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21 Common Expressions in Latin American Spanish

Sound Local with These Signature Expressions from the New World

Witty idioms enrich Latin American Spanish better than anything else.

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HomeBlog21 Common Expressions in Latin American Spanish

Latin American Spanish is different, you already know that. But this article is not about that. Instead, this one is about the myriad idiomatic expressions that underscore the Spanish of Latin America. These expressions make no sense whatsoever when translated literally. But strung together, they come loaded with meaning, wit, and humor. That’s what makes them so much fun to use.

Idiomatic expressions, be it Spanish or English, are a reflection of culture more than that of the language or its grammar. These evolve over years of vernacular improvisation and serve to lend a defining character to the region they’re used in. Think about it, would America sound the same without its get down to brass tacks or go the whole hog? Hardly.

Now listing out, let alone discussing, every Latin American Spanish idiom in currency would warrant way more than a blog article. Also, I am not qualified – I doubt anyone is – to objectively rank them by importance. What I’ve listed here is 21 of my personal top favorites. Some enjoy currency throughout the continent while others are more specific to certain countries. So let’s cut to the chase and start with the list.

1. Irse a Alguien el Avión

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To miss the plane

Actual meaning: To get distracted; to forget doing something

This one is about forgetting in general. What happens when the plane takes off without you? The analogy is fairly straightforward and yet the expression sounds so quirky. Were gonna say something but forgot as something else distracted you? You missed the plane. Came to the room to get something but can’t remember what anymore? You missed the plane. Did something just slip off your mind? You missed the plane. Lost a train of thoughts? You missed the plane. So you see, this isn’t just about distraction but forgetting in general. The association is easy to make here, no? Who said it works only with vocabulary!

So distracted, I missed the plane! So distracted, I missed the plane!
cdolivei licensed cc by 2.0

Se me fue el avión y no le llamé (It slipped my mind and I forgot to call you).

Se me fue el avión, ¿dónde estábamos? (I lost my train of thoughts, where were we?)

2. Dar a Alguien el Avión

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To give someone the airplane

Actual meaning: To humor someone, to pretend to be paying attention to someone

This one is a super idiomatic gift from Mexico to Latin American Spanish. I mean who could possibly see a connection between giving you an airplane and ignoring you? Brilliant, no? Think of this as when someone is just nodding along as you’re talking without actually paying attention. Why are they nodding along if they aren’t even listening? Maybe because they don’t wanna offend you. Let’s be honest, we’ve all done this at some point in our lives. Don’t agree with me? Think of your days at school and what you did as Mr. Quincy went on a long rant about hydrocarbons. Think of what the salesman does to your questions after having closed the sale already.

¡No me des el avión cuando estoy platicando! (Don’t ignore me while I’m talking)!

Me estás dando el avión (You’re not even listening to me).

3. Andar en la Luna

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To walk on the moon

Actual meaning: To be distracted

This one along with its variant estar en la luna (to be on the moon), speaks of a general distraction. Depending on where you are, several fun English equivalents exist. To have one’s head in the clouds is one of them. Other possibilities are to go about in a daze, to be daydreaming, to be woolgathering, or to be off with the fairies. Be careful about the last one when in America though as it can be misread as a tad derogatory there. In the US, fairies is a less-than-polite reference to the homosexuals!

Perdóname, estaba en la luna (Sorry, I got distracted).

Parece que andas en la luna (It seems you are distracted).

Vivirse en la luna is also heard at times. Not sure if it means the exact same thing nuance-wise but here’s an example of it in action:

Siempre te la vives en la luna (You are always lost).

4. Estar en la Baba

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To be in the drool

Actual meaning: To be unaware

Baba is Spanish for drool. That makes this expression sound pretty gross. I mean who could possibly enjoy marinating in saliva? Yuck! But, luckily for us, that’s not how idiomatic expressions work. In Latin American Spanish, estar en la baba means to be blissfully unaware. Especially when it’s something important. In other words, when you’re not clued in on what’s going on around you, you’re in the drool. If you want to specify what it is that one’s unaware of, you use con.

Estoy en la baba con las políticas de mi país (I’m unaware of the politics in my country).

El presidente estaba en la baba con la pobreza en su país (The president was clueless about the poverty in his country).

5. Comer Moscas

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: To eat flies

Actual meaning: To space out

Another disgusting one there. This one might enjoy slightly better currency in Mexico than elsewhere but can still be heard all over Latin America. I have no idea how the analogy works or how it started but it’s intriguing for sure. Latin American Spanish is full of such wacky analogies, so get used to them. English equivalents could range from space out to drift off. Doesn’t seem very different from estar en la luna, does it? Maybe a wee bit when it comes to finer details but overall they’re quite similar.

Al menudo come moscas mientras enseño (She often drifts off while I’m teaching).

Si comes moscas en mi clase, no aprobarás el examen (If you space out in my class, you’ll not pass the exam).

6. Buena Onda

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: Good wave

Actual meaning: Good vibes

Onda is big in Latin American Spanish, especially in Uruguay and Argentina. There are more expressions to its credit than I could ever list out in a single article. But the good news is, wrapping your head around it should be no big deal. That’s because waves are analogous to vibes in English too. So the literal meaning here is not too far off the idiomatic one. So to have a buena onda – i.e. good vibes – is, for the lack of a better term, to be cool. Of course, there’s also mala onda and it means exactly what you think it does. So anything living or non-living can have buena or mala onda. It could be a person, an animal, an object – just about anything.

¡Tu tía tiene muy buena onda! (Your aunt is really cool!)

¡Qué buena onda! (How cool!)

7. Echar la Hueva

Heard in: Central America

Literal translation: To throw the egg

Actual meaning: To be too lazy

Huevo is egg in Spanish. But hueva is not a female egg. Instead, it refers to roe, i.e. fish eggs. Now eggs and Mexico go a long way. For some reason, Mexicans have always associated eggs with laziness which is why hueva also means laziness in colloquial Mexican Spanish. This analogy has also caught on in the rest of Central America. Echar or tirar hueva is most common in Mexico but also a legitimate member of Latin American Spanish in general. Besides this, huevo and its variants have given more idioms to Latin American Spanish than a single article could ever do justice to. Those range from casual and innocent to downright offensive in even informal contexts.

Deja de echar hueva y termina la tarea (Stop being lazy and finish the homework).

Hoy mi único plan es echar la hueva (Today my only plan is to lay around).

8. Vivir en Nube de Pedos

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To live in a cloud of flatulence

Actual meaning: To be out of touch with reality

Sorry if this one came at a wrong time but it was inevitable. Latin American Spanish is far from complete without a reference to the Spanish of Argentina. And fart is to Argentina what eggs are to Mexico. They go deeper than we foreigners could ever fathom. I say this because there happen to be dozens and dozens of colloquial expressions involving pedo in common currency throughout this South American nation.

Now what if those clouds were made of fart? Now what if those clouds were made of fart?
candibj licensed cc by 2.0

Another expression with similar connotations in the River Plate basin is vivir adentro de un Tupperware (to live inside a Tupperware?). The closest English equivalent I can think of, idiom-wise, is to live in a bubble.

My novia siempre vivía en nube de pedo (My girlfriend always lived in a bubble).

Esos días todos vivían en nube de pedo (Those days everybody was out of touch with reality).

9.Hablar hasta por los Codos

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: To talk through one’s elbows

Actual meaning: To talk a lot

What’s elbows got to do with speaking? This one’s got to be the weirdest of all idioms I’ve come across not only in Latin American Spanish but any. The closest you can think of in English is to talk one’s ears off. I have also heard to talk one’s head off, to talk a blue streak, and so on. But my top favorite remains to talk nineteen to the dozen. Hablar hasta por los codos might seem synonymous to calentar la oreja a alguien but there’s definitely a subtle difference between the two. You could also do away with hasta and just go with hablar por los codos. The two alternatives mean the exact same thing.

Hablaron todos hasta por los codos (They all went on and on).

My abuela hablaba por los codos (My granny talked a lot).

10. Ser Duro de Codo

Heard in: Central America, Latin America

Literal translation: To be hard-elbowed

Actual meaning: To be very stingy

You may also run into its shorter variant, ser del codo. The two expressions mean the same thing, to be mean. Again, don’t ask me what elbows have to do with meanness or how the literal translation even works grammatically. It’s an idiom, deal with it. Throughout Latin America, Mexico in particular, codo is slang for a tightwad. So the harder your elbow, the stingier you are. At least in Latin American Spanish. Makes sense? It doesn’t have to, although I’m pretty sure the metaphor has an interesting story behind it. If you happen to be in the know, please share it with us in a comment below!

Órale, ¡no seas tan duro de codo! (Come on, don’t be such a miser!)

Tú mujer puede ser del codo a veces (Your wife can be stingy at times).

11. Morderse un Codo

Heard in: Mexico, Southern Cone

Literal translation: To bite an elbow

Actual meaning: To restrain oneself

What’s with me and elbows? Hope I’m not developing an unhealthy fetish for them. Don’t worry, this one’s the last, I promise. But that doesn’t mean Latin American Spanish is done with the organ yet. There’s a truckload of fun idiomatic expressions with codo and I urge you to explore them for yourself. In English, you might bite your tongue but in Spanish, you do that to your elbow. That is when you’re in retreat or, more accurately, holding yourself back. To hold one’s horses is a close equivalent in English. There are many others but you get the idea, don’t you?

No voy a muerdeme un codo si me insulta (I’ll not restrain myself if she insults me).

Uno siempre debe morderse un codo (One should always restrain oneself).

12. Bajar un Cambio

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To lower for a change

Actual meaning: To calm down

Take it easy, relax, chill, calm down – There are so many ways to soothe your friend’s nerves. Bajar un cambio is how you do it in Latin American Spanish, at least in Argentina. Bajar means to lower. But what’s being lowered here? I am not totally sure but from what I can remember, it’s an allusion to a speeding car. Think of speeding as going out-of-control bonkers. So what’s the opposite? Slowing down, right? That’s decelerating or lowering the speed. This is the analogy at work here. Think of yourself as a speeding car and you’re good to go with bajar un cambio.

¡Baja un cambio, mi amigo! (Relax, my friend!)

Pídele que baje un cambio (Ask her to calm down).

13. Picarse el Bagre

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To be bitten by the catfish

Actual meaning: To starve

Bagre is catfish – elsewhere, they call it siluro – in Latin American Spanish. So think of hunger as a stinging sensation in your tummy and you’ll see where this metaphor comes from. Don’t get technical because, frankly speaking, I don’t know what a catfish bite feels like. Not pleasant I suppose. But then, starving was never pleasant either, was it? The stinging sensation, the burn in your stomach – That’s the bridge between the idiom and its implication here.

Bagre, by the way, is quite a word in Latin America. It’s often heard as a colloquial term for an ugly person. In Nicaragua and Honduras, you can also hear it used for a cunning or sly person. In Costa Rica it’s a prostitute, whereas in the Andean regions of South America it’s a bumbling idiot! See how versatile it is? Anyway, I digress. Let’s stick to the catfish bite for now.

¡Me está picando el bagre! (I’m famished!)

Cuando la vi, la picaba el bagre. (When I saw her, she was starving).

14. Más Loco Que una Cabra con Pollitos

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: Crazier than a goat with chickens

Actual meaning: Too crazy

The metaphor is gold. Not sure how goats behave around chickens though. Someone who grew up on a ranch might want to chip in here. But I am sure they’re safe. This expression basically alludes to someone or something that’s beyond mad. It could be a person or a situation. That’s it. Nothing more to it. The analogy is completely in line with the actual meaning, although no animals are involved in real.

Creo que tu novia fue más loca que una cabra con pollitos (I think your girlfriend was super crazy).

No es bueno ser más loco que una cabra con pollitos (Being extremely crazy is not good).

15. Arrastar el Ala a Alguien

Heard in: Latin America

Literal translation: To drag the wing at someone

Actual meaning: To hit on someone

I am not sure if this is how the idiom came to be but every time I hear this, I think peacocks. These are fascinating birds. The dude is known to pull a riot of colors with its abnormally long plumage to impress his girl, often when it rains. Like I said, I’m far from sure if this is the story behind arrastrar el ala but it does sound mighty plausible. Regardless of whether you plan on hitting on a Latina while there, this is one interesting idiom worth knowing. Both arrastrar and ala, by the way, have a whole range of idioms to their credit. But we’ll stick to this one for now.

In some contexts, arrastrar el ala can also mean to be depressed. But I’m sure there will be enough of contextual cues to keep you from confusing one meaning with the other.

¿Crees que no le arrastra el ala? (Do you believe he’s not putting the moves on her?)

Me arrastraba el ala una mujer en el bar (A woman was hitting on me at the bar).

16. Tirar los Galgos a Alguien

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To release the hounds at someone

Actual meaning: To hit on or make a pass at someone

Arrastrar el ala is fine when you’re still being subtle about your game. But if you choose to step up the heat and get more in-her-face, that calls for something stronger. That’s when tirar los galgos comes in handy. The expression enjoys maximum currency in Buenos Aires but can still be understood elsewhere in Argentina. Galgo is not just any dog. It’s the Spanish greyhound. And that should tell you a thing or two about the seriousness of this expression. No matter what you do, please do not consider letting lose a bunch of dogs at the girl you’re trying to woo. That ain’t gonna work!

Who let the galgos out? On second thought, though, she might find it cute! Who let the galgos out? On second thought, though, she might find it cute!
James Pugh licensed cc by 2.0

Mañana voy a tirar los galgos a mi vecina (Tomorrow, I’m really gonna give it a go with her).

Todos me tiraba los galgos cuando era joven (Everybody used to hit on me when I was young).

17. Echar Ganas a Algo

Heard in: Mexico

Literal translation: To throw desires at something

Actual meaning: To try harder at something

Of course there’s nothing you’re actually throwing here. What the expression actually says is that you ought to rally up all your will behind doing the task at hand. That is if you really want to do it, of course. It’s very common to yell échale ganas at someone who needs that extra adrenaline rush for something big. The expression also seems to be common in Peru where you may also hear it with poner. The expressions might have an ever so slight difference of nuance but I wouldn’t bother splitting hair over it. Treat them as synonymous and nobody’s gonna notice.

Ponle ganas para aprobar el examen (Make a last-ditch effort to pass the exam).

Vamos a echarle muchas ganas a los estudios para graduarnos (Let’s put in our all in our studies to graduate).

18. Atar a Algo con Alambre

Heard in: Argentina

Literal translation: To tie something up with wire

Actual meaning: To jury-rig or MacGyver something

This one is a pretty straightforward expression. What it seems is what it means. Rigging up a makeshift contraption often involves tying up stuff, sometimes with a piece of wire. So the analogy works seamlessly. Although the idiom originally belongs to Argentina, I would expect it to be well understood all over Latin America, especially around the Southern Cone.

Lo voy a atar con alambre de algún modo (I’m going to fix it somehow).

Ataron a una choza con alambre por el río (We put together a makeshift shack by the river).

19. Ser Pesado de Sangre

Heard in: Chile

Literal translation: To be heavy-blooded

Actual meaning: To be a not-so-nice person

I am as clueless as you are so far as the connection between the weight of your blood and the content of your character goes. Having said that, blood has always enjoyed a rather poetic interpretation in most European languages. It goes well beyond simple anatomy. Note expressions like boiling blood and blood relationship. Maybe heavy means thick here and maybe, just maybe, a thicker blood is analogous to evil owing to its darker color? Just a random theory I put together right now, so don’t quote me on this. The expression also enjoys currency in Mexico albeit in a slightly different avatar – Ser de sangre pesada.

Speaking of Mexico, there also happens to be another expression involving blood that you’ll commonly hear in the country. It’s tener la sangre de atole or horchata. Both atole and horchata are drinks made from cereals. While horchata is made from rice and belongs to Mexico, atole is made from cornflour and belongs to both Mexico and Honduras. So the idiom obviously doesn’t make any sense when translated literally. Idiomatically, though, it means to be cold-blooded.

Mi jefe es un poco pesado de sangre (My boss is a bit wicked).

Era pesado de sangre tu abuelo (Your grandfather was not a very nice man).

20. Ser Liviano de Sangre

Heard in: Chile

Literal translation: To be light-blooded

Actual meaning: To be easygoing or good-natured

If a heavy blood is evil, naturally the opposite should be good. That’s what a lighter blood represents. So if you happen to be light-blooded, you’re awesome. Don’t take this literally though and if you do feel your blood is lighter that it ought to be, go see a doctor! That’s because in reality, light blood could indicate a less-than-optimal hemoglobin count which is certainly not good. But the literary world has different standards. Here, light is good just as dark is bad. Damn racists! Mexicans use a slightly different ser de sangre ligera which means the exact same thing.

Mi mamá es muy liviana de sangre (My mom is very easygoing).

Solía ser de sangre ligera hasta ahora (I used to be good-natured until now).

21. Andar con Sangre en el Ojo

Heard in: Southern Cone

Literal translation: To walk with blood in the eye

Actual meaning: To bear a grudge

Blood in one’s eyes is already a sign of something scary. The guy with such eyes is anything but happy. And most often, a bad mood involves a grudge on someone. This idiom seems pretty logical if you ask me. And that’s why, despite being originally from the Southern Cone region, I’d expect it to be well-received elsewhere as well. Latin American Spanish has many more expressions involving blood but in the interest of sanity, I’ll stop here. Tener sangre en el ojo is also heard and carries the exact same meaning.

Andaba con sangre en el ojo conmigo porque lo humillé (He holds a grudge against me because I humiliated him).

Tiene sangre en el ojo con su propio hermano (He has a grudge against his own brother).

Concluding Thoughts

So that’s the end of an exceptionally long rant on some of my top favorite idiomatic expressions in Latin American Spanish. Idioms lend a certain vibrance to a language. And when the language is as evolved and diverse as Spanish, they become all the more colorful. Latin American Spanish is not the only variant that boasts of such wit. The Peninsular dialects have their own proud stock but that’s a topic for another day. Do you have any favorites? I bet you do. Do tell us more about them, their story, places they’re commonly heard, and anything fun you have on them. Sharing knowledge is always good karma, no?

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