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Famous Spanish proverbs: where they come from and when to use them!

One of the most important aspects of learning a language that learners don’t often realize is building on your cultural knowledge.

Language learning is only one aspect of fluency. If you’re a native English speaker and you really want to become fluent in Spanish, it’s a good idea to fully immerse yourself into the Spanish culture, customs and traditions to get a good understanding of the language and to also improve on your authenticity when writing and communicating in Spanish.

Proverbs are ingrained into pretty much every country’s culture, whether they come from philosophical teachings or are just superstitions that have been passed on through time. If you are interested in Spanish culture and history, then proverbs can provide an interesting (and sometimes hilarious!) insight into the Spanish lifestyle and beliefs passed down throughout the legacy of Spain. Furthermore, being able to use Spanish proverbs in context will gain you serious points with Spanish native speakers or Spanish teachers!

What is a proverb?

You might be thinking ‘What actually is a proverb?’ because the concept of proverbs isn’t discussed nearly as much as proverbs are actually quoted! Proverbs are usually some kind of quote or paraphrase from an old tale or legend.

A proverb will often suggest meanings, reasons for, and consequences of situations. Think of the well known English proverb ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ meaning that sometimes what you see can reveal a lot more about the situation than what you hear.

A proverb can also predict the result of a situation or an action. A general rule is that these type of proverbs are often superstitious and based on old myths or fairytales. An example of this type of proverb in English would be ‘A watched pot never boils,’ meaning that if you keep waiting for something it won’t happen. Proverbs are actually used in English in our everyday speech and written communication, although not many of us actually realize that we’re using them!

Use of proverbs in the Spanish language

Proverbs are used a lot in the Spanish language, just like idioms are. 

Who uses them?

Proverbs and idioms are a very important linguistic resource in Spanish. As well as in other languages, you’ll hear that they are mainly used by old people. In many cases this might be true, considering that new generations have their own slang expressions, which are more modern and new. However, don’t underestimate them. Even youngsters know them – as we mentioned before, they are an important part of Spanish language and, consequently, of culture too. Everybody knows them and they are commonly used in literature, cinema and everyday spoken language.

Where do they come from?

Their origin dates back to decades or even centuries ago. Some of them were created during a specific period of history, like the Middle Ages, and others refer to concrete historical characters (aristocrats, noblemen, etc.).

In the case of other proverbs, they were used in a literary work and that’s how they became famous throughout time. They could have been firstly used by the writer or maybe they were commonly used in those years. Anyway, many of them are known nowadays thanks to those books and stories!

List of famous Spanish proverbs

  • Quien se fue a Sevilla perdió su silla (translation: who went to Seville, lost his chair): it means that if somebody leaves a position or a role, this will be taken by another person. The story that talks about the origin of this proverb claims that the Archbishop of Seville lost his job after travelling to Compostela in order to arrange the position of Archbishop of Santiago for his nephew. However, when he came back to Seville his nephew had taken his job and occupied his role as Archbishop of Seville. The expression has changed throughout the years until becoming the current one.
  • A las mujeres bonitas y a los buenos caballos los echan a perder los pendejos. The translation for this proverb is ‘Beautiful women and good horses are corrupted by idiots.’ This proverb originates from Mexico, where there are many proverbs that include horses (and women too!). This basically means that beautiful women and good horses are wasted on idiotic men. 
  • Dar gato por liebre (translation: to give cat instead of hare): this proverb means that there has been a trick in order to lie about a service or an item that has been offered that doesn’t have the quality expected. Its origin dates back to Middle Age, when it was common to offer hare as food, while it was actually cat.
  • A buenas horas mangas verdes (translation: too late for green sleeves): This expression is used when somebody is late after being asked for help. It’s said that it was created during the 15th century when Queen Isabella I of Castile created the first police force in Spain. Its members wore uniforms with green sleeves, and they were always late when needed.
  • Lavar puercos con jabón es perder tiempo y jabón. The literal translation is ‘To wash a pig with soap is to lose time and soap.’ This proverb is used in Spanish to express that to do something would be a waste of time. It is very similar to the English proverb ‘Never wrestle with pigs, you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.’
  • Hacerse el sueco (translation: pretend to be Swedish): this proverb refers to somebody that pretends not to know what is happening or what is going on. It was created during the 50s and 60s, when a lot of Swedish tourists spent their holidays in Spain, and they didn’t understand Spanish when somebody tried to talk to them.
  • Dormirse en los laureles (translation: to fall asleep on the laurels): it means that somebody becomes lazy or stops working efficiently after succeeding. It dates back to the Roman Empire, when people were crowned with a laurel wreath after a victory. You might have already heard this proverb used in English!
  • Salvado por la campana (translation: to be saved by the bell): this expression is used when an unpleasant situation is avoided because something unexpected happens. Its origin is very interesting: centuries ago, when medicine wasn’t as advanced as nowadays, many people were buried alive because they were supposed to be dead. In order to avoid their death underground, a bell was placed out of the coffin. They could make it sound using a rope from inside the coffin, so they could be heard from outside and somebody could help them. This proverb is also used in the English language.
  • No es tan bravo el león como lo pintan. The English translation (literal) is ‘The Lion is not as brave as he is painted,’ but the equivalent English proverb would be something like ‘His bark is worse than his bite.’ This one basically means that you shouldn’t believe everything someone tells you. If someone says this to you in Spanish, they are trying to tell you not to worry about someone; they are not so scary!

When should you use Spanish proverbs?

It’s a common misconception that proverbs are only used by your Grandparents. While they tend to be used more frequently among the older generations, they aren’t off limits to everyone else!

In fact, Spanish proverbs are used a lot in everyday conversation. If there is a proverb that fits the situation well, chances are someone will say it! Once you’ve learned a famous proverb or two, you will see them popping up online, in magazines, pretty much everywhere you go! There is a Spanish proverb to match almost every situation, but just remember that although many of them are historic, they are ultimately very informal! They are largely used in colloquial settings so it’s probably best to avoid saying them at a job interview and keep them for when you’re with friends and you want to make them laugh.

Other things to learn about Spanish culture

Learning Spanish proverbs, their meanings and their origins is just a small bite sized chunk of Spanish culture. There are lots of other cultural and historical areas that you should consider studying to help you on your journey towards fluency in Spanish.

Spain and Spanish-speaking countries have a rich culture diverse with literature, history, religion, art, and music to name a few — we’re sure you’ve all heard of Flamenco, Antoni Gaudi and Pablo Picasso. Now that you have learned some famous Spanish proverbs when researching Spanish culture, you will recognize key phrases and be able to pick up on the use of proverbs and learn lots of new ones too!

Learning about the cultural background of your target language can be very enriching and mind opening, and also increases your understanding of the people who you are communicating with. It also improves your authenticity and general ability to be able to travel and experience the country and help your learning reach its maximum potential.

Do you know any Spanish proverbs that we didn’t include in our list? Be sure to share them with us in the comments or over on our Twitter account, @FlashSticks.

Isobel Owen

Isobel heads up the marketing team at FlashSticks. Of course she loves writing and languages, but loves art, animals and holidays too! Feeling social? Tweet to @FlashSticks to chat to Isobel and the rest of the marketing team.

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