14 Spanish Idioms that Don’t Work in English

She gave me that look. You know the one that says, “I have no idea what you just said”. I was telling her about my friend who can get pretty emotional:

Es un hombre que lleva el corazón en la manga (he’s a man who wears his heart on his sleeve).

The problem is that expression doesn’t translate well to Spanish. To her, my friend’s heart, all bloody and beating, was literally on his sleeve. No wonder I got the strange look. These expressions aren’t unique to English.

In fact, if you’ve been learning Spanish, you know that these little phrases come up all the time, which can make a hard language even harder. Especially, when the word-for-word translation sounds like nonsense.

So, Maider and I decided to throw you a bone. We put together a list of 14 Spanish phrases that, when translated literally to English,  make no sense.

Let’s get started 🙂


1. Hablar sin pelos en la lengua

Literal Translation: To speak without hairs on your tongue
What it actually means: To speak frankly or to pull no punches.

This is an expression that’s universal throughout the Spanish speaking world. If you think about the image, having hair on your tongue makes it hard to speak, much less speak your mind.

Without them, you’re free to be unfiltered, not caring how anyone feels.

 Bea habla sin pelos en la lengua. Vas a entender exactamente lo que piensa de ti.


2. Dar Calabazas

Literal translation: Give Pumpkins
What it actually means: Stand someone up on a date

This expression is only used in Spain and its origins are debatable. Apparently, it goes all the way back to ancient Greece. The Greeks didn’t enjoy the humble pumpkin. In fact, they thought of it as an anti-aphrodisiac. I imagine, at the time, giving someone a pumpkin was a harsh way to say, “I never ever want to see you again”.

No no sé que pasó. La esperé por una hora pero nunca llegó. Me dio calabazas.


3. Por si las moscas

Literal Translation: For if the flies
What it actually means: Just in case

There are two origins of the phrase. This first comes from the custom of covering your food when you left the table–just in case of flies.

The second involves a dead saint saving a Spanish city from the invading French Army. According to legend, while laying siege to Girona, the French Army made the mistake of plundering the tomb of Saint Narcissus. They didn’t find any treasure. Instead, a cloud of flies buzzed from the tomb and attacked every French soldier in sight. Covered in bites and infected with the plague, the French Army fled Girona in defeat.

Who knows if the second story is true. But, it makes for a great way to remember the expression.

Vamos a llevar unas botellas extras a la fiesta por si las moscas.


?? 4. Estoy como un sapo de letrina

Literal translation: I’m like a latrine frog
What it actually means: I’m stuffed

This one comes from Puerto Rico. My guess on the origin? The expression probably came from a time when bathrooms were not the cleanest. I imagine a lot of bugs buzzing around. Which would be a perfect place if you were a frog looking for a big meal to keep you full.


?? 5. A huevo!

The literal translation: To egg
What it actually means: Hell yeah!

Here’s when you would use this Mexican expression:

La Selección Mexicana scores a goal: A huevo!

Your boss gives you a raise: A huevo!

You friend ask you, “Do you want another beer?”: A huevo!

You get it.


?? 6. Dar Papaya

Literal Translation: To give papaya
What it actually means: Be careful

You’ll most likely hear this Colombian phrase as “No des papaya” which goes deeper than be careful. What they mean is, “Don’t walk around at night, alone, in a bad neighborhood, flaunting your cell phone, with a bunch of cash in your pocket and a big backpack because you’ll look like you’re asking to get robbed “. But “no des papaya” is much easier to say.


7. Hablar por los codos

Literal Translation: To talk through the elbows
What it actually means: To talk a lot

This expression doesn’t have a clear origin. But I like to think of it this way. People who talk a lot need a way to hold the attention of their audience. What better way than a sharp elbow to the body to remind someone, “Hey, I’m still talking here”.

Cuidate tu tiempo con el. El hombre habla por los codos.


8. Echar los Perros

Literal Translation: To throw the dogs (let loose the dogs)
The actual meaning: To flirt, to hit on (Latin America) / To scold (Spain)

The expression comes from bullfights. Back in the day, if the bull quit chasing the matador’s cloak, the crowd would call for los perros. The pack of canines had one job: scratch, bite and bark at the bovine to provoke it to fight.

In Latin America, you might say “me echa los perros” to describe a guy who said every pickup line imaginable to provoke a girl he wants to take home.

In Spain, however, the expression has a much different connotation. Instead of looking for love, some might echar los perros, when they want to give you a big mean piece of their mind.

No me gusta ir  allá. Suele haber muchos hombres que me echan los perros.


9. Rascarse la barriga/panza

Literal translation: To scratch the belly
What it actually means: To do nothing, to lay around

To remember this one, picture Homer Simpson, laying on the couch with a Duff beer on his belly. That’s pure rascarse la barriga.

Tu amigo: Que has hecho?

Tu: Nada, rascandome la barriga.


10. Estar en el quinto pino

Literal translation: To be in the fifth pine
What it actually means: To be really far away

In the 1700s, five massive pine trees were planted along El Paseo del Prado–then the longest road in Madrid. For Madrilenos, the pine trees acted landmarks that denote how far you were from the city center. If you were near the first pine then you were downtown. If you were close to the fifth pine then you were way out in the sticks.

The expression came into vogue at a time in Spanish history when you had to keep your love life on the down low. So, if you wanted to set a date with your mistress or forbidden lover, you would say “Me encuentras en el quinto pino” (Meet me near the fifth pine).

The phrase stuck, which makes me believe those quiet meetings at el quinto pino didn’t stay very quiet.

No quiero ir allá. Está en el quinto pino y ya tengo mucho hambre.


?? 11. Estoy bien crudo

Literal translation: I’m raw
What it actually means: I’m hungover

This is a classic Mexican saying. After putting down one too many beers you feel raw–like you’re not even human anymore.

Apaga la luz! Estoy bien crudo. Tomé como veinte chelas, anoche.


12. Montar un pollo

Literal translation: Put together a chicken
What it actually means: To make a scene

This one comes from Spain it doesn’t have anything to do with chickens. The actual term is montar un poyo which means to put together a stone bench. On which you’d stand in a crowded plaza, to talk about a polemic issue and make a massive scene.

Estaba tan enfado con Juanje que monté un pollo en el Carrefour. Le regañe algo fuerte.


13. Dormir la mona

Literal Translation: Sleep the Monkey
What it actually means: Sleep it off

You would use this Spanish term to describe when you’ve had too much to drink and need to sleep off the drunkness. Or more likely, the next morning when you gotta sleep off a nasty hangover.

The term comes from the 16th century when it was common at lavish parties to offer wine to monkeys. (I guess back in the day the super-rich wanted to see what drunk monkeys looked like.) The practice caught on so much that a sad drunk person was called a “mona triste” and a happy drunk was called a “mona alegre”. Over time, mona became a term for your drunk self. Of course, when you libated too much you had to let your monkey rest, hence “Dormir la mona”

Estás re borracha, Karen. Vete a la casa para dormir la Mona.


14. Hincar los codos

Literal Translation: Nail the elbows
What it actually means: Hit the books

This is a Mexican term paints a gruesome picture of having your elbows nailed to the table. Think of the last time you needed to buckle down and study but kept procrastinating. I bet it would have helped to keep studying if your elbows were nailed to the table.

Si pierdo este examen, pierdo el curso. No puedo salir esta noche. Tengo que hincar los codos.


?? = more common in Latin America


Wait…we’ve got even more Spanish Idioms

If you like these 14 phrases we have good news for you. Maider and I put together a Free PDF with all the idioms you just learned here plus 11 more essential Spanish expressions. You’ll use these phrases in day-to-day Spanish–no matter where in the world you are.

Spanish idioms 1-25

FREE PDF Download of 25 Spanish Idioms

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