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A Different Animal: Untranslatable Spanish Idioms

September 27, 2021

The humble idiom is one of the most interesting—and most frustrating—things about learning a new language. An idiom is not the sum of its parts. It’s an everyday expression whose meaning in conversation has little (if anything) to do with the meaning of the words themselves. In American English, for example, “break a leg” means “good luck.”

Every Spanish-speaking country has its own idiomatic expressions, although some travel across borders. With the help of some of CU Denver’s Latino Lynx, we’ve chosen a few animal-related Spanish idioms that make virtually no sense when translated literally.

Looking for the Cat’s Three Paws

Associate Professor Carlos Hipolito, PhD, suggested this idiom from Mexico. It’s also popular In Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries. If you are looking for the cat’s three paws, you’re making things more complicated than they need to be. “Buscar tres patas al gato” means to look for the cat’s three paws, which is silly because everyone knows a cat has four legs.

Like a Donkey in a Boat

Anyone who is “como burro en lancha” is serious. Dead serious, according to Costa Ricans. A donkey in a boat is no laughing matter, as one might imagine. One might suppose if you were in a boat with a donkey, you’d be in danger of capsizing—but who knows how this expression got started!

Oysters!

This is an idiom in the form of an interjection! In Spain, if you’re surprised or annoyed, you might yell “Ostras!” Literally, you’d be saying, “Oysters!” What the mollusk has to do with bad luck or good fortune is unknown.

Putting the Bear to Work

“Poner el oso a trabajar” is a Cuban favorite that literally means “to put the bear to work.” If you say that someone really puts the bear to work, it means that person is very smart or can think creatively. It’s unclear how this expression got started—there aren’t even bears in Cuba.

Thinking About the Immortality of the Crab

This poetic idiom is most commonly used in Spain. If you’re thinking about the immortality of the crab, you are daydreaming. Let’s say your dinner companion has a faraway look in their eyes. Then you might say that friend is “pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo.” There is absolutely no proof that this saying has anything to do with a seaside village known for its pensive population, many of whom make their living by fishing.

To Have Bad Fleas

Business Operations Manager Ali Medina, who lived in Chile and Brazil, provided this Chilean idiom. Someone who has bad fleas—“tiene malas pulgas” in Spanish—is in a bad mood. This idiom makes some sense, but the term “bad fleas” is oxymoronic because there is no such thing as a good flea.