins date back to when Spain kicked the Jews out of the country (15th century), and it’s a really twisted way of saying that even the purest family had some kind of relationship with them. Again, Spaniards being politically correct.

6. Éramos pocos y parió la abuela. (“We were not enough and grandma gave birth.”)

Notice how we like to make things difficult by saying exactly the opposite of what we mean. Were we not enough? We were already too many! And that’s when the unexpected happened to make things even worse: grandma gave birth! Yes, another expression to complain about our bad luck. We’re a pleasure to be around.

7. En boca cerrada no entran moscas. (“Flies won’t enter a closed mouth.”)

So shut up, and you’ll stay out of trouble.

8. Diálogo de besugos. (“Breams’ dialogue.”)

Sometimes we’re just mean. What have the poor sea breams done to us? Nothing! And yet we use the word besugo as a synonym for dumb, and we say we are having a breams’ dialogue when we are speaking to someone and we don’t understand each other (usually because there’s some misunderstanding and we are talking about different things). Sea breams probably have much deeper conversations than we will ever have, and have the expression “humans’ dialogue” to refer to this situation.

9. A la tercera va la vencida. (“The third attempt will be the winning one.”)

An optimistic expression based solely on giving false hopes. Do you really think that girl will agree to go on a date if the first two times you asked she said no? We also have a saying that goes no hay dos sin tres (“there’s no two without a three”), so don’t be disappointed if your third attempt doesn’t go as well as you expected.

10. No tener pelos en la lengua. (“Not having hair on your tongue.”)

So… do Spanish speakers have tongue hair? Don’t freak out! We don’t! We just somehow decided to refer to people who are too sincere, those who never leave anything unsaid, as people who don’t have hair on their tongues. That’s why they speak so easily. Because, we imagine, having tongue hair is probably uncomfortable and an obstacle for words.

11. Echar una cana al aire. (“Throw a gray hair in the air.”)

The gray hair is yours, and by throwing it in the air you’re just remembering your youth. That is, you’re having fun again, letting go, probably even having sex! A bit ageist, yes, but in our defence I’ll say that anyone can echar una cana al aire, even 20-year-olds who have never seen a white hair on their heads yet (and foolishly think they’ll be free from them for a long time).

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