20 Common Spanish Idioms to Help You Sound Like a Native Speaker


June 21, 2019

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You can learn all the Spanish words that you want, but unless you understand common Spanish idioms, you’d still be at a complete loss when talking to Spanish speakers.

Common spanish idioms

I mean, how would you know that a Spaniard is flirting with you when they refer to it as throwing disks at you (te tira los tejos)?  And how are you to understand that a funny guy is also a horny person (es un cachondo)?

Learning about Spanish idioms will not only make you truly understand real Spanish as it is actually spoken by native speakers….it will also make you sound a little more natural.

Sounds like a great deal, huh? So today, we’ll take a look at 20 common Spanish idioms and discover what they mean.

1 . Dar en el clavo

Literal meaning: Hit on the nail

What it really means: To be assertive

Aggressive, assertive, unyielding….hard-hitting. This one’s pretty easy to understand.

Example: ¡Nuestro gobierno nunca parece dar en el clavo con sus decisiones! Our government never seems to hit on the nail with their decisions!

2. Dormirse en los laureles

Literal meaning: Fall asleep in the laurels

What it really means: To cease to make an effort after achieving success

This is quite similar to the English version “to rest on your laurels”.

Example: Nuestro equipo simplemente se ha dormido en los laureles. Our team has simply fallen asleep on the laurels.

3. Entre la espada y la pared

Literal meaning: Between the sword and the wall

What it really means: Having to choose between two equally bad things

Does this remind you of “a rock and a hard place”? It’s basically the same thing.

Example: Mi amigo me ha puesto entre la espada y la pared, ¡quiere que elija entre gatos o perros! My friend put me between the sword and the wall, he wants me to pick a favourite between cats or dogs!

4. Con la soga al cuello

Literal meaning: With the rope to the neck

What it really means: To be in a situation of a lot of pressure

A noose around your neck. That sure feels like a whole lot of pressure, doesn’t it?

Example: Cuando mi novia quiere salir de compras conmigo me siento como con la soga al cuello. Whenever my girlfriend wants to go out shopping I feel as if I have a rope tied to the neck.

5. Le falta un tornillo

Literal meaning: Missing a screw

What it really means: To be crazy

To put it nicely, someone with a screw loose is an eccentric person. Or a nutjob and a wacko, if one can be so blunt about it.

Example: Está comprobado que las personas que odian el chocolate sufren de una rara enfermedad: ¡les falta un tornillo. / It has been scientifically proven that those who hate chocolate suffer from a rare disease: they're missing a screw!

6. Dos pajaros de un tiro

Literal meaning: Two birds with one shot

What it really means: To get two things done at once

Similar to its English counterpart, when you hit two birds with one shot (or with one stone), you are accomplishing two things at once! (hey, good for you)

Example: Al quedarme dormido maté dos pájaros de un solo tiro: ahorre energía y mis empleados tienen tiempo extra para terminar sus obligaciones. By falling asleep I killed two birds with one stone: I saved some energy and my employees have extra time to finish their obligations.

7. La gallina de los huevos de oro

Literal meaning: The hen that lays the golden eggs

What it really means: A source of wealth

Example: ¡Algún día encontrare mi gallina de los huevos de oro!  Someday I will find my chicken with the golden eggs!

8. Meter la pata

Literal meaning: Put the foot in

What it really means: To screw up/ to mess up/ make a blunder

Example:  Cuando me preguntan si poseo alguna habilidad especial yo siempre hago alarde de mi talento para meter la pata. Whenever I'm asked if I have any special skill I always brag about my talent to screw up

9. Pasarse de la raya

Literal meaning: To cross the line

What it really means: To do something that can't be tolerated

I’m pretty sure you already know what crossing the line means, right? Same as with English, this one means that you have reached a point where you can no longer be tolerated.

Example: Nunca me paso de la raya, pero siempre busco estar encima de ella.  I never cross the line, but I always try to stay on top of it.

10. Pedir peras al olmo

Literal meaning: Asking for pears from the elm

What it really means: Expect something that is impossible

This one is somewhat similar to the English counterpart “getting blood from a stone” or “trying to squeeze blood from a stone”. Either way, what you’re asking for is impossible.

Example: Pedirle a nuestro gobierno transparencia total es como pedirle peras al olmo. Asking our government for total transparency is like asking pears from an elm tree.

See also:

Spanish Idioms Quiz: How Many of This Do You Know?

Popular Spanish Proverbs

11. Poner el dedo en la llaga

Literal meaning: To put your finger on it

What it really means: To be straightforward about the source of a bad situation

Example: No le preguntes sobre su ruptura con su novio, eso sí es poner el dedo en la llaga. Don't ask her about her breakup with her boyfriend, now that's really putting the finger on the wound.

12. Salirse con la suya

Literal meaning: Get away with it

What it really means: To succeed at getting something through obnoxious methods

Example: Nuestra mascota siempre logra salirse con la suya. Our pet always manages to get away with it.

13. Ser pan comido

Literal meaning: to be eating bread

What it really means: to be easy

Example: Para mí, todas esas actividades son pan comido. To me all of those activities are eaten bread.

14. Ser un cero a la izquierda

Literal meaning: To be a zero to the left

What it really means: To not have any influence

Example: Tus comentarios negativos son un cero a la izquierda para nosotros. Your negative comments are just a zero to the left to us.

15. Tener agallas

Literal meaning: to have guts

What it really means: To be brave

Example: Tener las agallas para decir que no a una pizza gratis es una acción respetable... ¡y muy tonta! Having the guts to say no to a free pizza is a respectable action... and a very foolish one too!

16. A duras penas

Literal meaning: At tough hardship

What it really means: To barely achieve something

Example: Pude terminar todo mi trabajo pendiente a duras penas.  I was barely able to finish all of my pending work.

17. Costar un ojo de la cara

Literal meaning: To cost an eye of the face

What it really means: Something very expensive

In English, it would cost you an arm and a leg. The Spanish version, however, is an eye. Either way, it means that something would cost you a fortune.

Example: Salir con mi familia casi siempre me cuesta un ojo de la cara. Going out with my family almost always cost me an eye off my face.

18. Perder los estribos

Literal meaning: To lose the stirrup

What it really means: To get angry

When you “lose the stirrup”, you’ve basically lost your temper. It is also similar to the English idiom “to fly off the handle”.

Siempre pierdo los estribos cuando hablan mal de Derrick Rose.  I always lose it when people talk badly about Derrick Rose.

19. Echar leña al fuego

Literal meaning: To throw wood to the fire

What it really means: To raise the intensity of something

When something is already burning and you add more wood to it, you are making things escalate further. This is quite similar to the English version “to add fuel to the fire”.

Example:   Echar leña al fuego cuando otros discuten es malo, ¡debemos asegurarnos de echar suficiente gasolina primero! Throwing wood into the fire when others argue is bad, we should always make sure to put enough gasoline first!

20. De buena fe

Literal meaning: Of good faith

What it really means: To do something with good intentions

This one is self-explanatory. Doing something in good faith means you have clear intentions and aren’t up to something shady.

Example: Todo lo que hago por mis amigos es de buena fe. Everything I do for my friends is in good faith



Spanish idioms are fun and easy enough to learn. They also make conversations so much more colorful. Which idiomatic expression is your favorite so far? Share it with us in the comments!

Writing practice

Try using one of the Spanish idioms above in a sample sentence. Share it with us in the comments!

About the author 

Janey is a fan of different languages and studied Spanish, German, Mandarin, and Japanese in college. She has now added French into the mix, though English will always be her first love. She loves reading anything (including product labels).

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