Idioms - Modismos

I intend to create a bilingual blog (at least I’ll try) that can be used as a key source of information for fellow translators, interpreters, students, people interested in learning new things every day and anyone willing to stop by for a reading, hopefully, a good one.


Today I’d like to talk about idioms: those beautiful sentences that can be a pain for an interpreter (in the rush and the stress of the booth) and that can become a real challenge for any translator trying to localise them properly. Bear in mind that there's no just one translation, but thousands to the same sentence or problem, and also, if you’re translating into Spanish, idioms may vary depending on the country. My idioms here are from Spanish from Spain. If in your country there’s a variation of the same idiom or it does mean something totally different, leave a comment and I’ll add it to the list.


But first, what’s an idiom? According to the Cambridge dictionary an idiom is “a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own”.

 In order to use the most accurate meaning for these idioms, I've checked several dictionaries online such as Cambridge and The free dictionary.


So, let’s get started!





“Speak of the devil” is the short form of the idiom “speak of the devil and he shall appear”. It is used when an object of discussion unexpectedly becomes present during the conversation.

«Hablando del rey de Roma», que también es la forma corta de decir «hablando del rey de Roma, que por la puerta asoma». 



“The Straw that broke the camel’s back”, describes the seemingly minor or routine action which causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, because of the cumulative effect of small actions.

          «Esta es la gota que colma el vaso».



“This is my bread and butter”, a person's livelihood or main source of income.

E.g.: The automobile industry is the bread and butter of many Detroiters.

 «Con esto me gano el pan / con esto me gano la vida»



“To be full of hot air”, that means talking a lot, especially without saying anything of value or meaning.

           «Estar lleno de palabras huecas»



“It backfired on him”, to produce an unexpected, undesire result.

«Le salió el tiro por la culata». 





“To be on cloud nine”, to be extremely happy and excited.

           «Estar como unas castañuelas». 




"Like father, like son". Fathers and sons resemble each other, and sons tend to do what their fathers did before them. It can appear with a counterpart, "like mother, like daughter".

There's another variation: "the fruit does not fall far from the tree". 

«De tal palo tal astilla».





“Stop beating around the bush”, to avoid talking about what is important. To treat a topic, but omit its main points, often intentionally. 

           «Deja de andarte con rodeos».




“To be the apple of someone’s eye”, the person who someone loves most and is very proud of.

 «Ser la niña de sus ojos». 




“To kill two birds with one stone”, to succeed in achieving two things in a single action. To use only one action to complete two tasks.

 «Matar dos pájaros de un tiro». 




“The squeaky wheel gets the grease”, said to emphasise that attention is paid to those problems that are made most noticeable.

 «El que no llora no mama».




“Birds of a feather flock together”, said about people who have similar characters or interests, especially ones of which you disapprove and who often spend time with each other.

«Dios los cría y ellos se juntan». 



“To rub salt in a wound” or “to rub salt in someone’s wound”, to deliberately make someone's unhappiness, shame or misfortune worse.

«Echarle sal a la herida». 




“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, when visiting a foreign land, follow the customs of those who live in it. It can also mean that when you are in an unfamiliar situation, you should follow the lead of those who know the ropes.

«Donde fueres haz lo que vieres».



"Talk is cheap", it is easier to say you will do something than to actually do it. (Saying this in response to someone who promises you something implies that you do not believe that person will keep the promise). 

«Del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho». 



“Practice makes perfect”, doing something over and over again is the only way to do it well. 

«La práctica hace al maestro».





“Fight tooth and nail”, to try very hard to get something you want. To use a lot of effort to oppose someone or achieve something.

«Pelear a brazo partido» o «pelear a capa y espada».




“To go through the roof”, to become very angry. Also, said for prices, to become very high.

«Subirse por las paredes».





“To be full of notions”, an individual’s conception or self-perception of superiority and magnificence. Note: This idiom is mostly used in Ireland. Most generally “to put on airs”.  

 «Tener aires de grandeza» o «darse aires de grandeza». 



“To be away with the fairies”, not facing reality. Living in a dream world. This sentence comes also from the Irish tradition.

           «Tener la cabeza llena de pájaros».



“As bold as brass”, with extreme confidence or without respect or politeness people usually show: e.g. She marched into the store, as bold as brass, and demanded her money back.

 «Ni corto ni perezoso». 




“Alive and kicking”, to be well and healthy, lively and active.

           «Vivito y coleando».




“Kiss and make up”, to forgive someone and be friends again after arguing. To become reconciled and forget past animosity.

 «Borrón y cuenta nueva».



“To have a whale of a time”, to enjoy yourself very much.

           «Pasarlo bomba».



“To make a scene”, to be loud and rude with other people or in public. Also, "to make a fuss".

 «Montar un pollo».




“To dot the I’s and cross the t’s”, to pay a great deal of attention to the details of something, especially when you are trying to complete a task.

           «Poner los puntos sobre las íes».



“To paint oneself into a corner”, to put oneself into a frustrating or helpless situation. Get oneself into a difficulty from which one can’t extricate oneself.

«Meterse en un jardín». 



“Give a thing, and take a thing, to wear the Devil’s gold ring”, it is wrong to take back a gift.

           «Santa Rita Rita, lo que se da no se quita». 



“To draw the short straw”, to be the member of a group who must do an unpleasant job.

 «Comerse un marrón».



“To be as cool as a cucumber” or “to be as fresh as a cucumber”, to be very calm and relaxed, especially in a difficult situation.

           «Estar como si tal cosa».



“To be as fresh as a daisy”, to be full of energy and enthusiasm.

«Estar fresco como una lechuga». 



“To be without rhyme or reason”, to be without any obvious reasonable explanation.

           «Sin ton ni son».



“It’s all Greek to me”, a way of saying that you do not understand something that is said or written.

 «Me suena a chino». 



“To call the shots”, to be the person who makes all the important decisions and who has the most power in a situation. To decide on the course of action. Also, “to call the tune”.

           «Llevar la voz cantante», también «llevar la batuta».




“To call a spade a spade”, refers to calling something “as it is”, that is, by its right or proper name.

 «Al pan, pan y al vino, vino». 



“To be on pins and needles”, to be nervous waiting to see what is going to happen.

           «Estar hecho un flan». 



“Butter wouldn’t melt in someone’s mouth”, used when someone looks as if they would never do anything wrong, although you feel they might.

 «No romper ni un plato» o «no haber roto nunca un plato». 



“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea”, not one’s choice or preference. (Used to describe an activity you do not enjoy). Not what someone likes or is interested in.

           «No ser plato de buen gusto». 



“A double-edged sword”, something that causes both advantages and problems.

 «Un arma de doble filo». 



“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, said when you recognise that you should not risk losing something you already have by trying to get something you think might be better.

           «Más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando».



“Don't look a gift horse in the mouth”, said to advise someone not to refuse something good that is being offered.

«A caballo regalado no le mires el diente» o «a caballo regalado no le mires el dentado».




“Actions speak louder than words”, people’s intentions can be judged better by what they do than what they say.

           «Una acción vale más que mil palabras». 



“At the drop of the hat”, if you do something at the drop of a hat, you do it immediately without stopping to think about it.

 «En un santiamén». 



“The ball is in someone’s court”, it is time for someone to deal with a problem or make a decision, because other people have already done as much as they can.

«La pelota está en tu tejado».




“Barking up the wrong tree”, to be wrong about the reason for something or the way to achieve something.

«A mal puerto vas por leña». 



“Best thing since sliced bread”, to be an excellent person or thing. If someone or something is described as the best thing since sliced bread, people think they are extremely good, often better than they really are.

           «Lo mejor desde la invención de la rueda».



“Bite off more than you can chew”, to try to do something that is too difficult for you. To try to do more than you are able to do.

«El que mucho abarca poco aprieta».



“A blessing in disguise”, something that seems bad or unlucky at first, but results in something good happening later. Also, “every cloud has a silver lining”, said to emphasise that every difficult or unpleasant situation has some advantages. 

«No hay mal que por bien no venga».



“Burn the midnight oil”, to work late into the night. To stay up working, especially studying, late at night. (Alludes to working by the light of an oil lamp late in the night).

«Hincar codos» o «echar codos» o, como variante mexicana «quemarse las pestañas».



“Don’t judge a book by its cover”, said to show that you cannot know what something or someone is like by looking only at that person or thing’s appearance.

           «El hábito no hace al monje» o «no juzgues un libro por su portada» o «no juzgar por                las apariencias».



“Wouldn’t be caught dead in” or “wouldn’t be seen dead”, if someone wouldn’t be seen dead in a particular place or doing a particular thing, they would never do it, usually because it would be too embarrassing (often + adv/prep).

«Ni harto de vino».



“(Straight) from the horse’s mouth”, if you hear something (straight) from the horse’s mouth, you hear it from the person who has direct personal knowledge of it.

           «Saber de buena tinta» o «saberlo de primera mano».



“The whole nine yards”, meaning “everything, the whole lot” and “all the way”.

 «De cabo a rabo».




“Best of both worlds”, a situation wherein one can enjoy two different opportunities.

«Lo mejor de cada casa».




“Cost an arm and a leg”, to be very expensive.

«Costar un ojo de la cara» o «costar un riñón».



“Cry over spilled milk”, to express regret about something that has already happened or cannot be changed.

           «Llorar sobre la leche derramada».



“Curiosity killed the cat”, being curious can get you into trouble. (Often used to warn someone against prying into other’s affairs). Something that you say in order to warn someone not to ask too many questions about something.

«La curiosidad mató al gato».



“Devil’s advocate”, someone who pretends, in an argument or discussion, to be against an idea or plan that a lot of people support, in order to make people discuss and consider it in more detail.

           «Ser el abogado del diablo».



“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”, said to emphasise that you cannot depend on something happening before it has happened.

«No vendas la piel del oso antes de cazarlo» o se puede hacer referencia también a «el cuento de la lechera».



“Take with a grain of salt” or in its UK version “take with a pinch of salt”, to not completely believe something that you are told, because you think it is unlikely to be true.

           «Coger o tomar con pinzas».



“To sit on the fence”, not to take sides in a dispute. Not to make a clear choice between two possibilities.

«Mirar los toros desde la barrera».



“Pull the wool over someone’s eyes”, to deceive someone in order to prevent them from discovering something.

           «No intentes venderme la moto» o en su versión mexicana «taparle el ojo al macho».



“Piece of cake”, something that is very easy to do.

«(Ser) pan comido».





“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, don’t focus all of your attention on one thing or in one idea, in case that situation changes or goes away.

           «No te lo juegues todo a una sola carta» o en su versión latino americana «no hay que poner            todos los huevos en una sola canasta».



“Elvis has left the building”, said when an event or performance has come to an end, or when someone or something has left the place, especially in a dramatic way.

«Se acabó lo que se daba» o «¡apaga y vámonos!».




“A picture paints a thousand words”, a picture can express something more clearly or succinctly than words can.

«Una imagen vale más que mil palabras».





“Once in a blue moon”, not very often. Rarely.

«De Pascuas a Ramos» o «de higos a brevas» o, según la variante latino americana «cada muerte de obispo».





“On the ball”, aware of any changes or developments and quick to react to them.

           «Estar al loro» o según su variante venezolana «estar pilas» o «estar con las pilas puestas».




“Feel/be (a bit) under the weather”, to feel ill.

«No estar muy católico».




“Hear (something) through/on the grapevine” or “a little bird told me”, to hear news from someone who heard the news from someone else.

           «Me ha dicho un pajarito» o «radio patio» o «lo he oído en radio macuto» o «me                    enteré por las malas lenguas».



“Hit the nail on the head”, to describe exactly what is causing a situation or problem. To do exactly the right thing, to be right about something.

«Dar en el clavo».


“It takes two to tango”, said when you want to emphasise that both people involved in a difficult situation must accept the blame, or that an activity needs two people who are willing to take part for it to happen.

           «Dos no pelean si uno no quiere».


“Jump on the bandwagon” or “climb on the bandwagon”, join a popular trend or activity.

«Subirse al carro» o en su versión argentina «subirse al caballo» o en su versión colombiana «subirse al tren».



“Let sleeping dogs lie”, said to warn someone that they should not talk about a bad situation that most people have forgotten about.

           «Agua que no has de beber, déjala correr».



“Split hairs”, to argue about small details of something. To quibble, to try to make petty distinctions.

«No le busques tres pies al gato».



“To let the cat out of the bag”, to allow a secret to be known, usually intending to.

           «Descubrir el pastel».



“To spill the beans”, to give away a secret or surprise.

«Irse de la lengua». 




“To miss the boat”, to lose an opportunity to do something by being slow to act.

           «Perder el tren».



“Not playing with a full deck”, not mentally sound; crazy or mentally deranged. Not very bright or intelligent. Also, "off one's rocker".

«Le falta un tornillo».



“To work wonders” or “to work miracles”, to produce very good effects. Succeed, produce a good outcome, as in “The new coat of paint works wonders with this bedroom”.

           «Ser mano de santo». 



“In every country dogs bite” or “It's the same the world over”. Also, “We all have skeletons in the cupboard”. In this case, we have a proverb rather than an idiom that means that there’s problems everywhere.

 «En todas partes cuecen habas».



“To each his own”, one has a right to one’s personal preferences, as in I’d never pick that colour, but to each his own.

           «Cada loco con su tema».




“Make a killing”, “make a pile”, “to have a field day” or “to feather your nest”, to have great success, especially in making money. To make an enormous profit; to become an enormous success.  

«Hacer su agosto».



“To suit sb (right) down to the ground”, if something suits someone down to the ground, it suits them perfectly, usually because it is convenient for them.

«Venir/quedar que ni pintado».




“(Not) make heads or tails of someone or something” [US] or “(not) make head nor tail of something” [UK], to not understand something.

«No tiene ni pies ni cabeza».

Write a comment

Comments: 4
  • #1

    Maria (Saturday, 29 April 2017 21:11)

    Muy bien tu página, clara y precisa. Muy util para la enseñanza.

  • #2

    MPRD (Sunday, 30 April 2017 14:17)

    ¡Gracias María por tu comentario!
    Me alegro de que te guste.

  • #3

    Cecilia Mata (Tuesday, 11 July 2017 17:21)

    ¡Gracias por compartir tu trabajo! Súper útil!!! Llegué a tu blog buscando la expresión "en todos lados se cuecen habas" en Google. So, you see? It worked out well!

  • #4

    MPRD (Saturday, 15 July 2017 09:38)

    Hola Cecilia Mata. Muchas gracias por tu comentario. ¡Me alegro de que te fuera útil!
    ¡Funcionó perfectamente, entonces!