According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, an idiom is defined as ‘a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own’1 and Spanish, like English, is full of idioms which are used on a daily basis. They often don’t make sense if translated literally, so here are 10 Spanish idioms (also known as modismos), explained.
1. Buscarle tres pies al gato
English: Don’t look for a problem where there isn’t one/ nit picking
This idiom literally translates to don’t look for searching for three feet on the cat. It is often said MLwhen someone is making your life difficult, being overly picky about something, or if e.g. a request is far fetched.
2. Se me ha ido el santo al cielo
English: Forgot what you were about to say/do
If your mother calls you and asks you to defrost the chicken before she gets home, and suddenly you hear the key turn in the door and realise you’ve forgotten to do so, you might use this idiom to soften the blow.
3. Descubrir el pastel
English: To spill the beans/let the cat out of the bag
If you’re a member of Gen-Z, then you’ve most likely heard of the term spilling the tea. Well, this is the Spanish equivalent of that. This idiom translates as ‘to discover the cake’, which sounds quite appetising!
4. Pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo
Thinking about the immortality of a crab is perhaps one of the most creative idioms in the Spanish language. It is usually used in a humorous way to highlight that someone was not paying attention. For instance, a teacher may realise that their student isn’t paying attention or has zoned out, and proceed to say ‘ ¿Qué haces? ¿Pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo o qué?.’ (‘What are you doing? Daydreaming?’)
5. Me cayó el veinte
English: It dawned on me/suddenly it hit me
The 20 finally fell on me is what this idiom literally translates to, and sounds like cash magically fell onto the protagonist in a film set in NYC. However, this idiom is far from that. This is used when you have a moment of realisation and have finally understood something.
6. No tengo un pavo
English: I’m penniless
Broke? No problem. This is the Spanish idiom for you. Although it does translate to ‘I don’t have a turkey’ which could be interpreted as you having the main dish missing from your Christmas spread.
7. Estás como una cabra
English: You’re out of your mind/bananas
B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Cue the Gwen Stefani song.
This idiom translates to you are like a goat, and is a colloquial expression used when someone is behaving in a wild manner. It can also refer to an object that does not work very well or how it’s supposed to.
8. Llorar como una magdalena
English: To cry one’s eyes out
'Crying like a cupcake' is the literal translation of this, which sounds adorable. Although, realistically someone might need to bring an entire box of tissues if you hear this expression being used.
9. Dale vuelta a la tortilla
English: To turn the tables
This one has a similar concept to the English equivalent, as it literally means to turn the omelette over (yum!). It may be used when significant change has occurred, or when something is now in one’s favour.
10. Costar un ojo de la cara
English: Cost an arm and a leg /to break the bank
Student life, especially in London, can be adequately described by this idiom. In fact, it is the embodiment of this idiom. However, this one is quite graphic, and translates as ‘to cost an eye (which is) on your face’. This may be used when referring to anything which is expensive e.g. international calls.
IDIOM | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary [Internet]. Dictionary.cambridge.org. 2020. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/idiom