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Spanish resources: Spanish proverbs


“There is no untrue proverb”, said Quixote to Sancho, his squire.

The Spanish collection of proverbs offers an accurate outlook of the people’s mentality: the view of the world is shown by means of hundreds of anecdotes, references, and hidden meanings.

The origin of the Spanish word refrán is in the troubadours’ medieval songs. In them, they used to include the same verses at the end of each strophe (what we now call refrain). Those refrains were short popular sentences. The Provençal troubadours called this verses refrán. The main characteristics of a refrán are popularity, practicality, and generality.

That is, a refrán has a common and anonym origin: the people creates, spreads, modifies, extends and even forgets it.

Some proverbs refer to the community’s social structure, habits and customs, moral sense or culture.

On the other hand, other proverbs are used in a general way: they affect the human being regardless of his own conditions.

These proverbs have moral or sentimental nature. Moreover, proverbs are the result of experience, so they have a practical value: from this point of view, proverbs are the most complete method of popular pedagogy; it is an educational method. They show the social behaviour, the moral concepts, the natural resources, and many more practical and useful details for everyday life.

The refranero (collection of proverbs) is warning, advice, description… It is also social stabilisation. It looks ancient and conservative since it regulates human behaviour. It can offer a general assessment of any topic in a synthetic, brief, concise, and accurate way.

Besides these characteristics, proverbs has a much more attractive feature: their artistic composition. The refrán is symbolic, metaphorical, comparative, descriptive, humorous, ironic, etc.

These expressions have been present in La Celestina, in works by Cervantes, Lope, Gracián, the romantics, an din the 20th century literature. In sum, a refrán is a Spanish proverb.

Proverbs that each culture has and uses.

For more Spanish proverbs and Sayings, visit Spanish language Blog.

Allí donde fueres, haz lo que vieres
(When in Rome, do as the Romans do)

Meaning: This proverb advises to follow the customs of the place where you settle. Another form of this proverb is: DONDE FUERES, HAZ COMO VIERES. In Classical Rome, there was a proverb that says: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. This is the origin of the following Spanish proverbs: CUANDO A ROMA FUERES, HAZ LO QUE VIERES. SI A ROMA VAS, COMO VIERES HAZ.

Grammatical note: This refrán includes two verbs in a not very used tense: fueres and vieres. This tense is called Futuro simple de subjuntivo (future Simple Subjunctive). Nowadays, it is only used in legal texts and in proverbs and old sayings.

Boquerón que se duerme, se lo lleve la corriente
(Do not miss a trick)

Meaning: This refrán recommends not to miss any opportunity and to be active in our business and work. People who do not act fast will not enjoy benefits or will lose the opportunity.

Note: In Spanish, there are other expressions with this same meaning. Some of them are: andarse listo, estar a la que salta, no perder ni ripio...

Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda
(You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear)

Meaning: This refrán indicates that there is no use in hiding defects or blemishes, since they will be discovered sooner or later and then we will make a fool of ourselves. It refers to both physical and moral defects, or to the desire of showing off what we are not.

Note: In Spanish, there are other expressions with this same meaning. For example, el hábito no hace al monje...

Ni están todos los que son, ni son todos los que están

Meaning: Popular saying referring to the amount of nutters, nutcases, and people with some kind of mental disorder who, as are considered sane or “normal”, are not in a psychiatric clinic; while there are sane people in those psychiatric clinics.
That is, we have a list of students who have passed an exam, but there are some mistakes: there are names that should not be there (because they have failed) and there are names that are not in the list, but that should be there (because they have failed bt they do not appear in the list). In this situation, we can say: ni están todos lo que son ni son todos los que están.

Note: Its origin has been discussed many times. This sentence comes from one of Campoamor’s quatrains and appears in his comedy Cuerdos y locos. A patient of a mental hospital says: "pues, como el dice el refrán, en esta santa mansion ni están todos lo que son ni son todos los que están".

Al que quiera saber, poco y al revés

Meaning: This Spanish refrán refers specially to certain people who try to know private matters that do not concern them. This kind of people does not ask to know other people’s problems and help, but to gossip about them. This saying advises to distrust those who want to know everything.

Note: In Spanish, this kind of people is called entremetido or entrometido (busybody), colloquially "metomentodo" (meto-me-en-todo); that is, people who interferes in other people’s business.

Nunca es tarde si la dicha es buena
Never too late to do well

Meaning: This saying implies that it is worth waiting if the result or consequence is positive.

Note: Another saying with the same meaning is: Más vale tarde que nunca. (Better late than never)

Las cuentas, claras, y el chocolate, espeso
(Keep things clear)

Meaning: This saying advises to set the conditions of contracts or other commercial activities clearly, in order to avoid being cheated. Generally speaking, it says there should be no tricks or traps in social relations. It compares this kind of relations with chocolate which, in order to be delicious, must be thick.

Note: There are some variants of this saying: "Las cosas, claras, y el chocolate, espeso" or "El agua, clara, y el chocolate, espeso".

Lentejas, si quieres las comes y si no, las dejas

Meaning: Although this saying refers directly to food and we often say it when we see a plateful of lentils, it generally refers to the times when we are obliged to do something. Sometimes it also means that if you do not take what you are offered, you will get nothing.

Note: There are some variants of this saying: "Lentejas, comida de viejas, si quieres las comes y si no, las dejas".

Pan con pan, comida de tontos

Meaning: This saying refers not only to the absurd fact of eating bread with bread or bread with soup, but also to the ridiculous fact of joining two or more things with the same characteristics, since they will add nothing new.

Note: There are many Spanish sayings referring to food. Generally speaking, the Spanish refranero attacks greed and the fact of not eating properly.

Oveja que bala, bocado que pierde

Meaning: This refrán is usually used when we are sitting at the table and somebody talks and does not eat: the rest manage to take advantage and go on eating, so the one who is talking does not have a bite to eat. If s/he complains because there is not much food or there is none, the rest use this refrán. In general, it refers to those who get distracted and do not do their work well.

Note: There are many Spanish sayings referring to food. Generally speaking, the Spanish refranero attacks greed and the fact of not eating properly.


Unos por otros, la casa sin barrer

Meaning: We say this proverb when a group of people who must have done a task have not reached an agreement, have thought other person would do it, or have pretended not to know about it.

Note: If you want to express this idea of pretending not to know about something, you can use the word escaquearse (to shirk, to skive) or the expressions escurrir el bulto (to duck out) or hacerse el longui (pretend not to know).

A río revuelto, ganancia de pescadores
It is good fishing in troubled waters. (There is always somebody ready to take advantage of a chaotic situation)

Meaning: This saying indicates that some people have a gift for making profit from a general misfortune. It is used for accusing those who wait for a disaster in order to take advantage of the situation.

Note: There are two different tendencies in Spanish sayings: pragmatism and morality. On one hand, money is considered as a source of pleasure and joy, but, on the other hand, people are warned against the belief that money can do anything, that money talks.

Cuando las barbas de tu vecino veas pelar, pon las tuyas a remojar
(You should learn from other people’s mistakes)

Meaning: This Spanish proverb advises to observe other people’s misfortune in order to be warned against what can happen to us.

Note: The reference to the beards has a great significance: in the Classical World and in the Middle Ages, beards indicated honour, courage, and power. The biggest affront among Moors and Christians was to pull the other’s beard. Thus, "reírse a las barbas de uno" means to mock or make fun of somebody scornfully.

No te quites el gabán, hasta que llegue San Juan

Meaning: It advises to wear warm clothes until St John’s Day, 24th June, since weather is still very unstable and you may need them.

Note: Gabán (Overcoat, topcoat), according to the dictionary of the Spanish Academy, may have its origin in Classical Arabic (qabā'). In former times, it referred to a cloak with sleeves and, sometimes, a cowl, made of strong cloth. Nowadays, we use the word abrigo (coat).

Similar proverb: Hasta el cuarenta de mayo no te quites el sayo: ne’er cast a clout till May be out

El que algo quiere, algo le cuesta

Meaning: It advises to undertake the tasks that can provide any kind of good or satisfaction in a patient and decisive way. Generally speaking, it is not used to indicate that you can buy your desire with money; it rather alludes to the effort and risk we must face if we want to achieve our goals.

Note: It is also said: "Quien algo quiere, algo le cuesta".

El comer y el rascar, todo es empezar

Meaning: It indicates that we may sit down to table with not too much appetite, but we get hungry little by little due to the presence of food.

Note: Other similar sayings are: "Comiendo, comiendo el apetito va viniendo" or "Poquito a poquito viene el apetito".

A la cama no te irás, sin saber una cosa más

Meaning: This means that we learn something new everyday. In general, this saying is used when we see something new or interesting; but the meaning is wider: it recommends learning something new every day so that we do not find life so dreary and boring. Thus, we will not feel like losing our time.

Note: It is also used when somebody tells us unimportant anecdotes or stories.

En todas partes cuecen habas y en mi casa, a calderadas
It’s the same the whole world over

Meaning: It recommends humbleness and prudence and advises not to criticize other people because we all have defects. It is usually said when somebody criticizes the way other people run the household or business and, with this saying, you can warn him/her that s/he may have the same or worse defects.

Note: With a similar meaning we find: "Ver la paja en el ojo ajeno y no ver la viga en el propio" (to see the mote in somebody else’s eye and not the beam in one’s own) or "Quien más quien menos, todos por qué callar tenemos".

Quien come y canta, juicio le falta

Meaning
: It reflects a behaviour rule at the table in the western world. This rule is thought to have religious origins: food are given by God, thus its is blessed. The fact of eating becomes a serious and formal event, thanking God for the food.

Note: We find other sayings with a similar meaning: "Quien come y canta, algún sentido le falta", "Quien come y canta, de locura se levanta", "Niño que en la mesa canta, se atraganta", "Quien comiendo canta, si no está loco, poco le falta".

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