‘He’s let the cat out of the bag’, ‘she’s hit the nail on the head’ …
When foreign speakers of English hear these phrases in conversations which aren’t concerned with kidnapping pets or building a shed, they are probably a little confused. Well bad news Spanish learners! These bizarre frasas hechas (idioms) are even more common in Spanish and it’s important to get a handle on them early.
They’re so essential to Spanish communication that the most common way to say ‘give birth’ is ‘dar a luz’ (literally: give to light), but the real reason you should learn some is that they pop up in Shakira songs. In Tortura, my personal favourite, Shakira sings ‘a otro perro con ese hueso’ (to another dog with bone) which means “to go try that on someone else”. The sassy Columbian also sings ‘no puedo pedir a los olmos que entreguen peras’ a play on the phrase ‘no pidas peras al olmo’ (don’t ask the elm tree for pears).
Some are direct translations, like ‘ser la oveja negra de la familia’ (to be the black sheep of the family) or ‘romper el hielo’ (break the ice), and others are similar to ours:
To push the boat out: tirar la casa por la ventana (to throw the house out of the window)
To cost an arm and a leg: costar un ojo de la cara (to cost an arm from the face)
To pull someone’s leg: Tomar el pelo (to take the hair)
It’s a piece of cake: Es pan comido (it is eaten bread)
To be in one’s element: Estar en su salsa (to be in one’s sauce)
To be water under the bridge: Ser agua pasada (to be passed water)
Some of my personal favourites sound utterly bizarre to an English speaker: ‘por si las moscas’ means ‘just in case’, but it literally translates as ‘for if the flies’.
Some seem a little racist:
Hay moros en la costa: The coast is not clear (There are moors on the coast)
un cuento chino: a tall tale (a Chinese tale)
Ser el cabeza del turco: To be a scapegoat (to be the head of a turk)
But whatever you do in the Spanish speaking world, make sure you never leave without saying goodbye, because then you would be saying goodbye like the French – “despedirse a la francesa”.