14 Spanish Expressions That I Wish I’d Known …

… before climbing aboard my L.A.-to-Madrid one way flight in 2016.

Fourteen out of many, many more. I launched my personal vocabulary list in my Tracy hotel room on the day I learned that I’d qualified for a Spain visa. The list is now seventy-two pages long, regularly updated, includes about 3,500 entries.

Of those 3,500, I have chosen only these fourteen.

Not because they’re more essential than others. 1A basics like ayuda and no entiendo matter far more. I picked these fourteen because I never learned them in a Spanish class, because Spaniards use them regularly and because they fill unusually large gaps in the language acquisition jigsaw puzzle. Medrar is on my vocabulary list, too, but a trilingual native-born Madrileña told me that she heard the word for the first time in her life while chatting with me. I might as well have not bothered.

You’ll hear these fourteen in Spain, at least if here for more than a visit.

tener que ver con

‘Have to do with.’ Often said in the negative, and often with nada.

“[But this book] no tiene nada que ver [with Spain].” Like that.  Other examples.

hacer caso

To pay attention, listen to, heed.

No les haga caso, says the grandmother, at 1:01 in this clip.  [Don’t listen to them.]

Haz caso a tu madre. [Listen to/pay attention to your mother!]

Juana siempre le esta dando la lata, pero nunca le hace caso.  [Juana is always giving him a hard time, but he never listens to her.]

ponerse

Regularly and appropriately grouped with other Spanish verbs of becoming, like hacerse, convertirse, volverse, and good ol’ llegar a ser. Still, my four and a half years in Madrid say that ponerse rates special attention.

Por favor, no te pongas así. [Please, don’t be like that.]

Se puso furioso. [He became angry.]

Ponerse can have a sexual connotation if used without a modifier, as in this clip (at 1:04):  Me pone un poco, me pone muchísimo. A los dos nos está poniendo.  [It turns me on, it turns me on a lot.  It’s turning us both on.]

Or, such use can merely indicate a strong emotional reaction, as in:

La música me pone.   [The music turns me on | excites me | gets me going.]

‘Que’ for emphasis

¡Qué hermoso día! I knew that means ‘What a beautiful day!’ by B1. I wouldn’t have recognized descaro in B1, but could have told you that ¡Qué descaro! means ‘What gall!’ or ‘What nerve!’ after a minute with a dictionary.

What I wish I’d known is how often que — without an accent, in this case — is used for emphasis, a bit like ‘I said …’ in English.

      • mother: Apaga la música. Es hora de comer. [Turn off the music.  It’s time to eat.]
      • son: En un minuto.
      • mother: ¡Que la apagues! ¡Enseguida!
      • Chum A: No quiero salir. [I don’t want to go out.]
      • Chum B: Pero ya tenemos entradas.  [But we already have tickets!]
      • Chum A: ¡Que no!

Examples: Throughout this clip, at the start of another clip, and at 1:20 of a third.

What’s the deal with the missing accent? I’ll punt to other web pages: here, and here. Important if you’re taking a test, less important otherwise.

de sobra

Said when there is more than enough of something. Anthony Fauci may have conocimiento de sobra of infectious diseases; Elon Musk, dinero de sobra; a fraudster, miedo de sobra of the law. At 00:12 in this clip, the soccer fan thinks he has tiempo de sobra.

One is free to confabulate merrily with the related verb sobrar, but me thinks that de sobra is more widely used.

tocar a alguien

That it’s someone’s turn to do something …

A mí me toca pagar hoy.  [It’s my turn to pay today.]

Le toca a los hermanos trabajar mañana.  [It’s the brothers’ turn to work tomorrow.]

… or that one gets or is entitled to something:

Parece que a nosotros nos toca todo el mal suerte del mundo.  [It seems that we get all the bad luck in the world.]

Como el primer hijo, a él le toca toda la riqueza de su familia.  [As the first son, he gets all the wealth of his family.]

enterarse

A dictionary word, used as the dictionary says it is used. What place does it have in this post?

Because conversing Spaniards use it so often, and choose it over alternatives. One could swap in descubrir or another verb for enterarse in Por fin, me enteré de que Juan me estafó. [Finally, I found out that Juan swindled me.] or Te enterarás de que es así. [You will discover that it is so.], but my eavesdropping ears say that enterarse gets more airtime.

Almost always used in the pronominal form, I believe: enterarse, rather than enterar.  Example clip, at 00:52.

pinta

Can be a pint or a pinto bean, but the usage I regularly hear is for ‘appearance,’ or ‘look,’ often coupled with tener.

No tiene pinta. [It doesn’t look like it.]

¿Qué más da?

‘So what? What’s the difference?’  Clip, at 01:01.

¿Yo qué sé?

‘What do I know?’  The last words spoken in this clip, at 02:14.

¡Vaya!

By itself, ‘wow,’ roughly. Vaya + ____: ‘What a …’

¡Vaya trabajo! [What a job!]

¡Vaya basurero!  [What a dump!]

¡Vaya putiferio! [What a whorehouse!], says patrolling “officer” Torrente, at 00:41 in this clip from a famously offensive movie.

irse de rositas | salirse con la suya

Expressions 12 and 13, combined in the same entry to translate the common-as-inappropriate-resentment phrasal verb ‘get away with.’

Salirse con la suya is the translation offered by both DeepL and Google Translate. I think they’re wrong, and a Spanish prof agreed with me. WordReference will tell you true: the translation should be irse de rositas.

She was driving too fast, ran a red light, spent the rest of the trip worrying about photo radar and a hefty fine. But no ticket comes. Se fue de rositas.  [She got away with it.]

Salirse de la suya is valuable, but different:

He goes to the store with a twelve-hours-out-of-warranty MP3 player, demands a refund. The manager says no; the customer argues, finally gets his money back. Se salió con la suya. [He got his way.]

pillar

To catch, nab. ¡Me pillaste! [You caught me.]


Honorable (or maybe dishonorable) mention: obscenity, as widely used in Spain as in the U.S. Four words in a search engine will pull up lists galore. I will add only that:

  • coño as spoken in chat is much milder in Spanish than in English.
  • all the lists I saw omit variations of the widely-used tomar por culo.
  • for a vulgarity, hostia is downright weird.

Which brings me to the true story of a close call:

No me importa. = [I don’t care.] Familiar in B1, maybe by A2.  Perhaps overused. I sought an alternative.

Several movies introduced an expression that I took to be synonymous. Why not use the new expression for variety? I made plans to work it into chat soon, perhaps during my next visit to a restaurant.

Only pure luck gave me a reason to ask about this term at my next intercambio. The native speakers emphatically did not see the term as a swap-in for no me importa, and (amidst much giggling) passionately discouraged me from saying it to a waitperson.

The term?

Me la suda.

My restaurant conversation might have been translated as:

  • Waitperson: “Sir, would you like your drink now, or with the meal?”
  • Elderly Yankee retiree, with shrug and shy smile: “Oh, gee, I don’t give a shit! Whatever’s easiest for you.”

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