Scribbler in Seville

Five things Spanish people say a lot (and what they really mean)

Captain Haddock's outbursts pale into comparison against Spanish swear words.

Captain Haddock’s outbursts are a lot less colourful than some Spanish expressions.

I’ve written about lots of fiestas lately – music, dancing, flamenca dresses and general Andalucian excess on all fronts, laughing in the face of austerity and denying the very existence of “la cosa“, as some prefer to refer to la crisis obliquely, thereby avoiding the ugly necessity of naming the beast.

Additionally, in an outrageous miscarriage of justice (the vote was clearly rigged) I didn’t make it to the final six of the BIBs mummy blogging awards, travel section – but many thanks to those who so kindly voted for me. For this reason, while I nurse my wounded pride, I will set aside the topics of family and travel for a few weeks.

So, as a change of tack, in this post I’m looking at Spanish expressions which have caught my attention over the years. As a writer, translator, sometime English teacher and language graduate, I am always fascinated by the use of castellano – I think stretching that part of my brain was one of the main reasons I moved abroad in the first place.

From embarrassing mistakes, to unusual words, I am constantly intrigued by how my my bilingual kids mix their languages; pondering, quizzing, driving my semi-literate husband mad – “What does this word mean? How is its meaning different from that one? Which of them is stronger/ruder/more typically Andaluz?”

After living here in Spain for nearly ten years, and in Spanish-speaking countries for a year longer than that, I’m increasingly aware of subtleties and subtexts in what those around me are saying. I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any stretch, but I’m slowly adding to my stock of colloquial phrases that I might tentatively try out for the first time, to be greeted by peals of laughter from friends and family, and delighted, gently piss-taking cries of “Que andaluza estas hecha, Feeee-onn-a!”

So here goes, with my five chosen Spanish expressions, which reveal telling points about Spanish society and culture. When I’ve blogged about such topics before, it’s drawn quite a response, so I await with interest to see what people make of this list.

**Warning: offensive language content (or at least I think it is)**

1) “Me cago en la leche/en dios/en tu puta madre/en la madre que te pario/en todos tus muertos”
(I shit on the milk/on god/on your whore of a mother/on the mother who bore you/on all your ancestors)

Palabrotas (swear words; literally, big ugly words – thanks to my linguistic consultant Mary for that one!) are used freely and without conscience by both sexes and all ages here in Spain. I remember a friend being horrified to hear her boyfriend’s sweet, lovable old granny swearing like a brickie at lunch one Sunday. Similarly, it’s shocking when such oaths come out of little kids’ mouths (not my own, I hasten to add – that would almost be enough to justify mild corporal punishment. Almost). Especially with the graphic nature of the language used.

Remember that Spain is still a Catholic country, where mothers are held sacred – both the Virgin, and one’s own. The force of the third oath in my list, and the contradiction with this hallowed matriarchal status, is illogical and deeply disturbing. Yes, yes, I know these expressions have lost all their force now, or at least it’s been massively diluted, through over-use. Noone actually thinks about what they’re saying when the words come out of their mouths. But I still wince when I hear it – especially in the years since I myself have “pario“. What an old prude, eh?

Blue skies mean the heat is on.

Blue skies mean the heat is on.

2) “Que calor!/Que frio!”
(It’s so hot! It’s so cold!)

Spain is a land of extremes – that’s one of the things I love about it. Everything is black or white – the opposing emotions of grief and joy, as expressed in that most Andalucian of art forms, flamenco. The full-on all-night partying at the Feria, in the midst of the worst financial situation Spain has ever experienced. As the saying goes(can you tell I love sayings?), they don’t do things by halves.

The same is true for the weather – in November, as soon as the temperature drops below 10 degrees, it’s all “Ay! Que frio!”, and on with the Boots. Andaluces, I have two words for you: British winter. I am usually colder inside my house than out, so my discomfort stems more from substandard Spanish building (our “old” house is 30 years young), than from sub-zero exterior temperatures.

In April, as the skies clear to their gorgeous rich blue, the sun regains its full force, and you bare your arms for the first time in months (yes, non-Spain dwellers, we do wear more than one layer for part of the year), people cry in anguish, wiping their brows, “Pero que calor hace!” as if they’ve just arrived from Siberia and are totally unaccustomed to sweating at 9.30 in the morning. Not as if they’re Andaluces who have lived here all their lives, as most have.

Noone (except me) ever says “Que buena temperatura!” – what a lovely temperature! God, I’m so English, aren’t I?

Gazpacho andaluz - chilled tomato soup, as made to perfection by every Spaniard's mother. Credit: Harlan Harris, under Creative Commons licence.

Gazpacho andaluz – chilled tomato soup, as made to perfection by every Spaniard’s mother. Credit: Harlan Harris, under Creative Commons licence.

3) “Mi madre hace el mejor gazpacho del mundo”
(My mother makes the world’s best gazpacho)

If I had a euro for every time I’d heard this, it would be me bailing Sr Rajoy out, instead of Sra Merkel. Gazpacho is a mainstay in the summer months, with every Spanish señora worth her garlic keeping a container of the red stuff in her fridge at all times during the hot summer months, ready to provide her extended family (ie, me) with a refreshing shot of cold liquidized veggies (Andaluzes generally drink gazpacho from a glass, rather than a bowl.)

This chilled soup of tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pepper, garlic, bread, and that essential, ubiquitous Andalucian product, olive oil, is as andaluz as its gets – all typical seasonal ingredients which everyone grows in their huerta. In the mid-20th century, many Andalucians lived off the land as they had no other option, so it’s a classic subsistence dish. It’s so easy, even a lazy and reluctant cook like me can make it. There are various camps – (sherry) vinegar or not, bread makes it salmorejo (no – salmorejo only has tomatoes, not the rest of the salad box). But whatever her recipe, each person’s mum has the superlative blend.

"I've only had two beers." Yeah, right, and I'm Nigella Lawson.

“I’ve only had two beers.” Yeah, right, and I’m Nigella Lawson.

4) “Solo he tomado dos o tres cervezas/No he bebido nada”
(I’ve only had two or three beers/I haven’t drunk anything)

There are two issues here: first, in Andalucia, beer is not considered alcohol. It’s a soft drink. It does not affect your ability to drive in any way at all, and you can put away as much as you like before getting behind the wheel of your car and driving your merry way home. So not drinking alcohol (“no he bebido nada”) does not equal not drinking beer, if you’ll excuse the double negative.

The second is the Andaluz tendency to either under- or over-exaggurate. As agreed with friends also married to Spanish men, “I’ve only had two beers”, the customary protest as your nappy-sensitized nose detects a whiff of cerveza on your mysteriously-late-arriving-home-husband, actually means about five or six. Under intense questioning, they admit to four, which pushes the genuine tally up to eight; and six – well, that’s a full-on drinking sesion.

(Caveat: I’m not saying that all Andalucian men do this, obviously. But there are plenty who do.)

meat, jamon, ham, vegetarian

Who the f*** put jamon in my salmorejo?

5) “Pero jamon no es carne”
(But jamon isn’t meat)

As any vegetarian who has been presented with a salad delicately sprinkled with little chunks of cured pig will know, jamon iberico is not considered within the earthly realms of meat in Spain (and even less so here, where we’re pig-snuffling distance from the Sierra de Huelva), and therefore is not described as such. Its provenance is more celestial, and it cannot be qualified or categorized alongside mere mortal iberico (prime pork) products such as salchichon or chorizo. It is, quite simply, on a higher plane, and an unquestionably essential element of life. And, it seems, of salads, soups, and other dishes described on menus as being “vegetarian”. The fact that we might not want it doesn’t seem to occur to them – why on earth wouldn’t we?

(My carnivorous friends wax lyrical about its tender texture and sweet, nutty flavour, plus its super-healthy oleic acid content.)

When you tell Spanish people you’re a vegetarian, you have to spell it out, very carefully and precisely, that this means you don’t eat chicken or jamon either. “WHAT?” they exclaim. “You don’t eat JAMON? You mean you’ve never even TRIED it?” The outrage is palpable – you’re clearly causing offence by disrespecting their hallowed ham. It’s like telling an English person you don’t like football, or the Queen. The look of bemused astonishment, the head scratching. How can this be possible? Yes, sir, I do not eat ham. I do not like it (Sam I am). The moral of the story is: vegetarians, if you don’t want jamon – on any of your dishes – be sure to tell your waiter firmly: “sin jamon, por favor”.

So there you have it – another over-generalised view from a foreigner who calls Spain their home. It’s a frustrating country in many ways, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Please remember, before you tap out an outraged reply, that I AM ENGLISH and my tongue is firmly IN MY CHEEK. If you don’t know what that means, look it up.

Have you heard any curious expressions or sayings that reveal something fascinating about Spanish society and culture? Tell me, I’d love to hear!

67 thoughts on “Five things Spanish people say a lot (and what they really mean)

  1. Mad Dog

    I put my hands up – I say “Es de puta madre”, quite often if I’ve eaten something good – it either causes lots of mirth or I get scolded like a naughty child.

    I’m quite sure that jamon isn’t meat – if the pigs have been fed properly on acorns, the fat contains a high concentration of oleic acid, just like olive oil 😉

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Craig, I did something really silly – I posted this before it was finished (using WP app on tablet, pressed wrong button. Never again!), and the version you saw was only half-written! Even got a retweet! Hence why I couldn’t reply, as I put it back to Draft. So while completing it, I also added the oleic acid bit – thanks for that!! I think “es de puta madre” is much milder than the ones I quoted, and I didn’t even use the strongest one, with the C-word.

    2. grancanariastyle

      “de puta madre” doesn’t count as a swearword in Spanish, at least in Canary Islands. I learned it from my (native) Spanish teachers and they clearly said that although it may sound shocking to foreigners, it does not sound offensive to a Spanish ear.

  2. Keefieboy

    While I like chewing on jamón, I find it very difficult to swallow. Don’t know why, but that’s why I never buy the stuff and don’t see what there is to rave about.

      1. Javier García

        Thats probably because you bought cheap jamón, the good one melts in your mouth, you dont need even to chew it. You have to consider the good jamón costs about 60 sterling pounds /kg

        1. Keef

          Of course you are right Javier. The expensive stuff is fantastic. But that’s not what you get most of the time – a tapa here, a scattering on something else – and I suspect most people can’t afford bellota very often.

  3. Sue Sharpe

    It’s the liberal use of the ‘c’ word that still gets me from time to time – a couple of years ago, when my neighbour’s little girl was only three years old, she was walking past the guard dog of another neighbour (the dog was barking quite ferociously) – turned and said to it “cállate perrito” followed a few seconds later by “coño” – I have to admit that I did laugh!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Sue, I think that’s sadly common around here, even for such little ones. It’s all about what they hear, and repeat. I try to be careful in front of my kids, but fail miserably most of the time. At least they’d be saying things in English that their Spanish friends/teachers wouldn’t understand 😉

  4. Lucy

    Me cago en la leche que mamaste is a good one too. And I love the mild forms like ostras for hostias, etc. Teenage students of English never get that swearing isn’t just about learning the equivalent words..that we don’t bandy as many swear words around as gaily as them.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Ooh, that’s a new one for me, Lucy – thanks! Again, those graphic mother-centric details. Re teenagers, I once had a (male) student aged 15/16, whose previous English teacher had taught him the whole gamut of swear words. Not sure what his parents would have thought…

  5. azahar

    But you’re not vegetarian, Fiona! You very happily eat fish and seafood.

    “So there you have it – another over-generalised view from a foreigner who calls Spain their home”

    Yep! 🙂

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      No, you’re right, Shawn, I didn’t make it clear what sort of veggie I am. Fair point, I probably should have done. I put that line in for you, as I had a feeling you wouldn’t be crazy about this post. We’ll agree to differ again!

  6. Trevor Huxham

    Hahahaha you are so right about how Spaniards are always talking/complaining about the weather—and if it happens to be a nice day outside they will either 1) not mention it or 2) if they do, they’ll mumble a “sí…hace buen día/tiemp” and leave it at that. And I’ve heard “qué calor” on simply warm, spring days—not hot at all! Gotta love Spain 🙂

  7. bazteach

    Hey,

    Great post! Too true about the comments. Been in Sevilla for 8 years now and you summed up perfectamente! Can’t stand it when they say number 1!

    Thanks

    Barry

  8. Mary

    I used to think like you and was astonished when Spanish people complained about the heat year after year. But then I remembered that the British never stop complaining about the cold and rain. I guess there are some things you never get used to!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Mary, I think the difference is that in Spain it’s about extremes – it’s all “cold” or “hot”, never “pleasant” or “mild2 – whereas in Britain it’s cold and wet, or cold and wet – it’s the monotony that gets to people there, not the extremes.

  9. El Peli

    If you really want to be “fisno” (or “fisna” in your case) you can say “Me cago en diez”. The other wonderful Spanish phrase which you hear all the time is “A ver si nos vemos un día”. A good friend of mine (English, of course) transalted this as “F**k off and die”!

  10. Josh

    Some very valid points! Particularly the liberal use of would-be incredibly offensive swear words/phrases in English. I’m with Sue – still can’t quite get used to how plenteously the word ‘coño’ is thrown around. The kids I teach are always saying it, which I used to scold them for, but now I’ve realised it just isn’t that big of a deal!

    My veggie friend has also experienced her fair share of calamities when ordering tapa here in Granada. If it’s not sprinkled jamon it’s flakes of tuna!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Josh, I’ve picked up that terrible C-word habit – it is very widely used here, with about as much shock value and force as “damn” – certainly nowhere near joder. Having said that, I wouldn’t want my kids using it, obviously! I can’t see myself ever resorting to the “me cago en…” colourful combinations!!

  11. Kaley

    Since gazpacho isn’t as popular up farther north, I always hear that “my mom’s tortilla/croquetas” are the best. But I got my husband to say my tortilla is better! =0

    The weather is only good to my in-laws and most other Spaniards I know if it is perfectly sunny, not too hot and not too cold. If there is a cloud, “el día se está poniendo feo”!!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Ah, thanks Kaley – great to hear the “my mum’s xxx are the best” regional variations! Maybe you should do a post on your tortilla secrets 😉 Classic weather example yesterday: it was a gorgeous temperature here – warm, but not sunny. I thought it was ideal – no sunburn, not too bright, great for playing outdoors with the kids. But husband complained – like you said – “que dia mas feo!”. It seems the Spaniards cannot live without their sun!!

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  13. Wendy Feuell Andersen

    Ive also been in spain for 10 yrs, and had to laugh at this one. We too found it really amusing when hats and mittens were put on the children (and the dads) as soon as the temperature dropped below 9oC.

    and you’re completely right about the liberal use of what often translates into quite harsh expressions in english. but, Im laughing and learning all the time from my kids and their friends –
    so many colourful expressions. and what Im noticing a lot is how common it is that english expressions (and palabrotas) sneak into their teen-speak. flip out becomes a conjugated verb – flipearse.

    there is a viral on youtube that is a great (if not bizarre) example, la lechuga esta pocha (which means,the lettuce has gone over, gone bad.) not a palabrota, but great video for colloquial phrases, and clear example of how english swear words sneak in.
    here’s link, but, its not for the faint hearted or easily offended…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Hp_ukSh-c4
    thx for great blog. salu2, as the ‘quillos textear’….

  14. grancanariastyle

    “Poco a poco” was the first expression which I learned when I moved to Spain. “Que? Ella no habla espańol? Poco a poco” “No entiende castellano? No pasa nada, poco a poco…”

  15. Jessica of HolaYessica

    This is HILARIOUS! I am so baffled by how jamón doesn’t count as meat – where on earth is it supposed to come from then?

    I also noticed the temperature thing in Sevilla when I studied there. All the women had these floor-length coats on as soon as there was the slightest nip of cold in the air. Even I (a notorious friolera) didn’t think it was chilly!

      1. Anna

        I am laughing and laughing, as I’m reading your blog. I’m in a opposite situation from yours: I’m a Spaniard on my father’s side and an Eastern European mix on my mom’s. I never lived in Spain (I’ve been living in Canada a good part of my life now), but I go to Spain from time to time. I have five cousins in Madrid, one of them lives full-time in Almeria, in your parts. I learned my expressions from them, without questioning them, just memorizing and repeating. But the slight shock, when hearing the swear words, especially about the mother, is always there. By the way, the C word is the most harmless of all, in my understanding. Or it just didn’t jar me as much. It’s used very widely everywhere in the Spanish speaking world, by children, mothers, and retirees, you name it.
        Thank you for the terrific post!

        1. Fiona Flores Watson

          Thanks for the comment Anna, glad you enjoyed the post. Always interesting to hear from people with Spanish connections or roots who live abroad, as your fresh perpespective is valuable to a jaded expat like me!

  16. Laura

    I enjoyed your post a lot! Other two phrases that people repeated a lot and which called my attention when I first arrived here were “relajate” and “tú, tranquila”. There’s no other thing that can drive me as mad when I’m upset as somebody telling me “relajate, no pasa nada” with that tone they use, ja ja ja ! When being with a group of Spanish women I would stand up to do something and the rest would tell me “tú tranquila, que yo te lo alcanzo” meaning “sit down, please, that you are getting me nervous.”

    1. Anabel

      Haha Laura, I am Spanish and I have English friends…they can’t understand when I say “tú tranquila” haha as that sounds a little strong.
      I try to explain them that it means “don’t worry”

  17. Silvia

    I’m Spanish, and vegetarian since two years ago. You are totally right, people here don’t understand how i cannot eat ham… they are shocked and I always have to explain that ham comes from pigs, and as far as I know, a pig is an animal, so I don’t eat ham! (i love its flavour though… but i really don’t miss it). It also happens with chicken and canned tuna… when I ask for a salad I always have to specify “sin atún, por favor”. Every veggie sandwich have tuna and very often ham (cooked one, not “ibérico”. Sorry, I don’t know how to make a difference in English…).
    Being a vegetarian in Spain really sucks.
    In my family, it’s not “mi madre hace el mejor gazpacho del mundo”, it was “mi abuela hace las mejores croquetas del mundo”. I have to say, she was the best cooker i’ve ever known 🙂
    Sorry if my English is not good…

  18. Kelly

    Ha! Thanks for the Spanish lesson. I love the vegetarian reference. I recall having my sister-in-law & her boyfriend visiting us. She is vegetarian & he doesn’t eat pork. Needless to say, we didn’t eat out much.

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  20. mmtread

    Funny stuff, Fiona. I had a similar problem in Japan. I don’t much like seafood, although I will have the occasional fish and chips or fried shrimp. But when you go stay at a traditional inn (a minshuku or ryokan), dinner is included and is all about the fruits of the sea. Often rather funky fruits. When I’d make a reservation I’d tell them that I didn’t eat seafood, but when we would down to eat there it would be, a half dozen seafood dished in front of me, but with sashimi left out. They just couldn’t get their heads around someone not eating ANY seafood. In the end I found the only way to remedy the situation was to make it perfectly clear in advance that I was deathly allergic to all seafood, and tell them that “If I eat it I will die.” Not wanting gaijin dropping dead in their dining rooms, they would reluctantly refrain.
    Unfortunately we haven’t learned enough Spanish yet (I’m still working on Catalan) to recognize the obscenities. Can’t wait.
    And no, I make the best gazpacho. 😉 The secret is to add (sacrilegiously, I know) tropical fruit like papaya, mango, and pineapple, along with a splash of pineapple juice. Wicked.
    Great post, m’lady.

  21. My Little Spanish Notebook

    Hello! I like your blog and will be dropping by more often! I totally agree about the swearing. I often find myself asking my Spanish partner things like, “How do you say ‘qué putada’ without swearing?” The non-swearing responses are usually not quite precise enough for my liking… 😉

  22. Joanna Styles

    Great fun post, Fiona. Loved it! My husband’s Mum doesn’t make the best gazpacho, but her tortilla de patatas is easily the best ever. As a Canary Islander, she will tell you that c*** is used liberally there and by everyone. One of my husband’s cousins who’s 12 uses it regularly and no one bats an eyelid.
    Re swear words, I think you really are fluent in another language when you can use swear words properly and in context. Would you agree?

    1. fionafloreswatson Post author

      Yes I would definitely agree, although I was a bit shocked when a 15-year-old boy I used to teach privately told me that his previous (male, English) teacher had taught him all the strongest English swear words!!

  23. Anabel

    I love this post and the blog! I am Spanish and I really enjoy reading it as we didn’t realise of all those crazy things we say.
    By the way, I am Andalusian and there is something we always say when we arrive some place, we say “¡Qué pasa!” instead of “how are you doing”

    Congratulations for the blog

    1. fionafloreswatson Post author

      An Ecuadorian boyfriend of mine always used to ask me “What happens?” when he thought something was wrong. Oh, the dangers of literal translation…

  24. Andrew Forbes

    Really enjoyed reading this – totally get your perspective 🙂

    But surprised you missed out the ‘C’ word – I hear that all the time, including extravagant use on Spanish tellie 🙂

  25. John brindley

    Here in Lanzarote tuna and anchovies are clearly not fish, but vegetable. If I am not sure of the contents of a dish I always specify no marisco, no pescado, and in response to the protestation that there is none, I add, no atun no anchoa, which often draws looks of astonishment.

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