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Mexican sayings: homegrown philosophy is colorful linguistic challenge

Dime como hablas y te dire quien eres (Tell me how you talk and I’ll tell you who you are) is a popular Mexican dicho (saying) that aptly underlies, from a proverbial viewpoint, the difference in the use of language between Mexicans and foreigners.

Normally employing a minimum of color and emotion, English-language speakers tend to use maxims sparingly because they are often regarded as cliches or, at the very least, repetitive. Mexicans, however, make use of dichos or refranes because they capture sentiments, summarize ideas and give more color to the language. A brief examination of popular refranes reveals that many either have either direct or broadly similar English-language “cousins.”

On the other hand, many homegrown Mexican dichos are both challenging and imaginative. For instance, could you affectionately call your eating companions burros (donkeys)?

Spanish, especially in Mexico, is a linguistic minefield for most foreigners, as Mexicans love playing around with language, mixing ideas and phonetic sounds. Refrains naturally add another dimension their poetic and inventive use of language. In conversations, Mexicans often tend to be philosophical and reiterative and like to express concepts and viewpoints from different angles. Refranes are a good way to do this.

In this context, God (Dios) regularly features in dichos but the devil less so.  Good examples of the use of Dios are: El que madruga, Dios lo ayuda (the early bird catches the worm); El que no habla, Dios no lo oye (God won’t hear those who don’t speak) and El hombre propone y Dios dispone (Man promises, God disposes). 

One of the few sayings that refers to the devil is similar to an English-language adage: Mas sabe el diablo por sea viejo que por sea diablo (Better the devil you know …).

Furthermore, many sayings are designed to give encouragement, especially when one is under adversity. In this part of the world, one of the most popular of all dichos is surely Jalisco no te rajes (Don’t surrender Jalisco). Other popular sayings include: Un clavo saca otra clavo (One grief cures another), Obras son amores, que no buenas razones (Actions speak louder than words); and No hay mal que dure cien años (No affliction lasts 100 years). 

Surprisingly, there are a great number of sayings that are virtually the same in English and Spanish and that can be easily learned by students of Spanish.

Among the most common are: Mas vale tarde que nunca (Better late than never); Nadie es mas veijo para aprender (It’s never too late to learn); Una golindrina no hace verano (One swallow does not make a summer); and No dejes para mañana lo que puedes hacer hoy (Don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today). 

On the other hand, some sayings go through strange linguistic twists when being translated from one language to another. For instance, how do you say in Spanish, “to be in someone else’s shoes”? The answer is, estar en el pellejo de otro, which literally means to be in somebody else’s skin.  To be up in the clouds is, estar en la luna (to be on the moon). That’s a horse of a different color translates into, es harina de otro costal (it’s flour from a different sack). To let the cat out of the bag can be translated as, descubrir el pastel (discover the cake).

One of the most fascinating aspects of Mexican sayings is the linguistic color and diversity that makes them unforgettable. For instance, shoes and shoemakers feature regularly in dichos. Zapatero, a tus zapatos (Shoemaker to your shoes) means mind your own business. Encontrarse con la horna de su zapato (To find the last of the your shoe), meaning to meet your match.  When one says ni a fuerzas los zapatos entren, it means the shoes won’t fit no matter how hard you try, i.e. something is impossible.

Finally what about calling your eating companions burros? If, for instance, not everyone has come to the dinner table to eat, someone might say to those who are eating, entre menos burros, mas elotes.  There are more cobs for fewer donkeys.

 

More Mexican sayings

 

Two common sayings:

Barriga llena, corazón contento (Full stomach, happy heart).

De tal palo, tal astilla (From that log, that splinter. Both cut from the same cloth. Like father like son.).

 

Two colorful sayings

Camaron que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente (The sleeping shrimp is swept away by the current), meaning to be on your guard.

El buey solo, bien se lame(The ox, on his own, knows how to lick himself), meaning too many cooks spoil the broth but also Indians do not always need chiefs when they know what work they have to do.

 

Two “macho” sayings: 

Yo no vengo si puedo, sino porque puedo, vengo (I have not come to see if I can, but because I know I can, I have come). 

Yo soy quien soy y no parezco a nadie (I am who I am and not the shadow of someone else). 

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