Common Spanish Proverbs – life wisdom from Spanish grannies
It’s been a while since I’ve done an article about Spanish proverbs.
Actually, back in the day I did one, but that was about the more shocking or sexy type of expressions. The ones about hookers, boobs and pubic hair, you could say.
And while that was pretty fun, you might not have a lot of occasions to use that type of Spanish proverbs in your daily life.
So with that in mind, today I’d like to do some of the more common, inoffensive Spanish proverbs.
Keep in mind that the list of proverbial expressions out there is very long, and this is just going to be a tiny selection at best. I might expand it later on, who knows?
Anyway, ready for some proverbial fun?
A short disclaimer about these common Spanish proverbs
First thing, I’m calling these proverbs common because they’re common in Spain. I imagine some of them are used in the other Spanish speaking countries, but I’m not sure which.
Also, I’m guessing that people in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, etc all have their own proverbs that may be quite a bit different than the ones I know.
Finally, if you’re listening to this on the Spain to Go podcast – which you should – my pronunciation is extremely sexy, but not necessarily 100% authentic. Please hire someone from Murcia to read these out for you if you have any doubts about my accent.
Without further ado…
Matar dos pájaros de un tiro
This has a pretty literal translation to English: kill two birds with one stone.
“Un tiro” in Spanish is one shot.
With my apologies to vegan crybabies who are offended at the idea of shooting birds, I should explain that it refers to solving two problems at once. No actual birds were harmed in the making of this proverb.
Seriously, though, have you seen those articles where vegans declare that it’s harmful to animals to say “ants in your pants” or “put all your eggs in one basket”? What a bunch of whiners.
Anyway, not to beat a dead horse here, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
And also more than one Spanish proverb about birds.
Más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando
We have an equivalent for this one in English as well: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
The Spanish version has a bit of exaggeration that our version doesn’t, though: in Spain, a bird in the hand is worth a hundred on the wing.
Basically it means that it’s better to have one thing now than to believe some huge promises about the future which may never happen. I guess economists might talk about the time value of money.
Apparently a similar expression appears in Don Quijote, except that it’s not a hundred birds on the wing, but a single vulture – buitre volando, in other words.
(More info about all these expressions can be found on the Instituto Cervantes website, they have a special section about proverbs.)
No vendas la piel del oso antes de cazarlo
Don’t sell the skin of the bear before you hunt it.
This one warns against excessive optimism about the future.
Basically: don’t count your chickens before they hatch. I’ve always sort of hated that expression. Sounds like someone crushing my dreams.
In any case, hunting bears is probably hard. Just ask Cameron Hanes, the bow-hunting icon who’s got all your favorite podcast bros out in the forest, shooting arrows at large animals and then eating their hearts, livers and muscle meat – and Instagramming it.
Oops! Eating bear liver is probably not vegan-friendly either. (Do I get a pass as an ex-vegetarian?)
Oh well. Doesn’t matter. Let’s move on to something a bit sexier…
Un clavo saca otro clavo
Literally: One nail removes another.
Apparently in English you can say “one nail drives out another”, although I’ve never heard anyone say it. The meaning is that a new problem will make you forget your old problem.
This proverb apparently goes all the way back to Aristotle, who said something similar.
I’ve heard it specifically in the context of relationships: when girls break up with some dude and say “un clavo saca otro clavo” they mean that finding a new guy will make them forget about the old one.
I always sort of assumed that the “clavo” represented a penis, but maybe that’s just me and my sick mind. Anyway, before I offend some fragile penisphobe, let’s move on…
El mundo es un pañuelo
It’s a small world!
Literally, pañuelo is a handkerchief. You know. Something small and square.
So when you run into somebody you know on the street, or it turns out that your new Tinder date is good friends with your ex, you can feel free to exclaim “¡Vaya! El mundo es un pañuelo.”
On that note, you ever see those initiatives that pop up from time to time where women rate their ex-boyfriends online, so that everyone on the planet can find out that, for example “William West from Chula Vista, California is the absolute worst”?
I wonder why those never get any traction. Seems like there should be a thriving market for ex gossip. On the other hand, it might just attract new fans for total douchebags. Even serial killers have groupies. Maybe Will West is kinda hot, and his bad-boy vibe is attractive to some. What do I know?
Small world! Anyway…
Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda
This is sort of like the English expression “The early bird gets the worm”.
Literally it means that God helps the person who gets up early. The Spanish are, of course, notoriously late risers – at least in the big cities. It seems like nothing happens before about 11 AM on Saturdays and Sundays, for example. Even George Orwell talks about it in Homage to Catalonia – when he was on the run from the Stalinists, he couldn’t get a coffee anywhere before 9AM.
Interestingly, you can also see this proverb written as “A quien madruga, Dios lo ayuda” and similar variations.
The difference between lo and le as Spanish pronouns is complicated – a teacher tried to explain it to me way back in 2006 or so, and I didn’t get it then… and I still don’t get it now.
It doesn’t help that every region of Spain seems to have a different way of using or misusing these pronouns: le, lo and la. Officially called leísmo, laísmo and loísmo, it’s probably not important unless you want to be a serious grammar nerd.
No por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano
This is basically the opposite of the previous one.
In any case, it doesn’t actually refer to getting up early. What it means is that some things take time, and working too fast or too hard won’t necessarily help in every case.
The literal translation is something like: getting up early every day won’t make the sun rise any faster.
The Spanish have a few interesting verbs like madrugar (to get up early), which talk about the lack of sleep. I can also think of trasnochar (to stay up all night) and empalmar (to spend the night at the club and go to work the next day without sleeping).
Very specific, that last one, and not uncommon if you live in Madrid with its famous nightlife.
Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente
Out of sight, out of mind. Literally, the translation is: if the eyes don’t see, the heart doesn’t feel.
Apparently the Don Quijote version of this one is “Ojos que no veen [sic], corazón que no quiebra.” In other words, if the eyes don’t see, the heart doesn’t break.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read Don Quijote, but I seem to remember that his little buddy Sancho Panza was “muy refranero” – he had a proverb for any situation.
Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres
Basically: Tell me who you hang out with, and I’ll tell you who you are.
This one means that we become more like the people we spend time with – the implication being that we should be careful about who we spend time with.
Allegedly, this is called the Five Chimps Theory, and it’s based on the idea that chimpanzees will develop a personality resembling that of the other chimpanzees around them.
Don’t be a chimp! Pick your friends wisely.
A Dios rogando y con el mazo dando
Ending with one of my favorites here.
The English version of this one that I like best is “Trust in God and tie up your camel”, but that’s not too precise of a translation of the sentiment.
The Spanish version can be literally translated as something like “Praying to god and pounding with a mallet”. The aforementioned Instituto Cervantes suggests “God helps them that help themselves” and “Pray to God and keep hammering” as possible English translations.
Basically, it means you can’t just pray for what you want, you need to do the work as well.
Are these Spanish proverbs still used today?
I hope you’ve enjoyed these Spanish proverbs.
I’ve tried to select expressions that people are actually still using – a lot of the older proverbs are falling into disuse, because they talk about things that only make sense out in the country.
There’s a lot of Spanish vocabulary – and expressions – that express the concerns of rural people who spend most of the winter up to their knees in mud, or wandering around behind a flock of sheep.
I suspect that those expressions just don’t hit home for kids in Madrid or Barcelona who spend their time standing in line at Brunch and Cake and get their life wisdom from sixteen-year-olds on TikTok because grandma’s in an old folks’ home.
So yes, these are still used – and most of the vocabulary isn’t too strange either.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this.
Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.
P.S. For more Spanish language, check out my YouTube channel. It’s called Learn Spanish with Daniel and the title is pretty self-explanatory. Also, my Spain to Go podcast is up there, as well as on most of the podcast apps… have a listen, and enjoy!