Grabbing horns and dressing saints, or how culture seeps through the cracks of language

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A few days ago I was watching a video as part of a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) about Spain and its culture. The speaker mentioned bullfighting and how rooted it is in Spanish culture (to my dismay, I must say), something that becomes obvious through the many everyday expressions we use that stem from this tradition.

This got me thinking about how deeply bound language is to the culture and history of each country. This subject has always appealed to me, so I decided to do some research and leaf through some of my general and proverb dictionaries to find a few examples and share them in the hope to get others to share expressions in their languages that show a strong link to cultural aspects.

There are many cultures aspects reflected in Peninsular Spanish – my native variety. I’m sure some are shared with other varieties of Spanish, but some may be not. There is a wealth of subjects to choose from, so I narrowed them down to two: bullfighting and religion – more specifically, Catholicism. I found so many examples I had to shortlist a total of three for each topic, which wasn’t so easy. For each expression, I provide the Spanish with the literal translation into English in parentheses and the meaning and/or example.


Let’s start with bullfighting and one of my favourite expressions: Pillar a alguien el toro (‘to be caught by the bull’), which means ‘to run out of time’. Imagine you’re working towards a deadline and, unfortunately, you can’t make it. Your client is bound to be angry, but perhaps you can appease this wrath – even make them feel concerned – if the next time this happens you tell them you were caught by a bull! Example: Como no nos demos prisa, nos va a pillar el toro (Unless we hurry up, we’re going to run out of time).

Ver los toros desde la barrera (‘to see the bulls from behind the fence’) means to watch something from the sidelines – you watch it without being exposed to the risks of those who take part in it. This expression focuses on the places taken by the bullfighter (facing the bull in the arena) and the audience (in the grandstands) in the bullring, or the same distinction between the people running in front of the bulls and watching from behind the wooden or metallic barriers during a running of the bulls.

Cortarse la coleta (‘to cut one’s ponytail’): I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but all matadors wear a tiny ponytail. Often fake, unless their hair is actually long enough to pull it back, this is a well-known part of their outfit – known as traje de luces (‘costume of light’). When bullfighters retire, we symbolically say they cut their ponytail, which is why this expression has extended to everyday language to mean we have retired, or even given up a hobby or habit.


English also features bulls in some expressions, but mostly using this animal as a symbol of strength or power, a connotation we also have in Spanish, e.g. ‘grab/take the bull by the horns’ (coger el toro por lo cuernos) or ‘strong as a bull’ (estar como un toro/estar hecho un toro).

Let’s move to Catholicism and how it’s spiced up the Spanish language. For starters, there is one expression I absolutely love teaching to speakers of other languages. Why? Because their faces glow with a blend of surprise, fun, and disbelief. No estar católico (‘not to be Catholic’) meaning ‘to feel under the weather’. I know, right? Not very respectful of other religions. Here, however, it’s key to turn our head to grammar and explain the difference between the verbs ser y estar, the two main translations of ‘to be’ and probably the biggest headache of every student of Spanish. Soy católico means ‘I am Catholic’ (my religion), while Hoy no estoy muy católico translates as ‘I’m feeling a bit under the weather today’. Although it’s an over-generalisation too often used by Spanish teachers, these two examples fit the ‘permanent vs temporary condition’ rule of thumb used to explain the difference between ser and estar respectively.

An old-time favourite of mine describes someone who goes through life without worrying too much, that is a happy-go-lucky, which in Spanish is ser un vivalavirgen (‘to be a long-live-the-virgin’), made into a noun from the expression viva la Virgen (‘long live the Virgin [Mary]’). Apparently, it originated in the seafaring world: to make sure all the sailors were aboard the vessel, they all gathered on the deck and, in turn, shouted either their name or a number. The last one who responded, thought of to be a bit absent-minded or extremely laid-back, had to shout ¡Viva la Virgen! instead of his name or number, as a way of asking the divinities for protection during the voyage. As its origin indicates, it tends to convey a certain negativity – a vivalavirgen favours fun and party time over work.

Last but not least, quedarse para vestir santos (‘to be left for dressing saints’) is used for women of a certain age who have not yet married – and probably won’t (‘to be left on the shelf’ in English). This term for spinsters has a more transparent origin: in the past, women who didn’t manage to find a husband devoted most of their time to chores in the local church. Fortunately, things are different for single women in Spain today, with many choosing to stay single, which is not seen as a failure (or a catastrophe, as it used to be the case), mostly because we are no longer dependent on a husband or a father to bring the bacon home.

Credits: Fer @gamusino on Twitter

I would like to point out that despite the narrow-mindedness found in some of these expressions, they are just something we Spaniards use out of habit without thinking twice about the origin or the potential offensive connotations towards other cultures or religions. Please don’t think expressions like these are the mirror in which we look at ourselves today. I wanted to look precisely into how some of these phrases wouldn’t find a place in our current society were they to be coined today.

This little research exercise made me realise once again how connected and disconnected culture and language are at the same time. On the one hand, Spain has a long-standing tradition of bullfighting and Catholicism, hence these have carved themselves a place in our language; on the other, there are more and more Spaniards either blatantly against bullfighting or just completely uninterested. The same goes for religion – the Catholic Church fandom in Spain has been going downhill for decades; however, this decline in the number of churchgoers hasn’t changed the fact that we still use expressions derived from Catholic practices.

Will time change this? Probably. We can’t forget languages are alive and evolve with society. There are linguistic movements in social media trying to do away with phrases that denote negativity against animals, just to name one example. This phenomenon can be found in English, too, for example groups that support a more animal-friendly approach to idioms and would like to replace ‘to kill two birds with one stone’ with ‘to feed two birds with one scone’. Who knows if, in the future, all bullfighting will be banned in Spain and, little by little, future generations will start finding alternatives for some of the expressions above.

When it comes to translation, a literal or word-for-word rendering of these expressions wouldn’t do the trick. No surprise. Imagine you’re going to Spain soon, close your eyes, put yourself in a bookshop and hold a Spain travel guide written originally in Spanish and translated into English. Open it up at page 356, where you will find some tips and useful information. Go to the heading ‘Health’ and find the line where it suggests going to a hospital if you’re not feeling very Catholic. I bet your eyes are now wide open and your brain taken over by confusion. That’s exactly why we human translators outdo machine translation – because we can read behind the individual words and find a cultural equivalent in the target language!

So, what are some of the traditions that are best reflected in your mother tongue? Are the most popular sports in your country found often in your native language, like it’s the case of cricket in the UK and (American) football in the US? Are specific dishes or foods featured everywhere in your idioms or proverbs dictionaries? I’d love to find out!

Spread the word!

2 thoughts on “Grabbing horns and dressing saints, or how culture seeps through the cracks of language

  1. So interesting! I enjoyed reading this post, and thank you for this pleasure. Yes, every language has certain idioms that cannot be rendered properly to other languages but for those who understand them they make the text much more colourful and deep.
    Carolina, I am grateful for making Spanish a bit “closer” to me now, that was a real treat

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