Living and Working in Spain

Tips for learning Spanish: 10 most common spanish idioms

Living and Working in Spain Cinthia Prida

When you think about living in another country, one of the first things you think about is the language. Which language do I have to learn? And more importantly, which language do I need to understand? When we start learning a language, we worry a lot about being able to speak it quickly, but we must not forget that understanding what our new neighbours are saying is absolutely essential.

Knowing the meaning of words and applying grammatical rules is not always enough. When you live in another country and you are dealing with a new language on a daily basis, you have to know the expressions and idioms that the locals use most often, especially if you are already an intermediate speaker. We highly recommend listening to Español con vos, a podcast for intermediate students who want to practice their Spanish. Idioms are those expressions that you cannot translate literally, as the sum of the words has a completely different meaning from each of its parts taken together.

One of the tips for learning Spanish that I always give to my students is the following one: try to learn some idioms and you will feel like a Spaniard. That's why today I'm sharing with you ten of the most common Spanish idioms. Let's begin!


1. Ponerse las botas

Generally, this expression is used as a synonym for eating a lot. It refers to abundance, profiting from something or enjoying an experience very much. It literally means “put your boots on”. At the time of their first appearance, boots were a luxury item. As they were made of leather, only the upper classes had access to them. Therefore, those who wore boots were the ones who ate the most and could do the best business.

Examples of its use:

En la boda de mi hermana nos pusimos las botas, estaba todo riquísimo.

El Barcelona ganó 10-0. Sus delanteros se pusieron las botas marcando goles. 


2. Meter la pata

This expression is used in Spain and throughout the Spanish-speaking world. It means to make a mistake or an error. Many people say that the origin is related to the paw that an animal clumsily places in a trap to fall into the hands of the hunter.

Examples of its use:

¿Me ayudas a escribir este correo? Es para un trabajo y no quiero meter la pata.

He metido la pata, le he dicho a Luis cuál será su regalo de Navidad. 


3. Estar como una cabra

In Spain, goats are not only famous for helping us to make delicious cheeses; they are also the subject of one of the most commonly used expressions to tell someone that he or she is crazy, or acts on an impulse and without thinking carefully. Goats are characterised by being restless animals, sometimes bad-tempered and jumping around in a flashy way. It is mainly used in a friendly way, in confidence.

Examples of its use:

¿De verdad te has comprado otro coche? ¡Pero si ya tienes tres! Estás como una cabra.

Hay que estar como una cabra para sacarse una selfie colgado de un acantilado. 

tips for learning spanish teacher


4. Tomar el pelo

If you live in Spain you may hear someone asking the following question: "¿Me tomas el pelo? Or perhaps, you might see someone a bit angry saying "No me tomes el pelo". It literally translates as "taking my hair", but it actually means to tease or trick someone. It can be used in a friendly way or with bad intentions. Its English equivalent is pulling someone's leg.

Examples of its use: 

¡Este libro ya me lo regalaste el año pasado! ¿Me estás tomando el pelo?

Mis compañeros de trabajo me tomaron el pelo el primer día de trabajo. Me dijeron que en España la gente se saluda con cuatro besos. 


5. Montar un pollo

This particular expression means making a fuss, complaining, shouting or starting an argument. The literal translation would be making a chicken, but the chicken does not refer to the animal, but to the "poyo", a small stone bench where men used to go to give speeches in the squares.

Examples of usage:

Mi suegra montó un pollo en el centro comercial porque nadie respetaba la fila.

Julieta me va a montar un pollo por llegar tarde a la cita.


6. Hacerse el sueco

This is one of the expressions that most attracted my interest when I arrived in Spain. It means playing the fool or acting as if distracted, pretending you don't understand what you are being talked about.

And why Swedish and not Australian or German? There are several theories. One refers to the shoes worn by actors in the Roman theatre (soccus, hence Swedish), indicating that someone is acting clumsily. For other linguists, this expression comes from the period of the Napoleonic wars, in which Sweden was a neutral country. As the theory goes, it is said that some vessels of the belligerent countries, in order to avoid the sequestration of the vessel and her cargo by the Spanish Authorities, flew the Swedish flag in order to appear as “neutral”. So passing as Swedes allowed them to enter Spain without encumbrance.

Examples of its use:

Jorge me preguntó por el libro que me había prestado. Yo no sé dónde está así que me hice la sueca.

Los políticos se hacen los suecos cuando les preguntan por su sueldo. 


7. Estar en el quinto pino

When you need to say that something is far away, this is the idiom to be used. Apparently, it has its origins in the city of Madrid and refers to five huge pine trees that were located on the Paseo del Prado-Paseo de Recoletos. The fifth pine tree, the last one, was the one located at the furthest point from the city centre. For this reason, many young people in love decided to meet in the fifth pine tree.

Examples of use:

La escuela de yoga está en el quinto pino, voy a buscar otra más cerca de casa.

El escenario está muy lejos y no veo nada. ¡Estamos en el quinto pino! 


8. Tener la mosca detrás de la oreja

Literally, to have the fly behind your ear. In Spanish it means to have a bad feeling, to be worried about an issue, to be alert about something. Many people relate this expression to the annoying noise insects make when they get close to a person's ear, but in reality, the "fly" refers to the fuse of a gun used in the old days, which had to be placed behind the ear so that it was ready for use at all times.

Examples of use:

Estoy con la mosca detrás de la oreja porque la entrevista de trabajo fue el lunes y todavía no me han llamado.

Mi hijo llega muy temprano a casa estos días. Tengo la mosca detrás de la oreja, quizás está faltando a clase. 


9. Entre pitos y flautas

This is one of the most sonorous and useful expressions, I use it a lot and you will see why. The literal translation would be between whistles and flutes, and in Spanish it is used to talk about unimportant things that have happened or that you have done. The origin of this expression is unknown, but it refers to those unimportant events that lead you to the current situation (mainly distracting or bothering you). You will understand it better with a couple of examples.

Examples of its use:

Quería terminar hoy el trabajo, pero entre pitos y flautas todavía no he empezado y ya son las tres de la tarde.

Esta mañana he ido al centro comercial y entre pitos y flautas, ¡he gastado más de 200€!

tips for learning spanish kid


10. Dar las uvas

Finally, an expression especially used in Spain. If you hear someone say "Nos van a dar las uvas" it does not mean that we are going to be given some grapes. This phrase is used to say that we have to hurry up, that we are being very slow or are running late. It also means that it is getting late. The origin of this expression is in the Spanish custom of eating twelve grapes to welcome the New Year, eating one grape for each stroke at midnight on 31 December. It means (metaphorically) that we are so slow that we are going to do something (or arrive) on 31 December.

Examples of its use:

¡Cámbiate ya que nos van a dar las uvas! Ya son las 8 y nos esperan para cenar.

Nos pusimos a charlar y nos dieron las uvas. Al final, fuimos los últimos en irnos del bar.

As you can see, all these everyday expressions have different meanings and will be really useful in everyday life. If you want to read more tips for learning Spanish, you can have a look to this post. In the meantime, I'll keep thinking about other idioms that I'll explain to you soon, so keep practising! See you soon!

Download Free Recipe: How to Make a Spanish Omelette

Cinthia Prida

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