Impress the locals by using any of these common Spanish expressions and phrases in your conversations.
Like any language, Spanish is rich with expressions and sayings that are common but might not be found in your phrasebook. Knowing these informal terms and idioms that don’t always translate literally can be great for impressing the locals if you use them correctly during conversations. Being aware of them can also help you avoid any embarrassing mistakes (tip: if someone asks you to pull their hair, don’t actually do it!).
Here is a selection of the most common Spanish expressions and phrases you might hear in everyday conversation.
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Everyday Spanish phrases
1. Cutre [koo-trey]
There’s no exact match for this word in English and it covers everything from seedy to uncool. Examples of things that are cutre include small, authentic Spanish bars with an ever present smell of tobacco and frying oil, carrying your towels and sunscreeen in a plastic bag to the beach, or a sweater with too many holes.
2. Tio/tia, mancho
Similar to dude or mate. For example, “¿Qué pasa, tia?” (What’s up, girl?) or ,”Mancho – vamos a hacerlo.” (Dude – let’s do it.)
3. Como dios manda
Literally translated as ‘as God sends’. You use this phrase to demonstrate that you will do something well. For example, if someone asks, “Are you cooking dinner tonight?” You answer, “Como dios manda,” to mean yes and well.
4. Por si las moscas
A Spanish expression that translates literally as ‘for if the flies’ – it means just in case.
5. Chulo [choo-low]
It means cool, but can also be a person who’s ‘too cool for school’.
6. Un puente
Literally translated as ‘a bridge’ but also refers to the day before or after a public holiday that is used to make a long weekend if the public holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday.
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, and if you were to ‘coger‘ a bus it would be disturbing at best.
Low-key insults in Spanish
1. Tonto de remate
A Spanish expression that can be used to describe someone who is extremely stupid or ‘a prize idiot’.
2. Corto de luces
Meaning ‘short of lights’, the English equivalent here would be ‘A few sandwiches short of a picnic’ or ‘the lights are on but there’s nobody home’. Basically, a fancy way of describing a tonto de remate.
3. Estar empanado
‘To be breaded’ is a Spanish expression to use when describing someone who’s a little on the slow side.
4. Un fantasma
The direct translation means ‘a ghost’ but this word is used to describe someone who is not what they appear to be – usually a person who talks a big game and tends to exaggerate.
5. Mala leche
‘Bad milk’ is what a grumpy or surly person has. If someone is in a bad mood, you can say that they have bad milk.
6. Pajas mentales
‘Mental straws’ is what you say to someone who you think is delusional or tends to create something out of nothing. It can also be used to describe someone who thinks they are greater than they are.
7. Mas feo que Falla
‘Uglier than Falla’. Used to describe someone who is, as is said in English, ‘no oil painting’. Refers to Spanish composer Manuel Falla, who was pictured on the old Spanish 100 peseta note and was no George Washington when it came to rugged good looks.
This means ‘pertaining to pigs’ and can be used to describe something that is filthy or rubbish. For example, “este libro es porqueria” would translate as “this book is rubbish”.
9. Me cago en…
A bit of a rude one that translates as ‘I s**t on…’ Swear words are used quite freely in Spain and it’s not uncommon to hear someone exclaiming “me cago en tu madre!” (“I s**t on your mother!”) or “me cago en todos tus muertos!” (“I s**t on all your ancestors!”) as a way of insulting someone or expressing anger. Probably one that’s better to just be aware of rather than use yourself…
Funny Spanish idioms
1. Más vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer
A Spanish expression that sums up their attitude to risk. Roughly translated it means: ‘a known evil is better than an unknown good’.
2. Cul i merda
A Catalan expression that translates as ‘ass and s**t’. It’s what you say when things or people perfectly complement each other.
3. Montar un pollo
‘To ride the chicken’ is what someone does when they cause a scene in public.
4. Bicho malo nunca muere
‘A bad bug never dies’ simply means the bad guys outlive the good. A lazy slob who drinks and smokes heavily will probably live longer than the health-crazed dietitian who stresses about the job.
5. Tener el mono
To ‘Have the monkey’ means to have a craving for something, such as smoking after a transatlantic flight, having a drink with friends or taking a vacation.
6. Culo veo, culo quiero
‘Ass I see, ass I want’ is a Spanish expression to use when someone wants something you have. For example, your mate turns down your offer for a snack. Five minutes later when you are eating, he or she wants to eat too. They can say Culo veo, culo quiero.
7. Plantar un pino
‘To plant a pine’ is another way of saying to do a number two. One to use among close friends only!
8. Hasta el rabo, todo es toro
Translates literally as ‘until the tail, it’s all bull’. A rough translation of meaning is ‘Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched’ or ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’.
9. Tomar el pelo
Literally means to pull someone’s hair, but it’s used when you fool someone or make fun of them. Like when you call someone tonto de remate, for example.
10. Mas cara que espelda
To have ‘more face than back’ means to have a lot of cheek or to be too big for your boots. For example, if you called your boss tonto de remate to their face.
…and finally, a few things you might hear Spanish people say…
1. “Que calor!/Que frio!”
Meaning “it’s so hot!/it’s so cold!”. Spain is a land of extremes and people like to express themselves with intensity. You are likely to hear people shouting this as soon as it becomes even slightly warm or chilly.
2. “Mi madre hace el mejor gazpacho del mundo.”
“My mother makes the world’s best gazpacho”. Gazpacho is a mainstay in the summer months. There are numerous ways of making this chilled tomato-based soup. But whatever the recipe, you’ll be sure to hear that each person’s mum creates the best blend.
3. “Solo he tomado dos o tres cervezas/No he bebido nada.”
“I’ve only had two or three beers/I haven’t drunk anything”. This one is self-explanatory. It’s a common feature in many cultures for people (mainly men) to under-exaggerate when it comes to how much alcohol they’ve consumed, usually while in the act of persuading someone they’ll be fine to have a few more.
4. “Pero jamon no es carne.”
“But jamon isn’t meat”. One to look out for if you’re vegetarian. Jamon iberico is a common feature of salads, soups and a host of dishes that you might see described as ‘vegetarian’. It’s almost seen as an essential element of life itself rather than a meat product. If you’re veggie or you don’t want jamon on any of your dishes, be sure to tell your waiter: “Sin jamon, por favor.”