I have long believed that popular sayings and idiomatic expressions are fantastic ways to learn languages. These units express wisdom passed down through the ages and parse this wisdom into authentic, approachable sayings.

I was reminded of the power of popular sayings during a recent #langchat on Twitter. Inspired by that chat, I created this alphabetical and only slightly arbitrary list of my 75 favorite expressions. Scroll to the end to see a topical list indexed by number, plus my top 10.

How might you integrate these into your language learning and/or teaching? I can think of at least five ways: 1) expression of the day/week/month, 2) videos or skits dramatizing expressions, 3) connecting vocabulary and expressions, 4) clumping expressions by thematic category or 5) clumping expressions by grammar point.


  1. A caballo regalado no se le busca colmillo. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
  2. A cada dos por tres. All the time. (Lit. Every two out of three.)
  3. Agua pasada no mueve molinos. What’s done is done. (Lit. Water past the mill doesn’t move the wheel.)
  4. Agua que no has de beber, ¡déjala correr! Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong + Leave well enough alone. (Lit. Water that you don’t have to drink, let it go.)
  5. Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda. Early to bed, early to rise… (Lit. He who wakes up early, God helps him/her.)
  6. Al mal tiempo, buena cara. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. (Lit. In bad times, good face.)
  7. A lo hecho pecho. Face the music. (Lit. To what’s done, chest.)
  8. Amar con amor se paga. Love with love is repaid.
  9. Amigo en la adversidad, amigo de verdad. A friend (when you’re) in need is a friend in deed.
  10. Antes de que te cases, mira lo que haces. Look before you leap. (Lit. Before you get married, look at what you’re doing.)
  11. A otro perro con ese hueso. Take your $#!+ somewhere else. (Lit. To another dog with that bone.)
  12. A palabras necias, oídos sordos. Don’t listen to the noise/chatter/haters (Lit. To silly words, deaf ears.)
  13. Al pan, pan, y al vino, vino. Call a spade a spade. (Lit. Call bread, bread and wine, wine.)
  14. Aunque se vista de seda, mona se queda. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. (Lit. Even if a monkey dresses up in silk, it’s still a monkey.)
  15. Borrón y cuenta nueva. Back to the drawing board.
  16. Buey viejo ara bien. An old ox plows well.
  17. Cada oveja con su pareja. Birds of a feather flock together. (Lit. Every sheep with its partner.)
  18. Con dinero baila el perro. Money talks. (Lit. With money dances the dog)
  19. Cuando se nombre al rey de Roma, pronto se asoma. Speak of the devil! (Lit. When you name the King of Rome, he appears.)
  20. Cuando el diablo no tiene qué hacer, con el rabo mata moscas. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. (Lit. When the devil doesn’t know what to do, he kills flies with his tail.)
  21. Cree el león que todos son de su condición. The lion thinks all are like him. See #32.
  22. Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos. You reap what you sow. (Lit. Raise crows and they will take out your eyes.)
  23. Del agua fría el gato escaldado huye. Once bitten, twice shy. (Lit. A scalded cat runs away from cold water)
  24. De noche todos los gatos son pardos. All cats are grey in the dark. (Lit. At night, all cats are brown.)
  25. De tal palo, tal astilla. A chip off the old block (Lit. From such a stick, such a splinter)
  26. Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres. You are known by the company you keep. (Lit. Tell me who you walk around with and I’ll tell you who you are.)
  27. Dios los cría y ellos se juntan. Birds of a feather flock together. (Lit. God brings them up and they get together.)
  28. Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres. When in Rome, do as the Romans. (Lit. Wherever you are, do as you see.)
  29. Donde manda capitán, no manda marinero. Who’s the boss here? I’m the boss here. (Lit. Where the captain is in charge, the sailor is not.)
  30. El deber antes que el placer. Duty before pleasure.
  31. El interés tiene pies. Vote with your feet.
  32. El ladrón juzga por su condición. The thief thinks everyone steals.
  33. El que ríe último ríe mejor. He who laughs last laughs best.
  34. El que mucho abarca poco aprieta. Don’t let your reach exceed your grasp.
  35. El que mal anda, mal acaba. You get what you deserve.
  36. El que no oye consejo no llega a viejo. He who doesn’t listen to advice doesn’t last long.
  37. El que no sale de casa, no sabe lo que pasa. He who doesn’t leave home doesn’t know much.
  38. El que se fue a la Villa perdió su silla. On your feet lose your seat.
  39. Éramos muchos y parió la abuela. Now we’re in trouble! (Lit. There were a lot of us and then grandma gave birth.)
  40. Es mejor malo conocido que bueno por conocer. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.
  41. Estar entre la espada y la pared. Stuck between a rock and a hard place. (Lit. Stuck between the sword and the wall.)
  42. Estar entre dos y tres. Stuck between a rock and a hard place. (Lit. Stuck between two and three.)
  43. Hasta arrancar un ajo cuesta trabajo. Everything takes effort. (Lit. Even pulling garlic takes effort.)
  44. Hay que consultarlo con la almohada. Sleep on it. (Lit. Consult with the pillow.)
  45. Haz el bien y no mires a quién. Always do the right thing.
  46. Hombre precavido vale por dos. Forewarned is forarmed. (Lit. A forewarned man is worth two men.)
  47. En boca cerrada no entran moscas. Better to keep your mouth shut. (Lit. Bugs don’t fly in a closed mouth.)
  48. Es pan comido. It’s a piece of cake. (Lit. It’s eaten bread.)
  49. Estar hasta las narices. To be fed up with. To have it up to here. (Lit. To be up to one’s nose.)
  50. La mejor palabra es la que no se dice. Silence is golden. (Lit. The best word is that not said.)
  51. La muerte no escoge. There is no cheating death.
  52. Martes, ni te cases ni te embarques, (ni de tu familia te apartes.)
  53. Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo. With age comes experience. (Lit. The devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the devil.)
  54. Más vale un ‘toma’ que dos ‘te daré.’ A “here” and worth two “I’ll have it later. (Lit. Better a ‘here’ than two ‘I’ll give you’s.’)
  55. Más vale un hoy que dos mañanas. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. (Lit. Better one today than two tomorrows.)
  56. Más vale pájaro en mano que cien(to) volando. A bird in hand is worth 2 in the bush. (Lit. A bird in hand is worth 100 flying.)
  57. Más vale prevenir que (tener que) lamentar. Measure twice, cut once.
  58. Más vale estar solo que mal acompañado. Better alone than in bad company
  59. Más vale maña que fuerza. Better brains than brawn.
  60. Más vale tuerto que muerto. It could be worse. (Lit. Better off one-eyed than dead.)
  61. Más viejo es el viento, y aún sopla. There is still life left here. (Lit. The wind is older but it still blows.)
  62. Moro viejo, mal cristiano. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. (Lit. Old Moor, bad Christian.)
  63. Nadie es profeta en su pueblo. No one is a prophet in his/her own land.
  64. No es el santo de mi devoción. It’s not my cup of tea. (Lit. It’s not my devotional saint.)
  65. No hay mal que por bien no venga. All bad things happen for a reason.
  66. No hay que ahogarse en un vaso de agua. Don’t cry over spilled milk. (Lit. Don’t drown in a glass of water.)
  67. No solo de pan vive el hombre. Man does not live by bread alone.
  68. Oficio quita vicio. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. (Lit. Work takes care of vices.)
  69. Poderoso caballero es don dinero. Money talks.
  70. Pueblo pequeño, campana grande. Big fish, small pond. (Lit. Small town, big bell.)
  71. Salir de truena para caer en el relámpago. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. (Lit. Out from the thunder but not the lighting.)
  72. Salir de Guatemala para caer en Guatepeor. To go from bad to worse.
  73. Sobre gustos no hay nada escrito. There is no accounting for taste.
  74. Una sola golondrina no hace verano. One swallow does not the summer make.
  75. Zapatero a su zapato. Stick with what got you here. (Lit. Stick with your shoes, shoemaker.)

Themes

Wisdom/Age: 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 22, 24, 26, 34, 35, 36, 40, 46, 47, 49, 50, 51, 53, 54, 55, 57, 60, 61, 62, 63, 66, 68, 73, 75

Work/play: 2, 5, 7, 16, 18, 29, 31, 33, 35, 36, 37, 43, 50, 55, 57, 58, 59, 67, 68, 69, 73

Optimist/pessimist: 2, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 32, 33, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 45, 49, 56, 62, 65, 66, 71, 72, 74

Character/Morality: 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 21, 26, 32, 35, 45, 47, 50, 53, 54, 63, 63, 69,

Value/Meaning: 1, 3, 8, 9, 11, 14, 21, 30, 32, 34, 37, 40, 44, 46, 47, 50, 54, 55, 56, 61, 63, 65, 66, 67, 69, 70, 73, 75

Taste/Choices: 4, 5, 6, 14, 17, 20, 22, 23, 27, 28, 30, 31, 36, 38, 40, 41, 42, 44, 47, 52, 57, 58, 64, 68, 72, 73

General/Life: 1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 14, 17, 19, 23, 24, 27, 28, 33, 38, 39, 40, 47, 48, 49, 51, 52, 53, 59, 60, 63, 65, 66, 68, 70, 74


My Top 10

  1. Cuando el diablo no tiene qué hacer, con el rabo mata moscas.
  2. Éramos muchos y parió la abuela.
  3. Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.
  4. Aunque se vista de seda, mona se queda.
  5. En boca cerrada no entran moscas.
  6. Oficio quita vicio.
  7. Poderoso caballero es don dinero.
  8. Más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando.
  9. Salir de Guatemala para caer en Guatepeor.
  10. Más vale maña que fuerza.
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