20 Spanish Phrases You Should Be Using

iStock.com/MicroStockHub (speech bubble)
iStock.com/MicroStockHub (speech bubble)

With more than 400 million native speakers, Spanish is the world’s second most-used first language. It’s also one of the biggest contributors of loanwords to the English language, thanks in part to its globe-spanning size and the equally sizable influence of Spanish-speaking countries’ food, history, and culture on the world’s English-speaking nations.

You can probably name quite a few of these Spanish loanwords off the top of your head: Everything from tacos and burritos to vigilantes, canyons, and aficionados have found their way into the English dictionary, after all. But just as with French, English has picked up a number of old Spanish proverbs and expressions over the centuries too—many of which have not stood the test of time and have long been forgotten, or else have failed to catch on in the mainstream and ended up cast into the dictionary’s etymological footnotes.

So why not add a little fun to your vocabulary by dropping one of these 20 long-overlooked Spanish phrases into conversation?

1. Aviendo pregonado vino, venden vinagre.

This old Spanish proverb literally means, “having cried their wine, they sell us vinegar.” Feel free to use it in any situation where someone brags about their talents but, when they try to show you what they can do, makes a complete mess of it.

2. Pocas palabras.

Borrowed into English as far back as the 16th century, pocas palabras literally means “few words.” You can use it as essentially an old Spanish equivalent of “enough said!” or “say no more!”

3. Quien sabe?

English speakers first began using this Spanish expression in the early 1800s, but it’s long fallen out of familiar use. It literally means “who knows?” and can be used in response to an unanswerable question or impossible situation.

4. Un cabello hace sombra en el suelo.

Even the smallest of things can have an effect—or so implies this old Spanish proverb that essentially means “even a hair casts a shadow on the floor.”

5. Revolver el ajo.

“To disturb the garlic”—or “to disturb the broth” as another version, revolver el caldo, puts it—is to question the motives of someone who has revisited a long-forgotten matter or quarrel. Idiomatically, it’s like an English speaker re-opening a can of worms.

6. El corazón manda les carnes.

“The heart bears up the body”—or so says this old Spanish proverb that can be interpreted as a proverbial reminder that mental health is just as important as physical health: There’s no point being physically fit if you’re not happy on the inside.

7. Comiendo moscas.

Comiendo moscas literally means “eating flies,” but this has nothing to do with unusual eating habits. Instead, someone accused of comiendo moscas is easily distracted, lost in their own thoughts, or habitually wanders off down pointless tangents in conversation.

8. El que tiene boca, se equivoca.

This neat little rhyming motto literally means “he who has a mouth will make a mistake.” It’s essentially an age-old Spanish reminder that everybody makes mistakes sometime or another.

9. No por mucho madrugar, amanece más temprano.

There’s no use in rushing things—all things happen in their own time, and no sooner than that no matter how much you might want them to. It’s a reassuring thought, and one that’s nicely summed up in this old Spanish proverb that essentially means “getting up earlier won’t make the sun rise any sooner.”

10. Me pica el bagre.

To non-English speakers, hearing someone say “I could eat a horse” probably sounds more than a little unusual. Same goes for this Spanish equivalent: It might literally mean “the catfish is biting me!,” but me pica el bagre just means “I’m ravenously hungry.”

11. Quijadas sin barbas no merecen ser honradas.

If you feel you’re being overlooked because of your youth, here’s an old Spanish proverb you might want to drop into conversation. It literally means “jaws without beards deserve no honors”—and as one 19th century dictionary of Spanish expressions explained, it is a cutting reminder of “the little attention and respect which is commonly shown to young persons.”

12. Del árbol caído todos hacen leña.

“Everyone makes firewood from a fallen tree,” apparently. Or, to put it another way, when you’re already down or having a bad time, that’s when everyone will try to take advantage of you.

13. Dame pan y llámame tonto.

As an adjective, tonto means “stupid” or “foolish” in Spanish, while as a noun it’s an insult equivalent to the English “blockhead” or “dimwit.” With that in mind, among the most peculiar Spanish idioms to drop into conversation is this one—which literally means “give me bread, and call me an idiot.” Take from that what you want, but the usual interpretation here is “I don’t care what people think of me, so long as I get what I want.”

14. Ser como el puerro.

Comparing someone to a leek might not be the most immediately understandable simile you could come across, but the full version of this Spanish proverb—ser como el puerro, tener la cabeza blanca, y lo demás verde—adds a little more detail. It essentially means “like a leek, with a white head and the rest green” and is used to refer to lecherous, women-chasing old men who, despite having gray hair, are still young at heart.

15. Querer es poder.

Querer es poder essentially means “wanting is being able to.” Proverbially, it’s a reminder that if you want something enough, nothing will stop you achieving it—or, put another way, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

16. Tirar la casa por la ventana.

If you’re planning on going all-out on something or sparing no expense, then you can excuse your behavior with this choice Spanish idiom: Tirar la casa por la ventana might literally mean “to throw the house out of the window,” but it’s essentially a Spanish equivalent of “to pull out all the stops.”

17. De golosos y tragones, están llenos los panteones.

Another rhyming proverb, this time from Mexican Spanish, de golosos y tragones, están llenos los panteones literally means “the gluttons and over-eaters, the cemeteries are full of them.” In other words, don’t give in to excess—it’s not always healthy.

18. Habló el buey y dijo “mu!”

When someone who’s been quiet in conversation for a long time suddenly speaks up (and, more often than not, doesn’t contribute anything particularly original or interesting), then you can call on this old Spanish expression: habló el buey y dijo “mu!” literally means “the ox spoke and said 'moo'!”

19. Más cerca está la camisa que el sayo.

Drop this into conversation whenever someone appears to turn their back on their nearest and dearest. An old Spanish proverb meant to remind someone that close friends and relatives are closer than all others, it literally means “the shirt is closer than the coat.”

20. La gala del nadar es saber guardar la rópa.

It’s always worth being prepared for every eventuality, especially when you’re entering into a risky deal or taking on something new. And to help you remember that, there’s this old Spanish saying: La gala del nadar es saber guardar la rópa essentially means “the art of swimming is knowing where to keep your clothes secure.”

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

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