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Dichos y Refranes: A Saying For Every Occasion

Mexico has a wide variety of sayings, maxims, or phrases intended to convey truth or natural wisdom that admits no argument

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Mexico has a wide variety of dichos or refranes —sayings, maxims, or phrases— some of Mexican origin and others evidently not.

Expressions of natural wisdom

By analogy or through rhyme, the dichos are supposed to convey time-honored truths that admit no argument. But they can be, and often are, pronounced in such a smug manner as to fit the definition of perogrullada—a word almost onomatopoeic in its ugliness which means, briefly, an obvious truth of such little moment that to utter it is foolishness.

One frequently used phrase, tanto va el cántaro al agua, hasta que se rompe, —or the jug is dipped so often into the water that eventually it breaksis self-explanatory and can be particularly annoying with its “told you so” tone and presumption of virtue in the inevitable.

Literal translations from English can work, sometimes

Native English speakers will occasionally translate an English saying into Spanish literally, with varied results.  Some are close enough in their equivalent not to matter.  Más vale pájaro en la mano que cientos volando literally means a bird in the hand is worth more than hundreds in flight, quite similar to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

But a literal rendering of say, “you can’t have your cake and eat it” —no puedes tener tu pastel y comerlo might cause some amusement even if the hearer realizes you’re saying something like no puedes chiflar y comer pinole, which literally means “you can’t whistle and eat pinole,“¯—a powdery substance made with baked ground corn and sugar.  Figuratively they are about the same.

I haven’t noticed, on the other hand, that English-speaking Mexicans make the same assumption about their own sayings being turned into English.  Rather, they will tell you there is a saying in Spanish, say it, translate it and then explain what it means.  This all makes for longer conversations, but then “time is money” isn’t a phrase that gets much mileage in these latitudes.

English equivalents with alternative imagery

There are plenty of sayings that have English equivalents but use different imagery. Es mejor ser cabeza de ratón, que cola de león, literally means it’s better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion, but its equivalent may well be —in the absence of any rules— better a king among beggars than a beggar among kings.  Cuando el río suena, agua lleva —when the river sounds, it’s carrying water— means about the same as the English “there’s no smoke without fire.”

One puzzling local saying is tirar (echar) la casa por la ventana, which is literally to throw the house out the window, but means simply to spare no expense, usually applied when celebrating something.  A very Mexican expression is cada chango a su mecate—each monkey to his own rope.  This one is self-explanatory, an antidote to busybodies, and has a number of variations in different Spanish speaking countries.

A saying for difficult situations

Finally, for this entry anyway, there is one dicho that may well be true, but which never seems to be applied except at the worst possible time.  No hay mal que por bien no venga.  Literally, there is no bad thing that doesn’t happen for good, similar in meaning to every cloud has a silver lining.  The problem is that people always seem to say it when someone is in great anguish about something awful that has happened.  And a bit like Job, rather than take comfort, one is perhaps inclined to mutter something like the universal con amigos así, ¿quién necesita enemigos?

An ample selection of Mexican sayings can be found online.

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  1. Jared says

    Dichos and refranes can be hilariously funny and I’m surprised how much they vary from one country to the next. Of course there are general sayings used throughout Latin America, but there are also some great ones that share the unique history and culture of a country.

    There’s one from Chile that says “anda más perdido que teniente Bello” which means to be extremely lost. It comes from a pilot who went out for a quick flight and never came back. I think it was probably 70 or 80 years ago, and they still haven’t found the plane.

    Great post, these types of sayings always make me laugh.


  2. Bill Mitchell says

    We have the saying in English: “piece of cake.” I love the Spanish equivalent: “pan comida,” which means bread already eaten.

  3. Judy King says

    What a great little piece. I love the dichos of Mexico and have enjoyed collecting favorites over the years including one I heard just a year or two ago. It’s another You can’t have your cake….. but this one translates to You can’t ring the bells and walk in the procession. Now that’s a vivid picture for anyone who has been to a feast day celebration in the pueblos.

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