Idioms, Ed. 1

Posted on May 20, 2013


Idioms – they’ve always been a conundrum for me. I have trouble remembering how they go, which is probably due to the fact that they don’t often make good sense. After all, idioms come about in odd ways, through anecdotes or accidents that, passed down through generations, convert nonsensical phrases into trite wisdoms incorporated into the common usage of a language. In this respect, they’re one of the great treasures and mysteries of language, and they exist in all cultures. Linguistically speaking, though, idioms contradict everything your syntax teacher instructs: the meaning of the expression is not equal to the sum of its parts. Since their meanings are not literal (i.e., one who “kicks the bucket” does not really kick any bucket), they can be confusing or at least hard to remember. Hence, for people like me who didn’t grow up in an idiom-rich household, trying to utilize idioms can result in their spilling out jumbled or backwards, sounding a bit ridiculous like in that hilarious Onion article.

And yet, little demonstrates cultural competence as much as one’s ability to understand and apply idioms in another language. While certain idioms translate directly across languages (e.g. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” = “No hay que poner todos los huevos en la misma canasta”), others employ different words to convey the same figurative meaning, and still others are completely unique. I think it’s fun to learn these unique sayings as you become more familiar with another culture. Therefore, I’ll periodically share interesting idioms (“dichos” or “modismos”) that I’ve come across in Spanish.

First up:

Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo.


I’m not aware of a parallel expression in English for this idiom, which translates loosely as “the devil knows more for being old than for being the devil.”


The idea here is that the devil is wise (at least has a lot of tricks up his sleeve), and that wisdom doesn’t stem from innately being the devil, but rather from having been around so long (since pretty much the beginning of time, presumably) that he’s seen it all.


This dicho is an acknowledgment of the wisdom, know-how, and general knowledge that older persons have because of their own life experience. Use it when referring to someone “who knows” because they have been through a situation before. It comes in handy, for instance, when you receive some sort of tip or counsel from a person older than you. It can also be used when a statement an older person made turns out to be true, even though your (younger, less experienced) logic would have thought differently. In essence, this is an affirmation of how nothing compares to the knowledge accumulated over years of living, and how an older person’s experience generally trumps a younger person’s lack thereof. 


– Say you’re a new mom whose baby suddenly has a fever and is producing a lot of saliva. You pore over WebMD and become paranoid that it’s some crazy infection. But your mother knows the signs, since she’s seen it plenty before: just a tooth coming in! The idiom would refer to how she’s right.

– Or say you’re digging a hole in the ground, and your father-in-law comes to correct the way you’re digging, admonishing, “that’s not how you do it!” It doesn’t seem like a thing that should matter, but he shows you a new way to hold the shovel, and sure enough, the task becomes easier on your back. He might use this idiom to rub in his point to you. Later when you tell the story, you might use it too.

Since idioms are a condensation of a supposed larger truth, it usually goes that other idioms contradict them with competing truths. So to juxtapose the above, heed Ben Franklin’s reminder: “Experience is the best teacher … but a fool will learn from no other.”  What do you think?