Oreja and Its Idiomatic Uses to Make Your Spanish Shine
An entire post dedicated to oreja? More than 2,000 words discussing a single piece of anatomy? Isn’t that overkill? Well, oreja is not just a part of your anatomy. It’s the source of way too many interesting expressions in itself to ignore. If sounding witty in Spanish is your goal, you ought to color it with idioms like the ones oreja gives us. From darle a alguien un jaloncito de oreja to con las orejas gachas, oreja has a mighty interesting repertoire. It’s sad the word is so underrated despite its versatility.
In case you’re still wondering, oreja is Spanish for ear. The word is etymologically related to aural which should explain the faint hint of rhyme between the two words, their first syllables leastwise. Still struggling to memorize the word? Picture a boat and think of the two oars as its ears on either sides. That visual should help reinforce the connection. Now let’s move on to the interesting bits, shall we?
Oreja by Itself
On its own, the word means ear. But that’s not all. It has a whole range of other connotations too, depending on the context. Before we touch upon the idiomatic expressions, it’s only fair that we also look at what oreja can do on its own.
1. Handle with Care
You use your ears listening and nothing else. But if it’s your kids, you could also use them as handles! If this confuses you, you’ve never pulled anyone by the ear which, might I say, makes you a cool parent. Oreja can, at times, translate into handle. This should be easy to wrap your head around if you think of a person as a thing and their ears as its handles. Granted it’s not particularly easy to lift someone solely by the ears but let’s not get caught up in the semantics here. Look at a few examples:
Toma el frasco por la oreja, nunca por el cuello (Hold the jar by the handle, never by the neck).
Rompió la oreja de este jarrón (She broke the handle of this vase).
As you can see, oreja can be used for handle in the context of just about any inanimate object. Just think of them as people with handles for ears and it’ll all seem natural.
2. When Ears Become Arms
Don’t let this stump you. This isn’t about you. Yes, oreja means ear; but there are times it can also mean arm. However, those arms are not yours. Those belong to your sofa. Or your armchair. Again, think of sofas and armchairs as people. People without torsos, that is. So if they’re just faces, wouldn’t it be natural of their arms to also be their ears? That’s the idea at play here. They’re not literally ears. But they’re not literally arms either. So who cares about the technicalities when we live in a world of figuratives?
In a similar vein, oreja can also refer to your sofa’s wings. These are those cushy little brackets on either sides of its back. The analogy remains the same. Just picture the sofa as someone’s face. With enormous ears, of course.
Apoyó la cabeza en la oreja del sillón (He rested his head on the arm of the chair).
Hace veinte años que compramos este sofa y la oreja aún está como nueva (It’s been twenty years since we bought this sofa and the wing is still like new).
A wing-chair, by the way, is butaca de orejas or butaca ojerera in Spanish although the terms’ usage is in decline.
3. And When Ears Become Claws
That’s right but, again, not anatomically speaking. Claws are still claws, ears are still ears, and so far as birds go, the two are still not the same thing. However, when you speak of an inanimate claw, such as that of a hammer, oreja works. There are several obvious ways to visualize this but the easiest I can think of is to picture a hammer as a person with just one ear. Let the following example illustrate this:
Sacó los clavos con las orejas del martillo (He pulled the nails with the hammer’s claw).
A claw hammer can be more technically translated into Spanish as martillo de orejas or martillo de embalador (packer’s hammer). But unless you’re in a profession involving hammers, a simple martillo is good enough.
4. Careful, the Walls Have Ears
That’s right. In English as well as in Spanish. And that’s why oreja sometimes translates into spy or informer. A snitch, if you will. There are many words to describe this person in English, from eavesdropper to mole and from snoop to tattletale. And there are many in Spanish. Try soplón. Or denunciante. Or the less interesting informador. But oreja happens to be my favorite. This usage of oreja is, however, more of a Latin American thing.
Speaking of informers, oreja can also be used for stool pigeons or decoys. Think people playing booby traps and you got your orejas.
Ana es la oreja del jefe, ten cuidado con lo que dices cuando está ella (Ana is the boss’ informer, so careful with what you speak around her).
El mandó matar a Pepe al enterarse de que era una oreja (The mafia boss had Pepe murdered when he learned he was a snitch).
5. Ears for Desserts, Anyone?
Before I gross you out, lemme assure you I’m not speaking of actual ears. But I’m sure you already know that. But still, ears and desserts? There hardly seems to be a connection, even figuratively speaking! Oreja in this context enjoys currency in both Spain as well as Mexico. But the two countries don’t agree on the actual dessert it refers to.
In Mexico, oreja refers to a kind of puff pastry otherwise known as pan de hojaldre. Hojaldre gets its name from hoja, Spanish for sheet, and is an allusion to its flat and flaky form-factor. Hojaldre also goes by hojaldra or hojalda in parts of Latin America. Don’t ask me why oreja. I can only guess it’s because of the ear-like contortions this item starts out as during its making.
In Spain, too, orejas are a kind of puff pastry. But a different kind. Here, these are rich fried pastries covered in icing sugar and typically eaten during the Shrovetide carnival. These orejas are a Galician specialty and a carnival staple.
Idioms from Oreja
We saw ways oreja, by itself, can be used non-anatomically. But those are not idioms. Idiomatic expressions is where all the wit hides. Now that we’re done with the word itself, let’s explore some of the fun phrases it’s spawned for us over the years.
6. De Oreja a Oreja (From Ear to Ear)
This one should be quite familiar to English speakers. This is what we use when someone grins real wide – from ear to ear. In Spanish, the expression is slapped with either sonrisa (smile) or sonreír (to smile) for obvious reasons. So if sonreír is to smile, sonreír de oreja a oreja is to beam. There really isn’t much to say about this idiom beyond this.
Puso una sonrisa de oreja a oreja (She carried a wide grin).
Tenía una sonrisa de oreja a oreja (He was beaming).
7. Con las Orejas Gachas (With One’s Tail between One’s Legs)
Gacha comes from the verb gachar which means to back down. Orejas gachas refers to ears that are bent down or lowered. Here, ear is a metaphor for one’s ego just as tail is in its English counterpart. So when you run with your ears bent down in Mexico, it’s the same as running with your tail between your legs in America. This brings us to another closely-related expression, agachar las orejas or bajar las orejas. Bajar, in case you didn’t know, means to lower.
El ejército se ha retrocedido con las orejas gachas (The army has retreated with its tail between its legs).
Llegó a casa con las orejas gachas (She came home crestfallen).
8. Orejas de Soplillo (Stick-Out Ears)
A less-idiomatic version would be de orejas grandes (one with big ears). Soplillo (blower) is a diminutive of soplo (blow, gust) which comes from soplar (to blow). Think of an animal with exceptionally large ears. The elephant! Notice how they use their ears to fan themselves? Well, that’s what this expression alludes to. If you think it sounds a tad rude, that’s because it probably is. The expression is pretty colloquial and not meant to be used in formal settings.
In Chile, people prefer oreja de paila. Paila is Latin American Spanish for skillet or frying pan. Again, the analogy is too obvious to warrant explanation. There are also other ways to express the same thing depending on where you are and with whom. You could try orejas paradas. Or orejas despegadas. Or orejas salidas. But my favorite remains the one with soplillo, probably because I like elephants.
Barack Obama tiene orejas de soplillo (Barack Obama has enormous ears).
Una vez conocí a una chica con orejas de soplillo (I once knew a girl with stick-out ears).
9. Calentarle la Oreja a Alguien (To Try to Talk Somebody into Something)
Actually, this idiom is more versatile than that. depending on the context, it could involve one of the following things:
- Try to talk somebody into something
- Box someone’s ears
- Get on someone’s nerves
- Angrily shoo someone away
Whatever be the connotation, the common thread that runs through them all is that of annoyance. Be it nagging someone into doing something or slapping someone hard on the ear, you’re annoying them. Rather, annoying their ears, to be precise. Because calentar means to heat up and comes from calor, Spanish for heat. That’s why when the Brits angrily shoo you away, they actually send you away with a flea in your ear. Calentarle la oreja a alguien is an expression particularly common in Venezuela. I am not sure if it’d be understood well elsewhere but you can certainly give it a shot.
Me calentó las orejas todo el día (She nagged me all day long).
Ahora has empezado calentarme las orejas (Now you’ve started getting on my nerves).
10. Chafar la Oreja (To Get Some Shut-Eye)
Some call it siesta, others call it a power-nap. The Brits call it a kip. Whatever be the case, you cannot keep your ears straight while taking one. Chafar is a Spanish verb and it means to crease or to flatten (ironic, isn’t it?). The idea here is that you sleep on either side of your head and in doing so, you happen to flatten out the ear on that side under the weight of your head.
You have to commend Spanish speakers on the extent of their imagination. What details! Who would’ve given a fraction of a thought about what happens to their ears when they sleep? Some prefer this idiom with a planchar (to iron) instead of chafar. Either way, the meaning remains the same. Oh, and both these expressions are pretty much confined to Latin America.
Voy a chafar la oreja (I’m going to get some shut-eye).
Planchaste bien la oreja? (Did you have a good nap?)
11. Parar la Oreja (To Pay Attention)
Parar means to stop. So this expression literally means to stop your ears, probably from listening to anything other than what’s going to follow this instruction. This is colloquial Latin American but fairly safe to use even in semi-formal settings. In case you need to reinforce the gravity of the situation, add a bien to it: Parar bien la oreja. Then it becomes something like to listen up well. A mighty handy expression to learn, if you ask me.
Para bien la oreja, que esto es importante (Listen up well, this is important).
Quiero que paren la oreja (I want y’all to pay attention).
12. Hacer Orejas de Mercader (To Turn a Deaf Ear)
Life can be tough as a leader if nobody listens to you. Imagine being out shopping at the local flea market where supply is severely outstripped by demand. This is what economists call a seller’s market. The merchants are going to be the king here and they won’t give a rat’s derriere about whether you’ll buy. And their disdain for you gets even more pronounced if you’re keen on bickering.
This is where the expression orejas de mercader comes from. Mercader is Spanish for merchant and is etymologically related to market. Hacer means to make. So, hacer orejas de mercader is literally to make the merchant’s ears. Or, in other words, to ignore.
Intenté explicar pero me hizo orejas de mercader (I tried to explain but he totally ignored me).
No se lo preguntes, te hará orejas de mercader (Don’t ask him that, he’ll turn a deaf ear to you).
13. Pegar la Oreja (To Eavesdrop)
If the last expression left you disheartened, here’s one to make it up to you. Pegar means to paste or to stick. As you can imagine, to eavesdrop mostly involves sticking one’s ear to the wall or the door. At least that’s what you’d do back in the day when you didn’t have phone-tapping and email-hacking. So, pegar la oreja en alguien is to basically listen in on someone.
Another alternative is pegar el oído. Oído derives from oír (to hear) and refers to your entire hearing apparatus. That would include the two ears along with their internal peripherals. But why did I say this would make up for the negativity in the last expression? Well, the last expression was all about giving you a deaf ear. And now, here’s someone straining his ears to listen to you. Isn’t that flattering?
Mi novio ha estado pegando la oreja en nuestras llamadas (My boyfriend has been eavesdropping on our calls).
El gobierno siempre está pegando la oreja (The government is always listening in).
14. Jalarle las Orejas a Alguien (to Tell Somebody Off)
Jalar means to pull. So basically, this expression is about pulling someone’s ears, which you’d do only if you’re mad at them. The idiom is colloquial and is mostly used in Mexico and Peru. Another way to express the same idea is using dar: Dar a alguien un jalón de oreja. Jalón is an augmented form of jala which is the noun derivative of jalar. So, jala means pull or tug and so does jalón, albeit a bigger one.
Jalar sounds like haul, no? Use this as a memory hook in case you’re struggling to memorize the verb. Etymology and word association are the two magic spells your vocabulary will thank you for!
But all’s not aggressive with this expression. In some contexts, it can also mean something positive and friendly. Those are when it translates into something like to put a bug in someone’s ears or to suggest. In order to ensure the friendly version gets conveyed, you could always use diminutives: Dar a alguien un jaloncito de orejas. Can you guess why jaloncito instead of jalón here?
Although the expression is most common in Peru and Mexico, Spain has its version too. Just replace the verb jalar with tirar and you got it. The tirar version is pretty common in Chile and other parts of the Southern Cone as well.
Hoy el maestro jaló las orejas a mi hermano (Today the teacher gave my brother a slap on the wrist).
Me dio un jaloncito de orejas cuando le visité (He gave me the idea when I visited him).
15. Verle las Orejas al Lobo (To See What’s Coming)
This one’s got to be from a shepherd having to deal with a wolf after his sheep, but that’s just my theory. You can use it to internalize the expression though; worked for me. Lobo is Spanish for wolf.
So you’re this shepherd peacefully going about his day herding his cattle in the hills. And then there’s this wolf stalking your stock. As he comes up the hill, you notice his ears. Good, you still have time to act. But if you see more of him already, you’re probably too late.The closest English equivalent I can think of is to read the writing on the wall. I like this one but if you want something less dramatic, you could go with to see it coming.
Dejé de fumar porque le he visto las orejas al lobo (I quit smoking because I’ve seen the writing on the wall).
Al morir su padre de cáncer fue cuando le vió las orejas al lobo (It’s when his father died of cancer that he realized the dangers).
That Should Be It for Now
I think I’ll give it a rest now. Enough burning of your ears for one day. If there’s still some ear-fetish left in you, introduce yourself to this Grammy-winning Latin pop band called La Oreja de Van Gogh. Interesting name, no? You can even listen to one of their tracks and practice your listening skills on this very site. It’s a track called Muñeca de Trapo which literally translates into ragdoll. Both Spanish and English lyrics are given on the page so you can study the song and train your orejas.
I must put it out, though, that these 15 expressions are just a fraction of all the different ways the word oreja is used. Discussing all of them would warrant more than a single blog post. But do you think there’s any one in particular that stands out and I should have included? Got a favorite? Do let us know in a comment below. Now, I’ll stop calentárles las orejas. For real!