Nine quintessential Spanish proverbs with ancient origins to use to impress your friends

Once you have more than a basic grasp of Spanish you will start to realise that in common parlance conversation is peppered with delightful and sometimes downright puzzling phrases.

Every language around the world contains commonly used adages, sayings that have become so often used that their meaning is well known to native speakers, even if their historical origins are not.

But for the outsider who is learning the lingo, these refrains may leave you scratching you head long after they were uttered.

Here’s the Olive Press pick of some of our favourite proverbs with origins that lie far back in Spanish history.

A buenas horas, mangas verdes 

This saying translates as ‘Good timing, green sleeves’ and is sarcastically said to someone that fails to do something in time or arrives too late. 

This puzzling refrain has its origins during the time of the Catholic Monarchs when a particular Brotherhood, the Santa Hermandad, was charged with capturing bandits and wrongdoers.

They chased bandits from town to town but according to legend, the early police force were called up by church bells, providing ample time for a getaway. Hence these men, who dressed in a uniform with green sleeves, had a reputation for arriving too late to make an arrest.

Probably best translated as ‘you’ve missed the boat’.

Mangas Verdes Cutout
‘Auto de fe’ painted by Pedro Berrugete in 1475, showing a soldier of the Santa Hermandad (Image: Museo del Prado’s website)

Quien se fue a Sevilla perdio su silla 

This is literally translated into English as ‘Whoever goes to Sevilla loses his chair ‘ and is used to imply the loss of privileges or possessions for having momentarily abandoned them. A similar expression in English would  be you, you ‘snooze you lose’, or ‘finders-keepers’

The origins of this axiom reportedly lie back during the reign of Henry IV, King of Castile, and a battle between two priests over the archbishopric of Sevilla, Alonso de Fonseca the Elder and Alonso de Fonseca the Younger, uncle and nephew.

Wikipedia Sevilla Perdio Silla
Enrique IV, King of Castile (Image: Wikipedia)

Como Pedro por su casa 

It means ‘like Pedro in his house’ and is used in a generally derogatory manner to describe a person who seems comfortable in an environment that is not his own. 

It refers apparently to the Aragon king, Pedro I and his easy victory at the battle of Alcoraz in 1096 against the Muslim caliphate which in turn led to the conquering of Huesca. The phrase is likely to originally have been ‘Like Pedro through Huesca’ but became casa over time.

Pedro I Aragon Por Su Casa
Pedro I, Aragon King (Image: Wikipedia)

La mancha de una mora, con otra mora se quita

The literal translation is ‘a blackberry stain is removed with another blackberry’ and while it may sound like an old wive’s tale and laundry tip, it is actually used in an entirely different context.

This Spanish proverb is used to explain that a broken heart is best mended with a new love affair or as the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said:   “There is no remedy for love but to love more.”

Blackberry
Wild blackberrys (Image: Flikr)

Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda 

Translates as ‘A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey’ this Spanish refrain reminds us to accept what we are and that faults cannot be hidden by mere cosmetic improvements.

Tomas de Iriarte, a Spanish neoclassical poet, wrote the fable ‘La Mona’ inspired by this saying in 1782, but the exact origin is unknown. 

The equivalent phrase in English would be you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ea

Tomas Iriarte Mona
Tomas de Iriarte wrote ‘La mona’ (Image: Wikipedia)

Visteme despacio que tengo prisa 

Directly translated this adage means ‘Dress me slowly as I’m in a hurry’ and is attributed to Fernando VII, who reportedly used this phrase with an attendant because he had an important appointment to which he wanted to arrive as well dressed as on time.

In English we would use ‘More haste, less speed’.

Fernando Vii Visteme Despacio
Fernando VII ‘the desired’ (Image: Wikipedia)

En boca cerrada no entran moscas 

Translated as ‘No flies can enter a closed mouth’, this saying advises one to keep quiet on certain subjects to certain people or face the consequences, something like ‘silence is golden’ or ‘think before you speak’. 

It is believed to have originated in the 16th century, during the reign of Charles I who was famous for his Hapsburg chin, a congenital condition that caused a distinctive protruding jaw and left him frequently open-mouthed. 

The expression comes from an occlusion during a visit to Calatayud (Zaragoza), when a local man commented: ‘Close your mouth, Your Majesty, the flies of this kingdom are mischievous’’

Carlos I Cierra La Boca
King Carlos I of Spain (Image: Wikipedia)

El perro del hortelano, ni come ni deja comer al amo 

This phrase translates as ‘The gardener’s dog neither eats nor lets his master eat’ and is used to describe a person who not only doesn’t enjoy something but also prevents others from enjoying it.

Often only the first part (El perro del hortelano) is said and the second part is taken for granted, or vice versa. 

Its origin may be Arabic-Andalucian, as it is first documented in literature at the beginning of the 11th century. 

This proverb is famously the title of a play from the Golden Age, a comedy written between 1613 and 1615 by Spain’s great playwright Lope De Vega.

Perro Del Hortelano
Spanish comedy film from 1996 winner of seven Goya Awards based on Lope de Vega’s work (Image: Flikr)

A caballo regalado, no le mires el diente 

This expression is basically the same in English: ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ and is used as a reminder to be grateful for a gift and not find fault in it.

It refers to the ancient practice of determining a horse’s age by looking at the state of their teeth.

Horse Teeth
You can determinate a horse age and health looking at their teeth (Image: Flickr)

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