Real language and communication happens in idiomatic expressions. Not in the verb conjugations, not in the thesaurus-like catalogue of adjectives stored in our heads or flashcards, but in the everyday words we cobble together to make meaning where there seems to be none. And that, to me, is where language fluency resides as well, somewhere between knowing how to conjugate the right word the right way most of the time, and knowing when and how to use idiomatic expressions.
According to Merriam Webster an idiom is “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own.” Idioms are like a culture or language’s inside jokes. Literally translated they often seem weird, senseless, but to us they convey anger, disappointment, mirth—they help us to communicate that which cannot be bound by the more rigid confines of “standardized” language.
Spanish has the capacity to turn anything into music and the most mundane of words into colourful expressions to fit any occasion. Here are eight of my favourite Spanish language expressions you should absolutely know. Some of them are very Dominican and others are common among Spanish-speakers all over the world.
1. Me Cago en…—I shit on…
Literally translated this idiom means “I shit on…” and we use it to express frustration. There are various appropriate ways to end this colourful sentence; you can shit on someone’s mother, shit on everything, or to convey disdain for someone or something you can shit on that instead.
Example: After being bitten by the same mosquito several times and failing to kill it, I yelled out in frustration “Me cago en la puta madre de este mosquito y en su puto padre también.”
2. Un Cero a la Izquierda—A zero to the left
The zero to the left of a number is valueless, literally bringing nothing in terms of numerical value to that number. This idiom, which means a zero to the left, is an expression often used with the verb ser. It is meant to describe how little something (or most likely someone) means to the speaker.
Example: Sometimes when I was too tired to talk about how my day went, my partner would say I made them feel like “un cero a la izquierda.” You could also use it as an insult to a person who you think, to borrow from idiom number one, ain’t shit.
3. Fe@ para la foto—Ugly for the photo
This expression is used with the verb ESTAR and literally means to be ugly for the photo. For Dominicans, (the group that as far as I can tell is responsible for the origin of this expression) it means many things. It can be used to express that someone or something is unprepared, in disarray, isn’t ready, is improbable, or that an idea isn’t looking good or feasible. In the Dominican dialect, the “ra” at the end of the para is likely to be dropped.
Example: A family wants to go to the beach but the weather is looking bad. Somebody might say “Bueno, estamos feos pa’ la foto.”
4. En boca cerrada no entran moscas—flies don’t enter closed mouths
Another expression I’ll credit to the Dominican Republic is this one meaning flies don’t enter closed mouths. This poetic, Spanish language idiom for “no comment” can be used as an admonishment for others to mind their business or as an acknowledgment that something is a pile of shit and you’d rather not stick you hands in it.
Example: this may or may not be true, but when I was first introduced to this idiom as a child and asked for an explanation I was told that once, when Balaguer was questioned about his participation either in Trujillo’s assassination or the human rights violations of his regime he responded with this idiom, telling you everything you need to know about how to use it.
5. No Tener Pelo en la Lengua—to not have hair on one’s tongue
This expression has often been used to describe me. I think it’s best English equivalent would be to tell someone they are sharp-tongued and honest to a fault. What hair on someone’s tongue has to do with honesty, I’m not sure. I suppose that like a rug muffles a person’s footsteps, so does proverbial hair on one’s tongue muffle their words.
6. Ponerse las pilas—to put in one’s batteries
Ponerse las pilas can be be used to mean a few different things. It can be used to tell someone to “get to it,” do “it” (whatever that i might be) faster, or to do something with renewed energy.
Example: Whenever my mother wanted me and my brother to get up and start cleaning, helping her around the house or getting ready to go somewhere she’d tell us “pónganse las pilas!”
7. ¡Qué biberón!—What a baby bottle!
In American English, the use of the word “sucks” can express disdain, disgust, or discontent with a situation, person or things. “¡Qué biberón! (another expression I think is pretty Dominican) can be used to express that a situation sucks. Some variations I have heard is “Qué tetero” (tetero is another word for a baby bottle, and “qué tetera” which is a teapot/kettle and might be deliberate or might result from erroneously thinking the word tetero is feminine).
Example: Sometimes when my partner forgets the key to their motorcycle and gets to the foot of the stairs, they’ll say “Mierda, ¡qué biberón!” (shit, this sucks).
8. Buscarle la quinta pata al gato—to look for the fifth leg on a cat
Buscarle la quinta pata al gato is one of my all-time favourite expressions! It means to try to find an issue, defect, or problem where there is none since most cats don’t have 5 legs (it means to look for something that isn’t there).
Example: When bae is tripping on something you can whip out this expression to be like “mi amor, pero por qué le estás buscando la quinta pata al gato?” How this will be received, is another issue entirely.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of me and my friend’s favourites! To learn more about the roots and cultural significance of the Dominican dialect read this blog post on Dominican Spanish, or consider peeping this one on some Spanish words that mean something entirely different in the Dominican Republic.
Think some expressions are missing? Let me know in the comments below!
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