Handy Guide to Expressions and Slang in Spanish-Speaking Countries

Handy Guide to Expressions and Slang in Spanish-Speaking Countries

Handy Guide to Expressions and Slang in Spanish-Speaking Countries

Blog65_SpanishSlang_BritishAmericanFlag-300x200 Handy Guide to Expressions and Slang in Spanish-Speaking CountriesIn a previous blog, we explored some of the differences between British and American English. Especially in the case of expressions and slang, Americans and Brits often find themselves “divided by a common language,” if you will. However, as any second-language learner or traveler knows, this confusion is not limited to British and American English. Even when traveling within the same region or the same country where the same language is spoken, it is normal to encounter peculiar expressions with which you may not be familiar. You might understand the words but have no idea why someone might be using them in a particular context.

Blog65_SpanishSlang_SpanishWords-300x200 Handy Guide to Expressions and Slang in Spanish-Speaking CountriesOnce you get over the initial intra-linguistic barrier, expressions are a fun way to communicate with others and to immerse yourself in the subtleties of a culture. Spanish is an official language in 20 countries around the world, and the slang and expressions vary across these countries. In this blog, we’ll have a look at some popular expressions from these countries. We’ll list provide their literal translation as well as their idiomatic meaning. Have a look at this guide as you prepare for your next trip to a Spanish-speaking country or for an upcoming get-together with Spanish-speaking friends or coworkers.


Estar al horno

Literal translation: To be in the oven

This expression means to be in trouble. Typically, it is reserved for serious situations rather than temporary, minor inconveniences. You could add the phrase con papas (with chips) to estar al horno if the situation is really bad.

Tener mala leche

Literal translation: To have bad milk

In Argentina, to have bad milk means to have bad luck. You could also say “Qué mala leche!” to mean “What bad luck!”

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Tener mala leche

Ser mala leche

Literal translation: To be bad milk

Not to be confused with “tener mala leche” above, “ser mala leche” is used to describe someone who is mean. This expression is not to be used lightly. To call someone “mala leche” is a major insult in Argentina.

Mandar fruta

Literal translation: To send fruit

“Mandar fruta,” or “sending fruit,” refers to talking nonsense. If someone is babbling something that doesn’t make any sense, you could say “Dejá de mandar fruta,” or “Stop talking nonsense!”

Tomátelo con soda

Literal translation: Take it with soda

Though this expression isn’t as commonly used as it once was, it is still widely understood. Taking something with a soda in Argentina means to take something lightly or to be chill about something. Another way of saying the same thing is “tranquila,” which means “calm down.” This phrase should not be used in very serious situations.


Me has llegado hasta la copete

Literal translation: You’ve brought me to the pompadour

If you didn’t already know, a pompadour is a type of hairstyle where a tuft of hair protrudes from the forehead. In Bolivia, this expression is used to tell someone “You’ve worn me out” or “I’m tired of your nonsense.”

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Me has llegado hasta la copete

No ve?

Literal translation: Don’t you see it?

This is the Bolivians’ way of saying “Right?” or “You know?” It’s a way of soliciting agreement from a listener. Though no response is required, most would respond with “si” (yes) or simply by nodding their head in agreement.


Tiene malas pulgas

Literal translation: To have bad fleas

If someone in Chile has bad fleas, it means they’re in a bad mood.

Estar pato

Literal translation: To be a duck

Being a duck in Chile means to be out of money or to be broke.

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Estar pato

Salto lejos el mani

Literal translation: Look how far the peanut jumped

Have one of those friends who’s nosy and needs to get in on everyone’s gossip? If you’re in Chile, you can tell them “salto lejos el mani.” This is a way of telling someone to mind their own business.

Más tonto que una puerta

Literal translation: Dumber than a door

In Chile, this is a way of calling someone a moron.

Subir al columpio

Literal translation: To get someone on a swing

To get someone on a swing in Chile means to make fun of them.


Quien pidió pollo?

Literal translation: Who ordered chicken?

While in America, chicken has a negative connotation, it has a positive one in Colombia. You can use this expression in Colombia to acknowledge when a good-looking guy or girl approaches or passes by. Said good-looking person is the “chicken.”

Chupar piña

Literal translation: To suck/lick a pineapple

Feeling romantic in Colombia? You might be in the mood to “chupar piña,” which means to kiss someone a lot.

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Chupar piña

Hacer el oso

Literal translation: To make/do the bear

To make or do the bear in Colombia means to do or make something embarrassing or laughable.

Costa Rica

Pura vida

Literal translation: Pure life

This is a very important and multipurpose expression in Costa Rica and exemplifies Costa Ricans’ attitude towards life. This phrase can be used to mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “how are you?” “all is good,” “thank you,” or “you’re welcome.”

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Pura vida

Jalarse una torta

Literal translation: Pull a cake

In Costa Rica, if you made a mistake, you pulled a cake. “Jalarse una torta” means to mess up or to do something dumb or regrettable. You could also say “Qué torta” to mean “What a mess!” or “What a screw-up!”

Una teja

Literal translation: A roof tile

The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colón. “Una teja” is a slang expression for a 100-colones coin.

Va jalando

Literal translation: Go pulling

In Costa Rica, va jalando is a way of saying “go away,” or if you’re feeling really aggressive, “get lost.”


Tu maletín

Literal translation: Your briefcase

This Cuban expression is a way of saying “That’s your problem!”

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Tu maletín

Me resbala

Literal translation: It slides off me

Couldn’t care less about something? In Cuba, you would say “Me resbala!” which would be understood as “I don’t care.”

Tumba eso

Literal translation: Knock that over

If you’re done talking about something or just don’t want to give it anymore attention, you could say “Tumba eso,” or “Just drop it.”

Más rollo que una película

Literal translation: More roll than a film

If someone is all talk and no action or portrays him- or herself to be more than they actually are, you would describe them as “más rollo que una película.

Eso huevo quiere sal

Literal translation: That egg wants salt

This Cuban expression refers to doing something because you want something.

Dominican Republic

A buen hambre, no hay pan duro

Literal translation: When you are really hungry, no bread is too hard

This is a Dominican way of saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” In other words, if you really want something, you will find a way to make it happen.

Ay, mi madre!

Literal translation: Oh, my mother!

This is similar to the American “Oh man!” It can also be a way of expressing surprise or amazement, kind of like “Wow!”

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Ay, mi madre!

La piña está agria

Literal translation: The pineapple is sour

In the Dominican Republic, to say the pineapple is sour means that things are difficult or challenging.

Te subi lo vidrio

Literal translation: Shut the window

You can use this Dominican expression when you’re done talking to someone or don’t want to hear them out anymore. When you reach this point, you’re ready to “shut the window” on them.


Puras huevadas

Literal translation: A nest of eggs

In Ecuador, a “nest of eggs” refers to “nonsense.” Talking nonsense in Ecuador would be “talking a nest of eggs.”

Estar salado

Literal translation: To be salty

This Ecuadorian saying means to have bad luck.

Ya no jala

Literal translation: Not pull any longer

Similar to how Americans say “losing steam,” to not be able to pull any longer means to be tired in Ecuador.

Hacer la foca

Literal translation: To make the seal

When an Ecuadorian makes a fool of themselves, they are said to “make a seal” of themselves. “Hacer la foca” refers to doing something regrettable or embarrassing.

Hacer la vaca

Literal translation: To do/make the cow

To do or make the cow in Ecuador is what Americans would refer to as “going Dutch.” This expression refers to splitting the bill when going out.

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Hacer la vaca

El Salvador

Buena onda

Literal translation: Good wave

“Buena onda” conveys what Americans might refer to as “good vibes.” This expression is used to describe having a positive feeling about someone or something.


Literal translation: Suitcase

If you want to call someone a loser in El Salvador, call them a suitcase instead. A maleta refers to someone who’s not good at anything in life.

Tener goma

Literal translation: To have glue

This expression isn’t exclusive to El Salvador, but it’s a good one to know, as it is commonly used. Tener goma is slang for having a hangover.

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Tener goma


A huevos

Literal translation: To the eggs

This Guatemalan expression roughly means “for sure” or “exactly.” It’s the response you would elicit if you say something logical or expected.


Literal translation: Waters

If you hear “Aguas!” being yelled in Guatemala, chances are the speaker’s not just really excited about water. Instead, this is a way of signaling impending danger. So keep your ears peeled. “Aguas!” could save your life.

Ser muy viernes

Literal translation: It’s so Friday

In the US, Friday has almost all positive associations. In Guatemala, on the other hand, to say something is “so Friday” is to call it a drag or boring.

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Ser muy viernes


Literal translation: Dog

To call someone a “chucho” in Guatemala is to call them greedy. Most of the time this phrase is a little derogatory, but when spoken in the right company, it can also be used as a term of endearment.


Literal translation: Nail

“Clavo” is used by Guatemalans to describe a challenging or difficult situation.



Literal translation: Strawberry

Though not limited to Honduras, this is a common phrase you’ll hear many Hondurans say. “Fresa” is used to describe someone who is conceited or thinks they are better than everyone else. It can also be used to describe a cool or good-looking object.

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Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente

Literal translation: A shrimp that sleeps is taken away by the current

This expression means that if you don’t seize an opportunity as it comes to you, you’ll quickly lose your chance.

Harina de otro costal

Literal translation: Flour from another sack

If someone brings up something that has nothing to do with the topic at hand, you can respond that that’s “harina de otro costal,” or flour from another sack.



Literal translation: To turn into the big goat

In Mexico, if someone gets mad, they “turn into the big goat” (“se encabrona”).

Tirar el perro

Literal translation: To throw the dog

To “throw someone a dog” in Mexico means to flirt with them.

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Tirar el perro

Comer el mandado

Literal translation: To eat groceries

If someone is taking advantage of you in Mexico, they are said to be “eating your groceries” (“te come el mandado”).

Ser bien sangrón

Literal translation: Bleeding copiously

If someone is unbearable, a Mexican would say they’re “bleeding copiously.”

Echarle mucha crema a sus tacos

Literal translation: Put a lot of cream on their tacos

In Mexico, someone who thinks very highly of themselves is said to “put a lot of cream on their tacos.”


Sias caballo

Literal translation: Don’t be a horse

To tell someone not to be a horse in Nicaragua means telling them not to be silly.


Literal translation: Goat

In Nicaragua, calling something a “goat” or a “chiva” means that it’s dangerous.

Contra el cacho

Literal translation: Against the horn

Running late? In Nicaragua, you’re “contra el cacho,” or “against the horn.”

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Contra el cacho

Pelar el ojo

Literal translation: To peel the eye

Similar to the American expression “keep your eyes peeled,” “pelar el ojo” means to pay close attention to something.


Literal translation: Coyote

Calling someone a coyote in Nicaragua is to call them a freeloader or a moocher.


Estar limpio

Literal translation: To be clean

To be “clean” or “limpio” in Panama means to be broke or to have no money.

Tirar cinta

Literal translation: To throw tape

Throwing tape is a Panamanian way of telling a story or an account of an event.

Dale cuero

Literal translation: Give it leather

If you’re in a hurry in Panama, you would “dale cuero,” which is their way of saying “do it fast.”

Hablar paja

Literal translation: To talk straw

“Talking straw” is understood in Panama is telling lies or talking nonsense.


Literal translation: To pull off or tear off

This is a Panamanian expression for partying hard or living it up.

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Andar por su cabeza

Literal translation: To go to one’s head

Going to one’s head means to do whatever one feels like.

Estar con los perros

Literal translation: To be with the dogs

In Paraguay, if you’re hanging with your friends, you’re with “the dogs.”

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Estar con los perros


Literal translation: Catfish

To call someone a “bagre” or “catfish” in Paraguay is to call them ugly.



Literal translation: Pumpkin

In Lima, the capital of Peru, calling someone a “calabaza” or “pumpkin” is to call them dumb or an airhead. You could make this sound a little less harsh by adding the diminutive “-ita.” Instead of meaning “stupid,” “calabacita” would mean something more like “not the sharpest tool in the shed.”


Literal translation: Churro

A churro is a fried-dough pastry typical of Spain and Portugal. In Peru, “churro” is also a way of referring to an attractive man.

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Literal translation: Rib

In Peru, “costilla,” or “rib,” is slang for girlfriend.


Literal translation: Paw

“Pata” is Peruvian slang for a close friend. “Pata de alma” would be a way of saying “best friend.”

Saco largo

Literal translation: Long jacket

In Peru, “saco largo” or “long jacket” is slang for a controlling partner.


Tomar el pelo

Literal translation: To take the hair

The same way Americans would say “pulling my leg,” the Spanish would say “taking the hair.” This expression refers to good-naturedly teasing someone.

Ser pan comido

Literal translation: To be bread eaten

Similar to the American “piece of cake,” “ser pan comido” is a Spanish way of saying something is really easy.

Quedarse de piedra

Literal translation: To stay like a stone

In Spain, this expression means to be stunned or amazed.

Estar más sano que una pera

Literal translation: To be healthier than a pear

This Spanish expression is pretty self-explanatory. It means to be really healthy or in good shape.

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Estar más sano que una pera

Echar agua al mar

Literal translation: To throw water into the sea

This Spanish expression is similar to the American “put a drop in the bucket.” It means to do something pointless.


Bailar en una pata

Literal translation: To dance with one foot

To dance with one foot in Uruguay means to be really happy.

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Bailar en una pata

Hablar hasta por los codos

Literal translation: To talk with one’s elbows

In Uruguay, someone who talks a lot is said to talk with their elbows.

Tirar fruta

Literal translation: To throw away fruit

Telling someone they’re throwing away fruit is the Uruguayans’ way of calling them a liar.

Me estás descansando?

Literal translation: Are you resting on me?

Instead of saying “Are you kidding me?” Uruguayans would ask “Are you resting on me?”

A llorar al cuartito

Literal translation: Cry in the small room

If someone doesn’t listen to you but then you end up being right, you might tell them “I told you so!” In Uruguay, you would tell them to cry in the small room.



Literal translation: Corduroy

In Venezuela, “pana” is a way of saying mate, buddy, or pal.


Literal translation: Hair

“Pelo” is used to refer to a small or short amount of something.

Comer un cable

Literal translation: To eat a cable

“Eating a cable” in Venezuela refers to being broke or not having any money.

Llegar de arroceros

Literal translation: To arrive as rice farmers

This means showing up to a party uninvited. What Americans would call crashing a party, Venezuelans would call arriving as a rice farmer.


Literal translation: To make a toad

In Venezuela, if you betray or tell on someone, you make them a toad.

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Stay tuned for future blogs that will go into more detail on the regionalisms of specific countries.

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Have a live video session on Konversai!

If you’d like to learn more Spanish, regional slang and expressions, or prepare for your next trip to a Spanish-speaking country, Konversai is the place to do it. Konversai is your one-stop shop for any and all personal human knowledge on any subject you can imagine. The online platform connects providers of knowledge with seekers of knowledge through one-on-one live video conversations. Knowledge providers have the opportunity to make money by sharing with others what they know on their own time without having to leave their home. Knowledge seekers have the opportunity to engage in a personalized conversation on exactly what they’re looking to learn with an actual human being. All users are encouraged to be both knowledge providers and knowledge seekers on any and as many topics as they wish. Whether you’re on the platform as a provider or a seeker, you are sure to come out of the conversation feeling enriched. So whatever you’re passionate or curious about, bring it with you to Konversai. Get started today!

By Pavita Singh


  1. Gritty Spanish. Cuban Phrases: Don’t Visit Cuba Without Knowing about These Popular Sayings.
  2. Hilder, Rosie. Top 10 Spanish Slang Phrases to Speak Like a True Argentine.”
  3. Latin Travel Guide. 18 Examples of the Finest Peruvian Slang.
  4. Luna, Rulo. (2015). 45 funniest Mexican expressions (and how to use them). Matador Network.
  5. Matador Network. 21 Funniest Expressions in Chilean Spanish.
  6. Mendez, Lola. (2017). The 21 funniest Uruguayan expressions (and how to use them). Matador Network.
  7. Schwartz, Mayela. (2015). The 28 funniest Venezuelan expressions (and how to use them). Matador Network.
  8. Stewart, Harry. (2017). 8 Bolivian Slang Expressions You’ll Need On Your Trip to Bolivia. The Culture Trip.
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