Literal Translation

First of all, I know: it’s been a while. I don’t have any excuses, really; life just got the better of me!

Literal translation is almost never a good idea. Plus, it can sound pretty awkward. Take one of my favorite Spanish expressions, “¡Eres la leche!” Literally, it would be, “You are the milk!” Um, thanks?! There’s gotta be a better way of going about it. Of course there is.

I bought a new book this past feel in my quest to (someday, one day) take the DELE. The DELE is an exam which tests one’s “degree of fluency in the Spanish language” and is “issued and recognised by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport of Spain.” (For further information, check out my friend Cat’s informative post on the subject.)

Anywho, the book I bought is called Hablar por los codos: Frases para un español cotidiano by Gordana de Vranic. The book gathers together 175 frequently-used colloquial expressions and idioms that they say are imprescindibles for daily communication. I’m not so sure about daily, but it’s certainly nice to expand one’s knowledge.

Here are some of my favorites:



Dar gato por liebre.

    • Literally: “to give a cat instead of a hare.”
    • Meaning: “to deceive someone, especially in a business transaction, selling him/her something different than requested, usually of lower quality.”
    • Use it: “No vayas a esa tienda. Ayer me dieron gato por liebre. Me vendieron una cosa que ya se había estropeado.”
    • Origin: Many years ago, it was normal to sell cats instead of rabbits/hares because their meat was so alike that even those most knowledgeable about meat were not able to distinguish between the two.



El mundo es un pañuelo.

  • Literally: “the world is a scarf.”
  • Meaning: “it’s a small world (after all).”
  • Use it: “Cuando estaba estudiando en Canadá, me encontré con mi antigua compañera de la universidad. Ahora vive en Madrid, pero se había ido de vacaciones a Toronto. ¡El mundo es un pañuelo!”



Hay cuatro gatos.

  • Literally: “there are four cats.”
  • Meaning: “there aren’t very many people in a certain place.”
  • Use it: “Ayer en el bar había cuatro gatos.”

el santo


Írsele el santo al cielo.

  • Literally: “the saint goes up to heaven [on someone].”
  • Meaning: “get confused, forget what one was talking about or what one had to do.”
  • Use it: “Estaba hablando con Teresa y se me fue el santo al cielo. No me acordaba de lo que quería decirle.”
  • Origin: It’s possible that it has to do with a priest who started talking about earthly things because he forgot about what saint and for what purpose he had begun speaking.



Pasar la noche en blanco.

  • Literally: “to spend the night in white.”
  • Meaning: “to not sleep all night” / “to not sleep a wink.”
  • Use it: “Estaba estudiando y pasé la noche en blanco. Todavía estoy cansado.”
  • Origin: In some chivalric orders, new members, before being knighted, spent the night awake with their weapons, dressed in white robes to symbolize purity.



Quemarse las pestañas.

  • Literally: “to burn one’s eyelashes.”
  • Meaning: “to study or read a lot.”
  • Use it: “Hay que quemarse las pestañas para aprobar el examen de lengua.”
  • Origin: This is an expression that was used in the past when referring to studying or reading at night and it meant that, as a person would read by the light of a candle, he/she might burn his/her hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows by getting too close to the flame.

What are your favorite Spanish (or English!) idioms/phrases?