If we translate Spanish expressions into English word for word, the result often makes no sense. “I take a shit in the milk” does not quite convey the meaning of me cago en la leche, just like “to have bad leg” fails to capture the essence of tener mala pata.
Vanity Fair recently asked Spanish actor Antonio Banderas to translate these and other expressions used widely in Spain, as well as a few that are specific to his home city of Málaga.
The video has been seen over a million times on Facebook since it was uploaded on April 23. It is part of a series called Slang School, in which “celebrities’ knowledge of their native tongue is put to the test.” Other actors to feature in the series include Salma Hayek, who explains Mexican terms, and Alicia Vikander, who teaches viewers Swedish slang.
Banderas, who plays Pablo Picasso in the recently premiered National Geographic TV series Genius, is seen wondering out loud about the origins of some of the expressions he is asked to explain – particularly “me cago en la leche.”
“This one is complicated,” he muses. “I take a shit... in the milk. I mean, who was the first person in Spain who said this... and everybody followed? ‘I take a shit in the milk’... ‘Hey, that’s cool! I’m going to take a shit in the milk too!’”
The star of Desperado and The Mask of Zorro also takes a crack at qué chulo: “This is very complicated, because a chulo is a pimp, yet you use it to say that something is very beautiful, very cool. How do you explain this? I don’t know.”
It is not fully clear why Spaniards use monkeys to convey that something is cute
So we at Verne are going to explain it for him. The following are the expressions used by Banderas in the video, and the origin of each one according to language experts.
- Eres un encogío: This one is specific to the city of Málaga, where both Banderas and Picasso were born. The daily Diario Sur has it on its list of Málaga expressions, where it is defined as being stingy. The Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) defines encogido, which literally means shrunken, as timid or spiritless. But as Banderas warns, one should not go out for coffee, or anything else for that matter, with a cheapskate encogío because you will end up paying the check.
- Qué chulo: The chulos and chulas, as Alberto Buitrago explains in his 2007 compendium of sayings Diccionario de dichos y frases hechas, are “the genuine representatives” of a bygone era in Madrid, with its corralas (working-class housing with long outdoor corridors) and its popular operettas, the zarzuelas. These chulos were “unmistakable because of the way they talked and moved.” That is the positive meaning of the word. But there is another meaning to chulo that is related to prostitution, and which might possibly come from the Italian fanciullo (boy). At first, the chulo was the prostitute’s favorite, but the concept eventually evolved into pimp, or so the most popular theory goes.
- Ser mono: It is not fully clear why Spaniards use monkeys to convey that something or someone is cute. One theory posits that the positive personality traits associated with monkeys, such as being friendly and sociable, expanded to describe physical appearances as well.
- Me cago en la leche: According to the 2009 compendium of Madrid expressions Con dos huevos, the original expression was the even longer me cago en la leche que te han dado (I shit in the milk that you were given) or me cago en la leche que mamaste (I shit in the milk that you suckled).
- Ser la leche: While “being the milk” has a different meaning from “shitting in the milk,” the origin is similar. Buitrago explains in his book that milk, as one of the most important and necessary foods for mammals’ survival, developed a higher value in language. Additionally, leche was probably also a replacement word for hostia – the altar bread or host, the most sacred of sacraments for Catholics.
- Me importa un pimiento: In the video, Banderas wonders why peppers seem to have less value than other vegetables in Spain, seeing as they are used in this expression (It matters a pepper to me), which actually means “I don’t give a damn.” Buitrago explains: “In slang it is very common to resort to vegetables and legumes that are found everywhere in abundance, thus illustrating that they are unimportant.” That is why Spaniards say that they don’t give “a pepper, a fig, a radish or an amaranth plant.”
- Estoy flipando en colores: Literally “I am flipping out in colors,” this expression builds on the English flip out, the RAE confirms. In Spanish, however, it is not closely tied to drugs, and the expression is widely used in any kind of context to express amazement.
- Mala pata: Who hasn’t heard that a rabbit’s foot brings good luck? Buitrago says that this superstitious belief also means that having bad luck is the same as having a “bad foot.”
- El puto amo: There is no mystery to this expression. An amo is an owner or a boss, and puto is used for emphasis in all kinds of expressions, so el puto amo can only be used to mean the best of the best. The expression was briefly popularized in 2011 when Barça coach Pep Guardiola used it to describe Real Madrid coach Mourinho ahead of the Champions semifinals.
- Esmallao: This one takes us back to Málaga and Diario Sur, which defines esmallao as hungry. This is because esmallao is actually a local version of desmayado, for someone who has fainted – out of hunger, it is presumed.
- Voy a mi bola: The reference to balls makes Buitrago surmise that the origin of this expression could be a ball game such as pétanque, in which the player only looks after his own ball without taking any interest in the other players’ balls.”
- Estás alobao: Another Málaga expression that Banderas renders as “you are spaced out,” going on to explain that he is feeling “alobao” himself due to jet lag.
English version by Susana Urra.