Origin of popular Spanish proverbs

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Origin of popular Spanish proverbs

The Spanish language is full of popular sayings and proverbs. Proverbs that Spanish people say daily and which have with very interesting origins. Reflecting on these origins allow us to know many interesting facts of the Spanish culture and language.

For all students taking a Spanish course in Madrid, check out these 8 famous Spanish proverbs and sayings. A great way to get closer to your new friends in Madrid!

1. Vete a hacer puñetas

Go make some cuffs!

(Get lost!)

A typical expression from Madrid. You may not have heard it from your friends, but when a grandfather or grandmother from Madrid gets angry, you’ll probably hear them say, “¡Vete a hacer puñetas!”The meaning of this proverb could not be more interesting: it appeared at the beginning of the XIX century in Madrid and Spanish people use it when they want someone to leave them alone.

The “puñetas” are the embroideries that judges and doctorates, among others, wear as an ornament on the cuff of their robes. In the past, weaving these embroideries required great detail and patience. And not only that, it was common that those who made “puñetas” were imprisoned. That’s why when we send someone to make cuffs we want them to go away for a long time.

Sewing materials

2. A buenas horas mangas verdes

At good times, green sleeves.

(To lock the barn door after the horse has bolted)

This super popular Spanish proverb is used to refer to something that was long-awaited but that arrives late, or when it arrives it is no longer needed. It has its origin in the Santa Hermandad (Holy Brotherhood) which is considered the first police corps in Spain instituted by Isabel la Católica (Queen of Castile). These policemen wore a suit with green sleeves and were famous for always being late or when they were no longer needed. Interesting, don’t you think?

3. Estar a dos velas

To be to two candles

(To be broke)

Someone who is “a dos velas” is someone who is going through a bad economic period or having bad luck romantically or sexually. So we hope no one tells you that you are “a dos velas”.

The origin of this proverb has been widely discussed and various scholars propose different origins, but one of the main theories is that comes from old wakes. The richer the deceased was, the more candles he/she would have in their chapel.

Someone's feet and pumpkins

4. Darle calabazas a alguien

Giving pumpkins to someone

(To turn someone down)

And we keep talking about love! If someone “te da calabazas”, it’s because someone you like has turned you down. The origin of this widely known expression is very old. In fact, in ancient Greece pumpkins were considered an anti-aphrodisiac food. We hope that during your stay in Madrid no one will give you pumpkins!

5. Ponerse las botas

To put on one’s boots

(To fill one’s boots)

When someone is “poniéndose las botas” it means that they are enjoying a great feast or great economic success. And it makes sense, in the old days only the higher social classes wore boots. They were made of leather and used by knights who were well protected from the cold and the dirty ground. On the other hand, the commoners only had espadrilles or slippers. That’s why when someone’s “poniéndose las botas”, they’re living big.

6. Costar un ojo de la cara

To cost an eye of one’s face

(To cost an arm and a leg)

If anything “cuesta un ojo de la cara” is that its price is tremendously high or personally very expensive. Again, the origin of this expression goes back a long way. When the Spanish conqueror Diego de Almagro organized an expedition with Francisco Pizarro to conquer the territories of southwestern Panama in 1524, he lost an eye because of an arrow shot by an Indian.

That’s why when he returned home and presented himself before Emperor Charles I he told him that defending the interests of the Crown had cost him “un ojo de la cara“. And literally, for him it was literally true.

7. Me lo ha contado un pajarito

(A little bird told me)

Spanish people say that something “se lo ha contado un pajarito” when they don’t want to reveal their source and they want to check if a rumor is true. Why are these little animals always gossiping?

In the Bible, birds were represented as messengers and bearers of news, and today they still see them as bearers of the deepest secrets.

Little bird on the hand of someone

8. Pensar en las musarañas

To be thinking about shrews

(To be daydreaming)

It is very common to use this proverb to refer to someone who is daydreaming. Shrews are small rodents that often live underground in the fields. When a farmer entertained himself watching them come up to the surface, he was told that he was “looking at the shrews,” because he was wasting his time instead of working. Spanish people currently use it to refer to someone who is entertained in their thoughts rather than doing useful work.

Do you want to learn Spanish and know many other typical and curious proverbs?

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