Mexico has a wide variety of sayings, maxims, or phrases —some of Mexican origin, and others evidently not— and all are supposed to convey truths that admit no argument


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

You are watching: Tanto va el cantaro al agua

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.

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.

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.

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.

See more: I Ve Been Nothing But Good To You, Chris Quilala

Mexico in your inbox

Our free newsletter about Mexico brings you a monthly round-up of recently published stories and opportunities, as well as gems from our archives.

Read more articles about: Local Customs and Traditions Mexican Culture Mexico Lifestyle PinPoint Spanish