When I asked my host mom if she could think of any sayings unique to Spain, she jokingly quoted Forrest Gump: “la vida es como una caja de chocolates.” Then she listed off a few of her favorite refranes, adding that when she retires, she wants to write a book of sayings because she loves them so much.
No hay mal que por bien no venga
- There’s nothing bad that can’t become good.
No hay mal que cien años dure
- Nothing lasts forever (literally, “there is nothing bad that lasts 100 years”).
Cuando el rio suena, agua lleva
- There’s no smoke without fire (or the equivalent).
Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres
- Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.
A beber y a tragar, que el mundo se va a acabar
- Eat, drink, and be merry (for tomorrow we die).
A mucha hambre, no hay pan duro
- For a good appetite there is no hard bread (beggars can’t be choosers).
Los genios pensamos igual
- Great minds think alike.
Más vale dar que recibir
- It’s more blessed to give than to receive.
El mayor aborrecimiento, en el amor tiene su cimiento.
- The greatest hate springs from the greatest love.
I was surprised to learn that many Spanish expressions resemble English ones, such as “beggars can’t be choosers” and “great minds think alike.” I wonder if they originated in Latin and so ended up incorporated into both of our cultures, or if such common wisdom transcends language. Some of the dichos (sayings) Raquel mentioned seemed surprisingly dark, especially “a beber y a tragar, que el mundo se va a acabar” (eat, drink, and be merry–for tomorrow we die). Spaniards do tend to be more blunt in everyday speech, but that seems a bit overkill. I haven’t heard many of these phrases used in daily conversation, but I have heard plenty of affectionate nicknames between my host family members. The most commonly used is “Gordo/a,” which my host parents use to refer to each other. Even though gordo literally translates to “fat,” in Spain it’s a common term of endearment. The Spanish are not only blunt; their nicknames could seem downright insulting to an American.
However, as Raquel explained, calling Alberto “Gordo” in Spanish is like calling him “pumpkin” in the U.S. No one who calls their significant other “pumpkin” is literally calling them a big orange gourd. However, Spanish nicknames do tend to be more appearance-based than in the U.S. For example: Flaco (skinny), Perro (dog), and Negro (black). Good to know that if my roommate were to date a Spaniard, I would have to tell them not to be offended if he called her “Gorda.” People who speak different languages and have different customs often struggle to communicate. This is because codes and conventions are the basis of communication. A “code” is a “system of signs in which each sign signifies a particular idea,” while “conventions” are “agreed-upon norms about how, when, and in which context codes will be used” (Thomas & Inkson 86). I’ve definitely been improving my Spanish in my time here, but there’s no avoiding cultural miscommunication sometimes. A week ago, I had just bought a coffee at Starbucks para llevar (to go) and the cup was hot, so I was looking for a cardboard sleeve to protect my hand. Finding none, I resorted to grabbing a bunch of napkins to use as a heat shield. Just as I was turning to leave, the barista called me over. “Necesitas un ‘sleeve’?” he asked, using the English word. Confused, I nodded, and he handed me one. Embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, I asked him what the proper Spanish term was. “Fajilla,” he told me with a smile. Even though my interaction with the barista wasn’t technically a miscommunication, I almost left the Starbucks without learning something new. Thanks to the kindness of the barista (who noticed my obvious American-ness), I added a useful term to my mental Spanish dictionary. For a perfectionist like me, admitting that I don’t know everything can be difficult. But sometimes a well-timed “no sé” can lead to a surprising discovery. Spaniards in particular are incredibly helpful if you ask nicely and attempt to speak their language. Often, they will provide the word you’re struggling to pull out of thin air. When in doubt, it never hurts to admit you don’t understand something.