Useful Spanish expressions

9 useful Spanish expressions you need to know

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If someone asks to pull their hair, you probably shouldn't. Knowing these common Spanish phrases can keep you out of some awkward situations and talking like a local.

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

It didn't take long to realise that what I’d learned in high school and subsequent classes in Barcelona and Madrid was only useful up to a point. Sure, 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. Stupid to an extreme degree: Tonto(a) de remate

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 characterise his boss, Pedro.

2. Until the tail, it’s all bull: Hasta el rabo, todo es toro

Bull doesn’t have the same sense it does in English swearwords. 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 bulls--t.

3. To take hold of the hair: Tomar el pelo

But what it really means is to 'pull one’s leg', as in 'make fun of'. Like when you call someone tonto de remate.

4. More face than back: Mas cara que espalda

This 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.

5. Short of lights: Corto de luces

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.

6. Uglier than Falla: Mas feo que Falla

That is, 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.

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.

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, and if you were to 'coger' a bus it would be disturbing at best. Be careful.

9. Porquería

It means 'something pertaining to pigs', and therefore is used for anything that is similar to a smelly pile of garbage. As Miguel said once, 'Trabajar por Pedro es una porquería' – 'Working for Pedro is like working in a pig sty'.


Tom Bartel / Reprinted with permission of Matador Network.

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

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