A Quick Guide to Spanish Idiomatic Expressions


October 6, 2022

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Fluent Spanish speakers understand not only words and phrases, but are able to decipher the many Spanish colloquial expressions and idioms. Just as with English, many of the most common Spanish idioms vary widely from their literal translations.

We'll cover some of the most famous Spanish idioms, so you'll sound like a native speaker in no time!

Spanish Idioms

About modismos

Spanish idioms, or modismos, are informal phrases used to express a variety of thoughts and emotions. Sometimes, using literal descriptive words doesn't do the situation justice to truly express what you're feeling.

Spanish varies across the world – you'll find different modismos in every country. We'll touch on the most common that you'll find in Spain or understood by Spanish-speakers in general.

The most important thing about using these Spanish idioms is the context. They're best used in informal situations when talking casually with friends. Hearing them by themselves might be confusing at first, but with a bit of practice, you'll be able to use them as part of your everyday language!

Spanish idioms related to English

The good news for native English-speakers is that you'll recognize a few of the top Spanish idioms that have similar meanings across the languages. While the word choice might be a bit different, the overall meaning holds, and people use them in the same situations.

One of the most common Spanish idioms is “pan comida,” which translates literally to “eating bread,” but it used to say that something was easy. The related expression in English is saying that something was “a piece of cake.”

You can use pan comida in a variety of situations such as after taking an exam or winning a race. You'll often hear "el examen es pan comida," or "the exam is a piece of cake."

Another popular phrase with a similar expression in English is "tomar el pelo," which translates to "take someone's hair." People use the expression while messing with someone jokingly. The phrase is familiar in English as "pulling someone's leg."

You'll use the phrase in the same way in English as in "me estes tomando el pelo," or “you're pulling my leg.”

If you're planning to go shopping, a Spanish expression to keep handy is "costar un mojo de la cara," which means that something is very expensive. The literal translation is "to cost an eye out of the head," or, in related English, "to cost an arm and a leg."

Another Spanish expression related to body parts is "aprobar por los pelos," or to “pass by a hair.” The phrase is exactly the same as English when you achieve something with the bare minimum score, for example.

As you begin to make more Spanish-speaking friends, you'll often start to hear a lot of gossip and sharing secrets while hanging out or chatting on the phone. If you're anxious to listen to the latest updates, simply say, "Suelta la sopa!" or "spill the soup!" The phrase is similar to the English idiom "spill the beans."

When you finally hear what you've been expecting, it's common to say the phrase "ya salió el peine." The Spanish expression translates to "the comb comes out," or in English terms, "the truth comes out."

Spanish idioms related to animals

As important as animals are to our lives, they also show up in a lot of frequently used Spanish idioms. There are lots of modismos that seem to be talking about animals but actually relate to quite different things.

The Spanish word for cat, or gato, is commonly used in Spanish idioms. Some of the most popular include:

Aqui hay un gato encerrado – something seems strange

Buscarle la quinta pata al gato – looking for problems that don't exist

The first phrase, "aqui hay un gato encerrado," may also be rephrased as "huele a gato encerrado," in some countries. The phrase literally translates to "here's a locked up cat," or "smells like a locked up cat," respectively.

In English, the latter might be a bit more relatable, with most people being familiar with the phrase, "something smells fishy."

You use either of the phrases when you have a strange feeling about something.

The second phrase, "buscarle a quinta pata al gato" means that someone is trying to overcomplicate things. The literal translation is to “look for the fifth foot on the cat," which is an impossible task since it doesn't exist.

Another common Spanish expression related to animals is "pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo." The phrase translates as "thinking about the immortality of a crab." The idiomatic translation is to “zone out.”

The perfect setting where you might hear the phrase used is in a classroom or meeting. People say it when someone has clearly zoned out.

A related phrase common throughout Spain is to say "estar empanada," or "to be breaded." When used in the correct context, it also means to be zoned out.

Miscellaneous Spanish idioms

Not all Spanish idioms relate to English. You'll definitely need to hear the phrases used in the correct context because even the literal translations have no connection to what the person is actually trying to say.

One example is "caer gordo." Many people use the phrase to express that something (or someone) is annoying. The literal translation of the phrase is "to fall fat."

If someone annoys you, you can say, "me caes gordo."

Another example is "tirar la casa por la ventana." Many girls will be excited to hear the phrase when talking about their wedding or quinceañera. The phrase literally translates as "to throw the house out of the window" – in the right context it means to “go all out,” such as with spending money.

Let's be honest, we don't enjoy all of our conversations. For some conversations, we may tune the other person out or disregard everything they just said. In these situations, you can say, "le di el avión." The phrase means to ignore or disregard someone, but in a literal sense, it means "to give someone the airplane."

See below for a complete list plus a few bonus Spanish idioms you might hear and their meanings:

Pan comidaIt’s easy
Costar un mojo de la caraIt’s expensive
Soltar la sopaTo tell a secret
Hace un tiempo de perrosBad weather
Ya salióel pieneThe truth comes out
Aprobar por los pelosTo barely pass
Dormir como un truncoTo sleep very well
Ponte las picasTo put energy into it / look alive
Darle el avión a alguienTo ignore or disregard someone
Caer gordoWhen something/someone annoys you
No saber ni papa de algoTo not have a clue about something
Tirar la casa por la ventanaTo go all out (spending)
Aqui hay un gato encerradoWhen something is fishy/strange
Buscarle la quita pata al gatoTo overcomplicate things / to be looking for problems
Pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejoZone out / space out
Me pica el bagreTo be very hungry

Let us know in the comments which of these Spanish idioms you’ve heard before.

About the author 

Bryan Shelmon is a travel writer, living the digital nomad lifestyle as of the past few years to immerse himself into the travel industry. Bryan has traveled to regions including the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe, and Southeast Asia. While traveling, he enjoys attending local cultural events and working on creative projects. Bryan continues to grow as a writer, achieving a #1 Best Selling travel culture guide on Amazon and exploring new regions of the world.

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