10 expressions only Spaniards get

23 October 2017 0 Comments Category: blog, Living in Spain


On occasion, what you learn in a language school or in a book isn’t enough for you to be able to hold your own on the street. You’ll only hear these expressions in informal situations on the street or in bars. Typical Nos Spanish will familiarize with the expressions most used by Spaniards.

1. Coser y cantar – “a piece of cake”

This expression is used when something is extremely simple. Other very similar equivalents would be: “Está chupado o está tirado”, or in English, “it’s a cinch” or a breeze.”

2. Montar un pollo – “to kick up a fuss” or literally translated as “ride a chicken”.

We use this expression to say that something has caused a huge fuss (hoo-ha) or sparked a huge commotion.  We aren’t talking about riding the most common bird on the planet, and although it is admitted into the Real Academia Espanola dictionary spelled with two “ll”s, it actually originates more from the word “poyo”, referring to the stone bench often found outside many houses. This word in turn is derived from the Latin ‘podium’, the podium on which orators would stand in squares to give speeches which would often result in real scandals.

3. El quinto pino – “in the middle of nowhere”

This expression is usually used to indicate that something is very far away.

One thing that’s certain is that “el quinto pinto” exists, or at least it did exist on what today is the Paseo de Recoletos boulevard in Madrid. As the phrase would suggest, there were five of these so-called ‘pintos’ or ‘painters’. The first painter would be closest, while the fifth as you’ve no doubt wisely assumed, was furthest away. Thus, to be in the “quinto pinto” meaning to be “in the middle of nowhere,” i.e. that something was very far away from, even for a Madrilenian.

4. Tomar el pelo

This is the equivalent of the English phrase “you’re pulling my leg!”

The phrase is informal, i.e. we use it in informal situations with family and friends. It refers to when someone is making a joke at your expense. It’s also used in reaction to a particular situation.

5. Se ve el plumero

When we learn of someone having a hidden agenda, we say “se ve el plumero” literally that we see their feathers, or in English that we “see their true colours”.

The term’s origin is closely linked to politics, in particular to the liberals of the early 19th century. After the Cadiz Constitution – popularly known as La Pepa – was established in 1812, Milicia National (National Militia) was formed, whose members defended progressive ideas and wore caps with a plume of feathers on top, which made them visible from afar.

6. Hacer la pelota – “to suck up to someone”

This refers to flattering somebody or showering them with compliments for personal gain.  This is a very Spanish practice which could almost be considered a national sport, although it has nothing to do with football or a spherical object.

7. Ponerse las botas – “to have a blow-out”

When someone indulges in one of their greatest pleasures. We use this particularly in gastronomic terms: when someone is having a ‘slap-up meal’ for instance.

The connection between boots and decadence can be explained by the fact that in the old days, owning boots made from leather was only something within reach of the upper classes. Thus, owning boots was always associated with wealth.

8. A buenas horas, mangas verdes

We use this expression when the solution to a problem arrives too late, since the problem has already been solved.

In this case, the phrase’s origin dates to the 15th and 19th centuries. “Green sleeves” connoted the group leaders or “cuadrilleros” of the Santa Hermandad brotherhood, a police body whose uniform comprised a leather waistcoat under which a green shirt, and more noticeably, green sleeves could be seen. Cuadrilleros went around in groups of four and were responsible for arresting and incarcerating wrongdoers. They went about these duties not always with the greatest success, since often they would arrive on the scene to find the thieves had already absconded. This is how the phrase, “a buenas horas, mangas verdes” or “too little too late” (on the continent, the equivalent “mustard after dinner” is often used) came about.

9. Salvarse por los pelos – “by the skin of your teeth”

Although it might not seem like it, this expression has a literal meaning which over time has been lost.  Nowadays, it refers to having had a narrow escape from something. However, the sailors who didn’t know how to swim took it at face value since they were often grabbed by their scalp in the event they fell into the water.

10. La ocasión la pintan calva – “strike while the iron’s hot”

We use this expression to mean there’s no sense in procrastinating, but that a situation calls for diligence and a decision to be made, in order not to miss out on opportunities that arise, since good ones don’t usually come around twice.

This saying makes reference to a sculpture of the goddess Opportunity by Phidias, which the Greek sculptor depicted as balding from behind, but with a large mane of hair covering the front of her face. The expression implies that one must take advantage of the current situation: by embracing it head on you’ll grasp the goddess by her hair, but if you let the opportunity pass you by – to the back of the neck – you’ll miss it.



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