Probably one of the most frustrating things when learning a language is to realize that, no matter the amount of grammar rules and vocabulary you learn, sometimes talking and understanding Spanish speakers can be really hard. Although this may be discouraging, it doesn’t mean that you are doing something wrong. It just means that you need to learn some idiomatic expressions in Spanish.
What are idiomatic expressions in Spanish? The idioms or idiomatic expressions are informal phrases that native speakers use most of the time and that usually, you don’t learn in school, but rather in daily life.
Learning idiomatic expressions in Spanish not only will help you understand native speakers better, but they will also make you sound more natural and fluent. Just as in English, the list of Spanish idioms is huge, however, we’ll give you some of the most common, so you can start using them right away.
Costar un Ojo de la Cara – To cost an arm and a leg
A common expression that people say in English is ‘to cost an arm and a leg’ when expressing that something is really expensive, in Spanish we say ‘costar un ojo de la cara’.
Ese celular cuesta un ojo de la cara That phone costs an arm and a leg
Me gustan mis zapatos, pero me costaron un ojo de la cara I like my shoes, but they cost me an arm and a leg
Although these phrases are very similar, it’s better for you to use the Spanish version when talking to a native speaker.
Echarle Ganas – To give your best
This idiomatic expression doesn’t have a direct translation in English, but it’s close in meaning to ‘pull your socks up’ or ‘give your best’.
Le eché ganas a mi proyecto I gave my best in my project
Échale ganas a tu trabajo o pueden despedirte Pull your socks up in your job or they’ll fire you
We also use this Spanish idiom to encourage people when they are going through a bad time. In this case, ‘echarle ganas’ would mean something like ‘be more enthusiastic’ or ‘don’t give up’. For example, if one of your friends is having a bad year and they’re sad, you would say:
¡Échale ganas! Todo va a estar bien Don’t give up, everything is going to be fine
Entre la Espada y la Pared – Between a rock and a hard place
This idiom is very common among all the Spanish speaking countries and is the direct translation for the English phrase ‘between a rock and a hard place’. Although this is considered an idiomatic expression, we can also use it in formal situations.
Estoy entre la espada y la pared con estos trabajos I can’t choose between these two jobs. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place
When a situation or the circumstances put us between a rock and a hard place ’ we use this Spanish idiom with the verb ‘Estar’, but when somebody is doing that to us, we change the verb:
No me pongan entre la espada y la pared Don’t put me between a rock and a hard place
Mi jefe me puso entre la espada y la pared My boss caught me between a rock and a hard place
Bailar con la Más Fea – To get the short straw
If you have Mexican friends and want to learn more about their vocabulary, then, this idiomatic expression is perfect for you. Although it seems we are talking about dancing and ugly girls, don’t let the direct translation to confuse you! ‘Bailar con la más fea’ means to get the worst part of a situation or to be at a disadvantage. If you wanted to translate this Spanish idiom into English, ‘to get the short straw’ is close in meaning.
Here is an example of how you would use this phrase:
Carlos no puede tomar porque tiene que llevar a todos a su casa. Hoy le tocó bailar con la más fea Carlos can’t drink because he’s going to drive all his friends. Today he got the short straw
When using ‘bailar con la más fea’, you need the verb ‘tocar’ and indirect pronouns. Although you may get confused because ‘tocar’ means ‘to touch’, don’t forget that an idiomatic expression can’t be translated word by word.
Dar en el Clavo – To hit the nail on the head
‘Dar en el clavo’ is another Spanish idiom that you can use in all the Spanish speaking countries. It’s a colloquial phrase to say that somebody predicted correctly, nailed it, or was accurate about a situation. The direct translation in English would be ‘hit the nail on the head’. Even though ‘dar en el clavo’ is an idiomatic expression, you can use it in formal situations. In fact, it’s very common to find it in newspapers and newscasts.
El gobierno dio en el clavo con la estrategia contra la inseguridad The government hit the nail on the head with the strategy against insecurity
Ana y Juan dieron en el clavo con esa casa Ana and Juan hit the nail on the head with that house
Although these examples can fit in a formal situation, don’t forget that you can also use this phrase among your friends.
Tomar al Toro por los Cuernos – To take the bull by the horns
Depending on the country you are, you might hear ‘agarrar al toro por los cuernos’, ‘coger al toro por los cuernos’ or ‘tomar al toro por los cuernos’. All these phrases mean the same thing: take the bull by the horns. Just as in English, this Spanish expression means to deal with difficult or unpleasant situations.
No estoy feliz con mi trabajo, así que tomé los cuernos por los toros y renuncié I’m not happy with my work, so I took the bull by the horns and I quit
Coge el toro por los cuernos y dile lo que sientes Take the bull by the horns and tell her what you feel
La Gota que Derramó el Vaso – The straw that breaks the camel’s back
This is the Spanish version of the idiom ‘the last straw’ or ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’. Although this phrase is used in many situations, in more formal contexts or other Spanish speaking countries you might hear ‘La gota que colmó el vaso’. Don’t forget that depending on the country you are, you might hear one or the other one.
La gota que derramó el vaso fue que no le ayudaron con la limpieza. Están castigados The last straw was that, they didn’t help her clean. They are grounded
La gente no está contenta. La gota que colmó el vaso fue el aumento de impuestos People aren’t happy. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the tax increase
La Edad del Pavo/La Edad de la Punzada – Difficult age
This idiomatic expression in Spanish expresses that teenagers are a headache. Although you won’t find a direct translation into English, you could say something like ‘awkward age/phase’ or ‘difficult age’. ‘La edad de la punzada’ describes that puberty can be an awkward phase for people who have to deal with teenagers. In this period, most of the teenagers are rude, grumpy and rebellious. If you come across a kid like this use ‘la edad de la punzada/del pavo’ and people will understand what you are talking about.
Mis hijos están en la edad de la punzada. Son insoportables. My kids are at a difficult age. They are unbearable
No quiso venir, ya sabes que está en la edad del pavo He didn’t want to come, you know he’s in an awkward age
Even though both phrases mean the same thing, if you are in Spain, you will only use ‘la edad del pavo’, but if you are in Mexico, you would say ‘la edad de la punzada’. If you mix them, it’s not the end of the word. It’s very likely that people will still be able to understand you.
Echarle Mucha Crema a tus Tacos – To exaggerate
If you read “tacos” and think about Mexico, you are right. This idiomatic expression is Mexican. And even if it seems we are talking about toppings for your tacos, this idiom means something way different. As you can imagine, you can’t translate this phrase into English word by word. ‘Echarle mucha crema a tus tacos’ is an expression we use to say ‘don’t exaggerate’ or ‘now you are exaggerating’.
No le eches crema a tus tacos, no nos pasó nada Don’t exaggerate, nothing happened to us
Le eché mucha crema a mis tacos, esa chava no está tan guapa Now I’m exaggerating, that girl is not that pretty
Of course, we can also use it to express that somebody likes to exaggerate.
No le creo. Le gusta echarle mucha crema a sus tacos. I don’t believe him. He likes to exaggerate.
Just as ‘echarle crema a tus tacos’, Mexican Spanish has a lot of funny and useful slang expressions. If you are interested in learning some Mexican slang to improve your Spanish or impress your friends, here is a list with some of the most common expressions you’ll want to learn.
De Buenas a Primeras – Suddenly
‘De Buenas a Primeras’ is a synonym of ‘de repente’. As a result, the direct translation of this idiomatic expression in Spanish would be ‘out of the blue’, ‘suddenly’ or ‘all of a sudden’. Although this phrase is considered an idiom, it’s very common to use it in both formal and informal situations.
No puedes cambiar de opinión así de buenas a primeras You can’t change your mind all of a sudden
De buenas a primeras agarró sus cosas y renunció All of a sudden he took his things and quit
Andarse/Irse Por las Ramas – To beat around the bush
If you want your Spanish to be more natural, this is one of the idioms you must add to your vocabulary. ‘Andarse/Irse por las Ramas’ is the Spanish version of ‘beat around the bush’ and just as in English, we use this expression when somebody avoids getting to the point.
No me gusta hablar con ellos, siempre se andan por las ramas I don’t like talking to them, they always beat around the bush
Of course, you can use this idiomatic expression in its negative form ‘no andarse por las ramas’. In English this could be translated as ‘stick to the point’ or ‘don’t go off on a tangent’.
¡No te andes por las ramas! Dime qué pasó Stick to the point! Tell me what happened
As you might have noticed, some of the idiomatic expressions change the verb depending on the Spanish country you are in. This phrase is no different. You could hear ‘irse por las ramas’ or ‘andarse por las ramas’, but the meaning will remain the same.
Dejar con el Ojo Cuadrado – To be surprised
Although you might think this is the translation for ‘to have square eyes’, this idiomatic expression in Spanish is the same as ‘to be surprised’ or ‘to be astonished’. Depending on the country you are visiting, you could also hear this expression as ‘Dejar con la boca abierta’.
Las noticias nos dejaron con la boca abierta We were astonished by the news
Me dejaste con el ojo cuadrado. Tus pinturas son muy buenas I’m very surprised. Your paintings are very good
In Mexico, we use both, but ‘Dejar con el ojo cuadrado’ is more informal and ‘Dejar con la boca abierta’ is perfect for all situations, including the formal ones.
Pedirle Peras al Olmo – To expect the impossible
The direct translation of ‘Pedirle peras al olmo’ is expecting pears from an elm tree, something that probably doesn’t make much sense to you. However, this Spanish idiom is very common in both informal and formal situations. Although the direct translation doesn’t work very well, this expression is close in meaning to ‘expect the impossible’ . All these phrases express the same thing: expecting the impossible from something or somebody.
Le pides peras al olmo, ya sabes que no te va a ayudar You are expecting the impossible, you know she’s not going to help you
Ya los conoces. Es como pedirle peras al olmo You know them. It’s like expecting the impossible
Echarle Más Leña al Fuego – To fuel the fire
This direct translation for this expression is to ‘fuel the fire’ and just in English, in Spanish, we use it to say that somebody is making things worse by saying or doing something. Fortunately, this is an idiomatic expression that you can use in all Spanish speaking countries.
¡Cállate! No le eches más leña al fuego Shut up! Don’t add more fuel the fire
Con ese comentario sólo le echaste más leña al fuego You just made things worse with that comment
When using this phrase, don’t forget to conjugate the verb to match both the tense and the people that are making the action. In this case, you don’t need to change the indirect pronoun.
Dar el Brazo a Torcer – To be talked into
This idiom is also very useful if you want your Spanish to be more natural. Although ‘Dar el brazo a torcer’ doesn’t have a direct translation in English, it’s close in meaning to ‘allow yourself to be persuaded’ or ‘be talked into’. In other words, this idiomatic expression is the same as giving up or admitting something.
Es muy terca y nunca da su brazo a torcer She is so stubborn and she never allows herself to be persuaded
Mis papás dieron su brazo a torcer y me dejaron ir a la fiesta I talked my parents into allowing me to go to the party
Ya di mi brazo a torcer y te dije la verdad I admitted it already. I told you the truth
You want to use this idiomatic expression among your friends, but if you are in formal contexts, try to use other words such as ‘convencer’,
With this shortlist, you were able to see that the direct translation and vocabulary always isn’t always going to be helpful when communicating with native Spanish speakers.
Learning idiomatic expressions is as important as learning grammar since these phrases are going to help you to improve your spoken Spanish. Although there are more Spanish idioms, this list is a good start for you to practice. When talking to native people, pay attention to their phrases. That way you can always find new idioms to add to your vocabulary. With a little time and practice, you’ll notice that communicating in Spanish is gets easier with idiomatic expressions!