Literal Translation

First of all, I know: it’s been a while. I don’t have any excuses, really; life just got the better of me!

Literal translation is almost never a good idea. Plus, it can sound pretty awkward. Take one of my favorite Spanish expressions, “¡Eres la leche!” Literally, it would be, “You are the milk!” Um, thanks?! There’s gotta be a better way of going about it. Of course there is.

I bought a new book this past feel in my quest to (someday, one day) take the DELE. The DELE is an exam which tests one’s “degree of fluency in the Spanish language” and is “issued and recognised by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport of Spain.” (For further information, check out my friend Cat’s informative post on the subject.)

Anywho, the book I bought is called Hablar por los codos: Frases para un español cotidiano by Gordana de Vranic. The book gathers together 175 frequently-used colloquial expressions and idioms that they say are imprescindibles for daily communication. I’m not so sure about daily, but it’s certainly nice to expand one’s knowledge.

Here are some of my favorites:



Dar gato por liebre.

    • Literally: “to give a cat instead of a hare.”
    • Meaning: “to deceive someone, especially in a business transaction, selling him/her something different than requested, usually of lower quality.”
    • Use it: “No vayas a esa tienda. Ayer me dieron gato por liebre. Me vendieron una cosa que ya se había estropeado.”
    • Origin: Many years ago, it was normal to sell cats instead of rabbits/hares because their meat was so alike that even those most knowledgeable about meat were not able to distinguish between the two.



El mundo es un pañuelo.

  • Literally: “the world is a scarf.”
  • Meaning: “it’s a small world (after all).”
  • Use it: “Cuando estaba estudiando en Canadá, me encontré con mi antigua compañera de la universidad. Ahora vive en Madrid, pero se había ido de vacaciones a Toronto. ¡El mundo es un pañuelo!”



Hay cuatro gatos.

  • Literally: “there are four cats.”
  • Meaning: “there aren’t very many people in a certain place.”
  • Use it: “Ayer en el bar había cuatro gatos.”

el santo


Írsele el santo al cielo.

  • Literally: “the saint goes up to heaven [on someone].”
  • Meaning: “get confused, forget what one was talking about or what one had to do.”
  • Use it: “Estaba hablando con Teresa y se me fue el santo al cielo. No me acordaba de lo que quería decirle.”
  • Origin: It’s possible that it has to do with a priest who started talking about earthly things because he forgot about what saint and for what purpose he had begun speaking.



Pasar la noche en blanco.

  • Literally: “to spend the night in white.”
  • Meaning: “to not sleep all night” / “to not sleep a wink.”
  • Use it: “Estaba estudiando y pasé la noche en blanco. Todavía estoy cansado.”
  • Origin: In some chivalric orders, new members, before being knighted, spent the night awake with their weapons, dressed in white robes to symbolize purity.



Quemarse las pestañas.

  • Literally: “to burn one’s eyelashes.”
  • Meaning: “to study or read a lot.”
  • Use it: “Hay que quemarse las pestañas para aprobar el examen de lengua.”
  • Origin: This is an expression that was used in the past when referring to studying or reading at night and it meant that, as a person would read by the light of a candle, he/she might burn his/her hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows by getting too close to the flame.

What are your favorite Spanish (or English!) idioms/phrases?

24 thoughts on “Literal Translation

  1. Without a doubt my favorite Spanish expression is “eramos pocos y pario la abuela.” I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it used, but I learned it in one of my classes while I was doing my master’s in Madrid.

    I think it means something along the lines of everything that could go wrong did go wrong and then “grandma gave birth”–as in it was the last straw type of thing and the situation only got worse. I just always thought the “grandma gave birth” part was so random!

    I took the DELE this past fall at Instituto Cervantes in New York. I had been thinking of taking it for a few years, and since I was unemployed, I had time to study for it. I took a review prep class because I knew I would have no motivation to study on my own. I’m glad I did because it definitely helped me get ready for it. Still don’t know whether I passed yet but I should know in another month or so.

  2. I will always remember my first night in Barcelona when I studied abroad and the sweet lady that was hosting me came into my room to tell me that dinner was ready and I was crying. I tried to explain that I was just home sick and with my very limited Spanish knowledge at the time said, “Estoy enferma de mi casa.” Hahahaha! That didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped! ;)

  3. On pasar la noche en blanca—”Origin: In some chivalric orders, new members, before being knighted, spent the night awake with their weapons, dressed in white robes to symbolize purity.” Omigosh isn’t that just like one of the early scenes in Don Quixote where he stays up all night in that castle or church or whatever before becoming a knight-errant?!? WHOA.

  4. Thanks for the shout out! I was so, so relieved that I didn’t ahve any idioms on the exam in the end, because it would have literally flunked me!

    My cuñado likes to tell me he’s más caliente que un cenicero del BINGO. Not sure if that’s in the RAE, but it makes me crack up, and then shake my head because he will foever be 18 to me!

  5. Great post! Sometimes I translate for giggles, too funny. I used to always tell my babies “dame cinco” and they loved it!

    Glad to see you’re alive :P

  6. these are great! i’m studying refranes and dichos also, cos am hoping/planning to take the DELE this coming may (and am terrified already). amelie’s above about the abuela is definitely one of my favorites, as well as “dónde tengas la olla, no metas la polla” (although i think we can safely assume that will not be featured on the DELE!).
    also – do you suppose “pasar la noche en blanco” tiene algo que ver con “estar en blanco” (to draw a blank)? i wonder!

  7. the one about the grandma is my favorite of all times!! I use it very often, actually hahahaha.
    I think the funniest ones are the comparative idioms as in “más {adjetivo} que…”. Depending on the region you can find very funny ones. For example we say “estar más caliente que el palo de un churrero”.

  8. These are great! Learning expressions is so entertaining, I love all the ones people posted above too. The ‘four cats’ one is interesting because there’s a famous cafe in Barcelona called ‘Els Quatre Gats’. I wonder if that’s why.

    I’m a big fan of ‘hacer la cobra’ – when you pull back from an unwanted kiss attempt. It just so perfectly describes that movement.

  9. This is an awesome post. I didn’t know a few of those, others I definitely did. It seems like everyone in the comments section however wanted to add their favorite expressions (mine would have to be a trancas y barrancas, te la sabes?) Anyway, fun post. Good luck with the DELE.

  10. Ahh, I love learning idioms, too! I have so many favorites, like ·”no es moco del pavo” for “it´s nothing to sneeze at” and “barrer para dentro” for someone who always tries to mooch off of others/sacar provecho.

    I just giggled at Jessica´s addition of “hacer la cobra,” I´d never heard that one. Yesterday one of my co-workers, complaining about a particularly annoying student, said, “Ella es más pesada que una vaca en brazos!” which I also found hilarious.

  11. My favorite is “si el burro toca la flauta”. I’d never heard it until one time my parents were visiting and my father memorized some idioms to try and use. Ever since, I’ve noticed that my father-in-law says it about finding a parking space. As it describes something very improbable, it means “to get lucky”. e.g. “A ver si el burro toca la flauta y encontramos un sitio de aparcar…”

    Great post.

  12. I love learning these sorts of things!

    You need to do popular Spanish curse words and expressions next time, Kaley! :D

    (if you’d like to learn some interesting history about a word, go look up the origin of the Spanish curse word “carajo”)


  13. I stumbled upon your blog randomly looking for ways to improve my poor/rusty Spanish. It’s really sweet! I think it’s beautiful how you found love and married young. By the way, in Hebrew we also say “Laila Lavan” which literally means “white night” to indicate a night where you don’t sleep, eg when studying for a big exam, working all night, staying up because of a baby, etc. we also have the white night event in tel aviv, where many architecturally recognized Bauhaus buildings and galleries are open all night to the public.

  14. I loved this post! I’ve heard a couple of these and had no earthly clue what they meant, so thank you for enlightening me :D My favorite Spanish idiom/colloquial phrase is probably “hostia!” Just something about swearing by saying “The host!” makes me giggle every time I hear it.

    1. I’m not sure now. I really want to take the C2 because I am the type of person (perfectionist) that needs the highest, most difficult level, but I’m not ready for it.

  15. wow! i love this kind of posts, i’ve found some really nice and interesting, lovely! sadly they are old…i bid humbly the blog owner to update them…is it possible to change the month replacing january with september? lol

    here are some more expressions:

    “No está el horno para bollos”, it says literally that the oven is not for bread rolls. The real meaning is that you are frustrated or upset because something, a fight or discussion, has gone wrong, and someone close to you tries to talk about it, insisting on it, so you say to the person “déjalo/para, no está el horno para bollos” (stop it/leave it, i don’t want to talk about it).

    “estás más salido que el pico de una esquina”, it says literally that you are more outwards or you project yourself more outwards than the pick/point of a corner, i mean, the corner where two streets converge in one point, usually a building corner. The real meaning is that you are really on heat, really aroused/horny and thinking of sex or things about it. “Salido” is just slang and only used by young people when meaning horny or on heat.

    “eres más pesado que una vaca en brazos”, it says literally that you weigh more or are heavier than a cow on the arms, as carrying it. The real meaning is that you are quite a pest when insisting on something to such degree that the other person gets upset or annoyed and says it.

    “caer del burro”, literally you fall off the donkey, the real meaning is when you are insisting on something and are wrong, no matter how many times you keep on it, so the other person will say it as in hoping you realise how wrong you are.

    “quien te ha dado vela en este entierro”, literally who’s given you candle at this burial. The real meaning is when you get into a conversation or matter you’ve got anything to do with nor is it your business, so the other person will say it, usually upset or annoyed.

    “me lavo las manos”, literally i wash my hands, it means that you have done something or are involved in something, but you want to look as if you didn’t have anything to do with it. I think it comes from when the Roman consul sentenced Jesus to die on the cross and washed his hands.

    “me lo ha dicho un pajarito”, literally a little birdie has told me, it means that you know something about a matter, but you don’t want to say who’s told you, so you say it was a little bird.

    “estar a dos velas”, literally you are at two candles…it means that you haven’t got any sex, usually for a long time even having a wife or husband, so two male friends may say “hey tio, llevo 1 año sin catarlo…..vaya, estás a dos velas” (hey guy, one year with no sex….oh, you get nothing). The expression “sin catarlo” is slang and used by young people when meaning no sex. As for the two candles i think that it might come from old times when monks or sisters had or carried candles, and you know that they are not allowed to have sex.

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