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22 Expressions to Rock Your Spanish While in Argentina

Feel at Home in Buenos Aires with These Wacky Urban Idioms

Argentina’s Spanish is as colorful as its homes.

Photo credit: Nan Palmero licensed cc by 2.0

HomeBlog22 Expressions to Rock Your Spanish While in Argentina

Argentina speaks a Spanish that’s said to be the closest to Castilian, the “original” Spanish spoken in Spain. It’s like being the only English-speaking country in the New World that still spoke the “Queen’s English”! To many purists and linguists, this makes Argentinian Spanish the most desirable and closest to “standard.” While that argument is still debatable, you can’t argue that it does have a distinct character not found elsewhere.

While a detailed analysis of the Argentinian accent and orthography is out of scope right now, I would love to share with you some awesome expressions that make the dialect worth learning. Most of these expressions are unique to Argentina, but some have already started spreading out to the rest of the continent thanks to the ubiquity of Argentinian cinema and television.

1. Andar Como Turco en la Neblina

Literal translation: To walk like a Turk in the fog

What it really means: To be confused

This one goes back to the Moors of Andalusia in Spain. Back in the day, pure wine was commonly referred to as Turkish. Why Turkish, you ask? Well, pure wine is wine with no water whatsoever. So this wine was seen as one that wasn’t baptized (the connection between baptism and water should be self-evident, I assume). Of course, it was in jest; but the euphemism caught on. Since the Turks were not Christians, hence unbaptized, the drink itself came to be known as Turkish. And consequently, to catch a Turk became the euphemism for being borracho (drunk).

Thus, Turk here refers to someone high on pure wine or, in other words, drunk. Now imagine a drunk dude walking in a haze. That’s like a double whammy, right? This guy’s walk is gonna look super-messy. Like he were lost. Like he were confused. Very confused. That’s why the expression means to be confused.

Argentina’s Spanish is as colorful as its homes. Argentina’s Spanish is as colorful as its homes.
Nan Palmero licensed cc by 2.0

2. Buscarle la Quinta Pata al Gato

Literal translation: To look for the cat’s fifth leg

What it really means: To be annoyingly skeptical

Tinfoil hats anyone? We all have known at least one such nutjob in our lives. It could be a boyfriend who always suspects you of cheating on him even if that were the last thing you’d do. Or that Bubba down the street who thinks Barack Obama is an undercover lizard-man plotting a new world order. Or Aunt Martha who thinks beef is eight bucks a pound on purpose just to make her go vegan.

So basically, the expression is a dig at people who are in a constant state of skepticism. Cats don’t have a fifth leg, so you can imagine the futility of looking for one. I don’t know about you but I wish English had an equivalent! We do have some that come close though – fault-finding, splitting hair, etc.

3. Estar al Horno (con papas)

Literal translation: To be in the oven (with potatoes)

What it really means: To be in a bad situation

Being inside an oven is not going to be terribly pleasant. I mean it’s alright if it’s food, but if it’s you? It’s trouble! That’s when you might go, “I’m toast!” if you were an American. Some might prefer an f-word over toast here.

Essentially, this expression refers to a sticky situation. One you possibly can’t get out of. Not easily anyway. Say you’ve been partying all night and just as you’re ready for bed, you realize you have a test tomorrow morning! Now, that’s messed up, right? Just as being locked inside an oven would be. The con papas bit just serves to add to the drama. So not having studied for the test is estar al horno. But if flunking that test meant losing a semester, it’s estar al horno con papas. See the difference?

4. Estar al Pedo

Literal translation: To be to the fart

What it really means: To have nothing to do

Pedo means fart and is probably the single most prolific word in Argentina. The word has more idioms to its credit than Kanye West has haters. Alright I exaggerate but you get the point.

Depending on the phrase, pedo can have any of a range of very different interpretations. Estar al pedo means to have nothing to do. Don’t ask me how and why because I don’t know. You can think of it as the Argentinian equivalent of farting around. On similar lines, ser pedo means to be useless.

Just as you wouldn’t use  fart in a polite English conversation, you wouldn’t use pedo in a polite Spanish conversation. This obviously includes all expressions involving pedo, including this one.

Estar al pedo, by the way, is also common in Uruguay which makes sense given the country shares a border with Argentina. You may also hear the expression in Mexico but with a different interpretation. In Mexico, estar al pedo means to be attentive or courteous. It can also mean to be good or nice.

5. Estar en Pedo

Literal Translation: To be in fart

What it actually means: To be drunk

To be in fart? That doesn’t even make any sense! Maybe it refers to one being covered in fart, say, in an elevator? Just kidding. To be in fart here refers to being drunk.

Again, I have no idea how this expression came to be and is an Argentine staple, just like other fart expressions. Interestingly, this usage of pedo is also quite common in Spain! Just lose the en, making it estar pedo. So, while a drunk Argentinian is covered in fart, a drunk Spaniard is the fart itself! That’s brutal if you ask me.

Speaking of pedo, there’s something else I’d like you to know too: ni en pedo. This is the Argentinian way of saying no way. The literal meaning (not even in fart) kinda alludes to this meaning if you see it as not even if I were drunk.

6. Estar hasta las Manos

Literal translation: To be up to one’s hands

What it really means: To be madly in love or to be too busy

Juan Perón was an Argentinian president who died in 1974. 13 years after his death, someone broke into his tomb and made away with his hands – for a ransom of 8 million dollars. That’s gotta be one of the most Metal ransom calls in the history of ransom calls.

Many believe this to be the origin of estar hasta las manos as an expression of desperation. You’ve got to be super-desperate to pull off an act like that, don’t you? Stretching the analogy a bit further, the expression can also be interpreted as to be madly in love or to be drowning in work. Both situations are essentially sticky. As sticky as having to chop the hands off a 13-year-old corpse.

In the sense of being busy, the closest English equivalent is to have too much on one’s plate. In the context of love, you could think to fall head over heels for someone.

7. Estar Remando en Dulce de Leche

Literal translation: To be paddling in caramelized milk

What it really means: To be in a tough situation

Dulce de leche is a smooth and thick spread made from caramelized milk and sugar. Goes without saying, it tastes like heaven. This should be a good time to let you know that dulce de leche is thicker than it sounds.

Now imagine having to row a boat through an ocean of this stuff. See the challenge? This is why dulce de leche here refers to any sticky (no pun intended) situation in general. Thus, to be paddling in dulce de leche is to be struggling to get out of a very bad situation.

One very important thing to remember here is that dulce de leche is not caramel. You might be tempted to make that assumption and swap caramel for this stuff but nothing irks a true-blue Argentinian more. So careful there. Dulce de leche is a lot thicker than caramel; almost like honey!

8. Hacer Algo de Cayetano

Literal translation: To do something of Cayetano

What it really means: To do something stealthily

Gaetano dei Conti di Thiene, better known as San Cayetano, was a Catholic priest from Italy who helped found the Theatines. The Theatines are an order whose original aim was to foster religious reformation.

Thanks to the large Italian diaspora in the country, San Cayetano has become the patron saint of Argentina! His feast, that falls on August 7, is a pretty big deal out there. Missing it if you happened to be in the country around that time is going to be such a shame. So try not to.

Aside from that, he’s also the patron saint of gamblers and the unemployed. This could probably be the reason why doing something de Cayetano is doing it in secret. You don’t wanna get caught gambling as it makes you look irresponsible, right?

On the other hand, the expression could also be a play on words as Cayetano sounds like it were derived from callado. Callado is the past participle of callar (to shut up).

9. Ir a Llorarle a Magoya

Literal translation: To go crying to Magoya

What it really means: A refusal to pay up

Magoya is the John Doe of Argentina. Non-Argentinian Spanish speakers prefer Fulano. Rings a bell? The fun thing about Magoya is that it’s not a mere placeholder being. A Magoya is much more than your Fulano. It’s somebody who would pay your bills if you won’t or can’t. Of course, that somebody doesn’t really exist. Magoya also has a Chilean version; it’s called Moya.

Now that you understand Magoya, let’s get back to our idiom. Since Magoya is not a real being, you can see where we’re going with this expression. If someone asks to to go crying to Magoya, they’re basically asking you to take your problems to an imaginary being. In short, they’re refusing to help you.

A more direct version of this expression is ir a cobrarle a Magoya which literally means to go charge the imaginary dude. As you can guess, this is not a good thing to hear when you ask someone to pay up. Better than showing you the middle finger, though, I guess.

10. Ir a los Bifes

Literal translation: To go to the steaks

What it really means: To get to the point

I know the literal translation makes no sense whatsoever. I mean I can understand it it were going to a steakhouse but going to the steaks? How do you do that?

Well, steak here is a metaphor. A metaphor for the point in a discussion. You can relate to it if you’ve ever heard of the expression meat and potatoes in English. In an argument, this is the part that matters. So when you have one with someone and you think it’s going nowhere, you can ask them to get to the beef, i.e. point. This usage is exactly the same as asking someone to cut to the chase in English.

This has to be one of the coolest expressions coming from a country that reveres its cows above all else. Of course, this reverence is not like how they do in India.

Before we move on, there’s something extremely important you must be careful about when using this expression. As pointed out by one of our readers, Lucas Oscar Arroyuelo, in the comments below, do not use ir reflexively here if getting to the point is what you mean. That’s because irse a los bifes means to get into a fight! You don’t want to challenge me to a fight over not getting to the point, do you? This one should remind you of the common English expression, to have a beef with someone.

11. Levantarse a Alguien

Literal translation: To lift someone

What it really means: To pick up someone

Levantar doesn’t only mean to lift. It also means to pick up which makes total sense. And what do you think picking up someone imply in English? Hint: Ever heard of the expression, pick-up artist?

Should be an easy guess that this expression specifically pertains to dating. Just as in English, levantarse a alguien means to get it on with someone, if you know what I mean. This is the kind of expression you’d use when talking about, say, a hot number at the club. Just remember that it’s an extremely informal usage and should be avoided in polite conversations at all cost.

In order to sound more Argentine, you could try some local slang terms for the alguien bit. For example, if it’s a girl you could try piba or mina. If it’s a dude, you could go with pibe or chavón.

12. Mandar Fruta

Literal translation: To send fruit

What it really means: To fib

If you know the first thing about idioms, you’d know that this expression has nothing to do with sending anything, nor is there any fruit involved. What this means is to lie with conviction and without remorse. In short, to bullshit.

How this expression came to be, I have no clue. But it’s pretty awesome because it can easily stump any outsider even if it’s a native Spanish speaker! To me, this is as Argentine as it gets. So if someone asks you to stop sending them fruits, don’t call them crazy. They’re just calling out your lies:

No me mandés fruta (Don’t bullshit me).

Outside of Argentina, you may hear:

No me mientas.

Another Argentinian alternative would be:

No me boludees.

Boludear is a very Argentinian verb and one of its several meanings is to lie. So which one is more popular between boludear and mandar fruta? Well, the jury is still out on that one.

13. Me Cortaron las Piernas

Literal translation: They cut my legs off

What it really means: That’s unfair

These words were first uttered in 1994 by none other than Diego Maradona. That’s the historical day he failed a drug test and his soccer career came crashing down like a pack of cards. As he was being carted off the field by a nurse after the drug test, Maradona referred to the “injustice” with these words. Legs are everything to a soccer player and banning him from soccer is pretty much like taking his legs away. See the analogy there?

With time, though, the expression has come to mean any kind of injustice, no matter how trivial. Got fleeced at the flea market? They cut my legs off. Didn’t get the ketchup with the hot dog? They cut my legs off. Got dumped by my girlfriend? She cut my legs off! But just because others do doesn’t mean you should too. Save the expression for situations where you are deprived of something indispensable to you.

14. No Hay Tu Tía

Literal translation: There’s no your aunt

What it really means: There’s no solution or option

This one is as nonsensical as they come, at least the literal translation. But that’s alright because nobody’s aunt is involved here. Back in the day when copper was smelted, it yielded a substance mainly composed of zinc oxide called atutía or tutía. The name comes from Arabic. Obviously this was from the days of the Moors.

This stuff proved to be a solid remedy for a bunch of eye problems. Thus, with time, atutía itself came to be a symbolic panacea for all life problems. Consequently, when there was no solution to a problem, they would say no hay tutía (there’s no cure), tutía referring to the solution. With time, tutía separated into tu tía and before you realized, aunts became confusingly involved!

No hay tu tía can also sometimes refer to a situation where you have no alternative but to deal with it. For example when you have to finish a task by tomorrow and your boss wouldn’t take any excuse from you.

15. Pegar un Tubazo

Literal translation: To hit with a big tube

What it really means: To call

Tubazo is an augmented version of tuba. Tuba sounds like tube because it is a tube. So that automatically makes tubazo a bigger tube. Pegar means to paste but can also be sometimes used in the sense of hitting or striking. Bring it all together and you have a violent image of someone hitting someone else with a big tube.

But you know better than to take an idiom like this on face value, right? Tubazo in this case is actually a metaphor for telephone. Since we have more cell phones than telephones today, tubazo covers them as well. So, in case you’re at the bar and a girl asks you to hit her with a tubazo, check to see if she handed you a napkin with her number scribbled on it. Do not proceed to strike her unless you have done this little check! She just wants you to give her a call some time.

16. Ponerse la Gorra

Literal translation: To put on the cap

What it really means: To act bossy

Nobody likes bossy people. And yet everybody loves a chance to get bossy. That’s human nature for you. Gorra, in this expression, represents a police cap which alludes to authority. Ponerse is to put on. So, putting on the police cap is a metaphor for assuming authority. It’s like when you appoint yourself the leader of the pack, just because!

So, the next time somebody asks you to lose that hat when you’re not even wearing one, maybe you should stop being a dictator. In case, it’s someone else and you wanna ask them to loosen up, try this:

Quita la gorra.

You could also go with:

Sácate la gorra.

Of course, make sure you don’t sound like you were plotting to take over from him. I mean, try to sound friendly.

17. Ponerse las Pilas

Literal translation: To put on the batteries

What it really means: To get one’s act together

This expression assumes you’re a machine that runs on battery. So, just like any such device, you are completely vain without one. But the moment you’re fed a couple of batteries, you’re on the move. This is the analogy behind batteries and getting your act together. The closest English expression that comes to mind here would be to put one’s skates on.

Other interpretations in English include to turn the juice on, to get fired up, and to get cracking. So if your elders tell you something like pónte la pila on a particularly busy day, it’s fair to assume that you’re being lazier than it’s acceptable. The batteries here can be singular or plural without changing the meaning. So pilas or pila, use whatever you feel happier using.

18. Ser Gardel

Literal translation: To be Gardel

What it really means: To have it all, to be extremely successful

Carlos Gardel was a French-Argentine musician during the early 20th century. All of Latin America knows him as the King of Tango and that’s not without reason. History hasn’t seen a more successful and celebrated Tango singer after him.

That’s the kind of success you dream of achieving in your life. And once you have, you don’t really need much else. Privilege, fame, wealth, talent – you’ve got it all. Just like Gardel did. That’s why when someone calls you Gardel, they’re calling you a have-it-all. Almost all wealthy celebrities qualify, if you think about it. Some may be lacking in talent but that doesn’t seem to matter in the larger scheme of things.

19. Tener Fiaca

Literal translation: To have laziness

What it really means: To be lazy

Don’t confuse the word fiaca with flaca which refers to a skinny woman. Fiaca is Spanish for laziness in Argentina. The word belongs in the Lunfardo lexicon and covers everything from laziness to lethargy and demotivation. Lunfardo is a dialect of Spanish spoken in and around Buenos Aires and is not a good one to adopt in a formal setting. But fiaca didn’t originate in Argentina; the word goes back to Genoese Italian, where it referred to a starvation-induced lethargy.

Now that you understand fiaca, it should be easy to understand tener fiaca. This usage is just like tener sed or tener frío. To have laziness is to be lazy which is obvious.

Fiaca can also pair up with hacer and when it does, we get hacer fiaca. That is Argentinian Spanish for laze around or waste time doing nothing.

20. Ser/Tener Mala Leche

Literal translation: To be/have bad milk

What it really means: To be in bad luck

Bad milk is bad luck. At least to the Argentinians, which is why having bad milk is seen as having bad intentions or bad luck. Yes, the expression can refer to both luck as well as intentions, as long as they are bad.

Tener mala leche literally means to have bad milk. To have bad milk is to have bad luck or, in other words, to be unfortunate. But mala leche can also be used with ser as ser mala leche. When you do that, you are calling a person bad luck, i.e. a jinx. That can’t be good. So use it only for people who you truly find mean-spirited. Do not be frivolous with this expression as it’s extremely negative in Argentina!

Mala leche can also be used with hacer as hacer de mala leche and when you do that, it means to do something with bad intentions. I have also heard people use mala leche as a standalone interjection:

¡Qué mala leche! (What bad luck!)

That’s similar to saying damn in English.

21. Tirar los Galgos

Literal translation: To release the greyhounds

What it really means: To flirt a lot

Tirar is to throw but since you can’t exactly throw a dog, let alone a greyhound, it means to release in this context. The funniest part is that the expression doesn’t mean anything like its literal translation! It means to hit on, to make a pass on, or to flirt with. I mean, what could hunting dogs possibly have to do with flirting? Maybe that’s why the feminists think all men are dogs? That’s stupid.

A slightly milder version would be arrastar el ala which is understood all over Latin America. But if you’re in Argentina and you’re more than subtle with your moves, tirar los galgos is your friend. Another common variant is tirar los tejos which implies the exact same thing.

The expression might begin to make sense if you liken a cute girl to an equally cute bunny. In that case, you’ve gotta release the hounds in order to catch the bunny, like they do in the countryside.

22. Tomátelo con Soda

Literal translation: Take it with soda

What it really means: Take it easy, relax

This one is gonna be the easiest to wrap your head around. You add soda to your whiskey to dilute it and make it somewhat lighter, right? Try taking a swig straight off the bottle and tell me how it felt. Scorched your throat, didn’t you?

That’s exactly what this expression does. It lightens a situation. When someone is unreasonably tense over something, you can just ask them to take it with soda, i.e. take a chill pill.

I am so impressed with this expression, I wonder why it hasn’t caught on in the rest of the world! On the contrary, the usage has actually declined over the years. What gives? Maybe people tend to prefer the shorter alternative, tranquila. The latter, however, doesn’t pack the same punch as tómatelo con soda. But’s that my personal opinion.

There you go, the 22 most Argentine expressions to spice up your Spanish should you find yourself in that part of the world. Given its geographical and cultural proximity, Uruguay is also good with almost all these expressions. Almost everything that enjoys currency in Argentina, does so in Uruguay as well. So that’s a bonus for you right there. Of course, this isn’t even scratching the surface and there are hundreds of more fun idioms and expressions out there. I would love to know if you have any that you think should have made my list. Please tell me in a comment below!

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