10 Spanish Idioms using Numbers

Reaching a high level in Spanish means learning some idioms and coloquial expressions. There are a lot of them. Here we are going to narrow them down some to include Spanish idioms using numbers. These are all very commonly used in Spain.


Ser un cero a la izquierda 

Literal: To be a zero on the left

To be worthless

It may not be perfectly obvious at first, but if you think about it in a mathematical sense, putting a zero preceding any number leaves the number unchanged:

7   vs  07   => both represent ‘ 7 ‘

So, if you are that ‘zero on the left‘ you are essentially worthless or irrelevant.

For Example:

En un grupo de amigos:
“Nunca tenéis en cuenta mi opinión. Está claro que para vosotros soy un cero a la izquierda”. 

In a group of friends:
“You never count my opinión.  It’s clear that to you all I am worthless”


Costar un ojo de la cara 

Literal: To cost an eye from the face

To cost a lot / expensive

Many languages have similar equivalents of this idiom; as  when something costs ‘an arm and a leg‘ in English, as opposed to an ‘eye from the face’.  I’m not sure which would be more expensive 😉

For Example:

En una tienda:
“Me encanta esa lámpara de cristal. Pero no me la puedo permitir, cuesta un ojo de la cara”. 

In a store:
“I love that glass lamp. But I can’t afford it, it costs an arm and a leg”


Cada dos por tres 

Literal: Every 2 times 3

= To happen with frequency

In Spanish the word ‘por’ is often used to mean ‘for’ but can also stand for ‘times’,  as in multiplication. The expression ‘cada dos por tres’ means every 2 x 3  (as in 2×3=6), which means something keeps happening, or happens often, in this case, multiplicatively.

For Example:

“Mi móvil no funciona bien, cada dos por tres se apaga solo”

“My cell phone doesn’t work very well, it keeps turning of by itself”


Buscarle tres pies al gato

Literal: To look for 3 feet on a cat.

= To unnecessarily complicate a situation

A bit curious, since a cat does typically have (at least) 3 feet, but the way to think of this expression is that you are looking for cats with 3 feet when we all know they have 4. Doing this obviously overcomplicates a situation. A similar English expression might be ‘making a mountain out of a mole hill

For Example:

Si no te he llamado, es porque he estado ocupado, no le busques tres pies al gato

If I didn’t call you it’s because I was busy, don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.


 Ser cuatro gatos

Literal: To be four cats.

= to be a very small crowd (a few people)

More expressions with cats! 😉 In this case if you are only 4 cats, you are at a very empty/probably boring party or place. Note that we can use either ‘ser‘ or  ‘hay‘ with the expression, to say either ‘we are four cats‘ when including yourself in the group (ser) or ‘there are four cats‘ when talking more descriptively (hay).

For Example:

En la fiesta de ayer, éramos cuatro gatos. 

At the party yesterday we were only a couple people.


 Estar en el quinto pino

Literal: To be in the 5th pine

= To be really far away

In English we might call this being in the ‘boonies/boondocks‘, or the ‘nosebleeds‘  in terms of seats. In Spanish a ‘pino’ is a pine tree – the same kind we decorate at christmas.  It seems the original expression originated from Madrid a few centuries ago, where 5 large pine trees were planted in a row stemming out from the city. The distance between the 1st tree (planted towards the center of the city) and the last, (planted further out) was significant, so that if you referenced being at the 5th pine, you were quite far away from the city center.

For Example:

Espero no tener que volver al mecánico. Está en el quinto pino.

I hope I don’t have to go back to the mechanic. It’s in the boonies.


 Entrar los siete males

Literal: To enter the seven ‘bads’ / evils

= To feel bad/anxious/sad/mad etc.

This is not easy to translate to English.  The seven doesn’t necessarily stand for anything as far as we can tell.  Suffice it to say, use this expression when something changes and you feel upset in some way.

For Example:

Cada vez que pienso en todo lo que me queda por estudiar para el examen, me entran los siete males.

Every time I think about everything that I have left to study for the test, I get really upset.


 Ser más chulo que un ocho

Literal: To be cooler than an 8

= To be too cool (usually negative)

While you may want to be really cool or ‘chulo’, if you are ‘mas chulo que un ocho’ you are often being seen as a bit stuffy or arrogant. A weak English translation might be being ‘too cool‘. The suspected origin comes from a tram known as the number 8 that ran from Madrid to the Parque de la Bombilla and for the festival San Isidro, passing through several surrounding neighborhoods. These ‘number eight’ trams and were full of ‘chalupos y chalupas’ or people dressed in typical fancy dress of the time, on their way to go dancing at the park or to the festival.  People living in the surrounding neighborhoods through which the tram passed were the first to coin the expression, with a bit of humor and sarcasm, suggesting there couldn’t be anything cooler than a tram full of chalupas.

For Example:

Matías debería ser más humilde. A veces no tiene razón y encima es más chulo que un ocho.

Matías should be more humble.  Sometimes he’s not right and on top of that he acts too cool for everyone.

Spanish idioms with numbers 11.png Spanish idioms with numbers 13 l blue.png

 Meterse en camisas de once varas

Literal: To get into a shirt made from 11 ‘sticks’ (large swatches of cloth)

= To make a situation more complicated than necessary

This expression is extremely commonly used in Spain today, but to understand the literal translation we have to go back to the middle ages where they measured clothing in sticks or ‘varas’.  A vara was a dimension of cloth based on sticks.  A vara would have measured almost a full meter (.835 meters), so a shirt made from 11 of them would contain just over 9 meters (27 feet) of material – which clearly would be WAY too big ;).  Hence the expression means to make a big deal out of something.  Its very similar to the earlier expression  ‘buscarle tres pies al gato’ that we saw earlier.

For Example:

No puedo opinar sobre la relación de Ana y Juan. Prefiero no meterme en camisas de once varas.

I can’t say anything about Ana and Juan’s relationship. I prefer not to make a big deal about it.


Seguir en sus trece

Literal: To continue on your thirteen / to follow your thirteen

= To refuse to change your opinion / to be stubborn

This expression is thanks to Pope Benedict XIII, who was crowned at the end of the 14th century by a very close vote.  As the story goes, there was opposition to the new pope, in part because he was not seen as someone who could be influenced.  They called for his resignation, but he refused to resign, and thus history has remembered him for his headstrong personality by creating the saying to ‘follow your thirteen’ — even though most Spaniards don’t actually know where this idiom originated anyway 😉

For Example:

¡Qué cabezota eres! Ves la evidencia delante de ti y sigues en tus trece.

How stubborn you are! You see the evidence in front of you and you continue to stay headstrong

Do you have other idioms or translation of these idioms you could share?
We’d love to hear them in the comments :)

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