Have you ever wished there were a word to more accurately describe something you’re feeling or doing?
There probably is one–it just doesn’t exist in English. There are even emotions we haven’t experienced because we don’t have language for them. Fascinating, isn’t it?
Learning another language unlocks new ways to express ourselves in these words-that-don’t-quite-translate. It gives us a better understanding of the world, enriches our travel experiences, and brings greater depth to our ability to process and communicate ideas. While I’m not fluent in Spanish, I’ve often said that Spanglish is my favorite language because there are just some Spanish words that capture what I want to say so much better. (Lucky for me, I can break out into it with my husband or in-laws anytime and they don’t think I’m crazy!)
Sometimes it takes a whole phrase to attempt to translate the meaning of these words, and other times, there are subtle nuances that are lost in translation. From the funny to the perfectly succinct, here are 25 Spanish words or phrases with no exact English equivalent!
1. Verguenza Ajena / Pena Ajena
To feel embarrassed for someone even if they don’t feel embarrassed themselves
These terms vary regionally but seem to carry the same connotation. If you’ve ever watched a stand-up comedian bombing, you know the feeling this is describing. You put your hand to your head to hide your face, squeeze your fists, and make a crazy cringing face. The best we can do in English is say something is “awkward,” but I don’t think that quite captures the depth of the awkwardness we sometimes feel at someone else’s embarrassing moment. I love the idea of having a term specifically for those Michael Scott moments we’ve all felt.
To have an afternoon snack, coffee, or tea
Having distinct words in Spanish meaning “to eat + specific meal” is pretty great (desayunar, almorzar, and cenar), and now you can add afternoon snacking to the mix! However, it wouldn’t be Latin American Spanish without the word meaning something else entirely in some countries. At least in Ecuador, merendar means to have dinner.
To be overly sweet, in reference to food or a person
Speaking of food…you know that feeling you get in your mouth when you scrape up all the brownie batter while waiting for the brownies to cook and then proceed to make a hot fudge sundae once they’re done? (No? Just me?) We’ve all had moments where we’ve eaten something so sweet that our mouths feel weird and we can’t possibly take another bite. Spanish has a word for that!
After-dinner conversation, time spent leisurely chatting around the table after a meal
This one isn’t used everywhere across Latin America, but from my anecdotal observations, I’m pretty sure the act of enjoying a sobremesa is common–even if the word itself isn’t used in a particular place. I’ve had countless chats with my Puerto Rican mother-in-law after breakfast and cafecito while everyone else scatters from the table. I think we could all use a slow-paced meal and time spent with family and friends more often in our time-oriented US culture.
To address someone with the informal tú form
The first time I heard this, I was watching a cheesy Colombian soap opera, and it was one of those words that I immediately understood from context and knowing how words are structured in Spanish. Obviously, we don’t need a word for this in English since we don’t have an informal “you,” but I just thought it was so convenient to have this succinct way of saying that someone is addressing a person with the tú form.
As a bonus, I’ll throw in vosear here for countries that use the familiar form vos. (Not to be confused with the homonym vocear, which means to shout, announce loudly, or call someone’s name over a loudspeaker.)
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Someone who’s from the United States, a “United State-an,” like saying Colombian, Puerto Rican, or Mexican
Even though it’s a mouthful to say, I love this Spanish term for its specificity. I prefer to avoid referring to myself as “American” because it implies that the United States of America is the only “America.” In English I usually say, “I’m from the United States,” but in Spanish I can also say, “Soy estadounidense.”
The day before yesterday // In some locations, anteayer is more common.
Let’s be judicious with our syllables.
To wake up in the early morning, usually before sunrise (the “wee hours”)
When you’ve got a 6 AM flight to catch….this word comes in handy!
To stay up very late, all night, or have a night out
I suppose we could get close with the phrase “pulling an all-nighter,” but I don’t think there’s a single word that captures it like Spanish does.Which of these Spanish words without an English equivalent is your favorite? #latinamerica #ttotClick To Tweet
10. Desvelado / a
To be exhausted because you were up all night or couldn’t sleep
After you trasnochó, you’d be desvelado for sure. I’m pretty sure this also describes the feeling you have after a restless night of sleep–a combination of headache + can’t concentrate + all you can think about is taking a nap but you have to work. The worst.
To use or wear for the first time
Now that I know this exists, I feel like I need a word for it.
12. Tener ganas de
To feel like, to be in the mood for
Gana means “desire or inclination,” so this phrase literally translates, “to have desires of.” But while it means “to feel like,” I think that doesn’t quite capture the nuances.
There are other phrases with ganas de in them, like this song I heard in Cuba, “Me Muero de Ganas.” Which basically means “I’m dying of desire [for you].”
To make possible
Isn’t posibilitar just more fun sounding to say?
Something between amigo and novio
I suppose “friends with benefits” is the translation, but amigovio just such a convenient (and completely logical) word that sums it up.
As when your mom yells, “Te voy a dar un chanclazo.” I’m going to smack your behind with this chancla. See also: cocotazo, used in the same context–getting hit in the head with the knuckles.
I think all of the impressions my husband and his brothers have done of their mom (in love, of course!) over the years have made this sink into my subconscious, and although I’ve never experienced the wrath of la chancla, I feel its power. I’m pretty sure this one is universal across Latin America (there were a couple well-placed chancla references in the movie Coco).
To become overly attached to one’s mother
Your son or daughter’s parents-in-law
This word is super useful because it’s such a succinct way of referring to in-law relationships. My family and my husband’s family know each other, but there’s not really a word for that relationship in English.
18. Casa Ajena
The house of a person that you’re not close with so you have to be careful and not touch anything, a house where you can’t really “make yourself at home.”
A phrase I didn’t know I needed until I heard it described! It’s that awkward being at a party, wondering where the bathroom is, and not being sure whether the stiff living room couch is actually for people to sit on.
19. Tocayo / a
Someone who shares the same first name as you, a “name twin”
In English usually we just say, “Hey that’s my name, too!” How fun is it to have a Spanish word to use when you meet your name doppelgänger?
Blind in one eye, one-eyed person
I mean, this might not come up that often, but how convenient is it to have a word for it when it does?
21. Friolento / a
Very sensitive to cold or always cold
This would perfectly describe my sweet gram, who always took a sweater wherever she went.
Literally: “guava-ed,” which isn’t anything, this is slang in Colombia for hungover
This is one of those moments when I’d really like to know the origin of a word.
To season with chili
Getting straight to the point with one word–so efficient. In some countries, it can also mean to annoy or pester someone (which is kind of how I feel about chili peppers). It’s amusing to think about siblings yelling at each other, “Stop chili-ing me!”
24. Me cae bien.
I like you (in a friendly, non-romantic way), he seems nice.
Technically we have a translation that captures the essence of what this means, but it’s one of those interesting, doesn’t-translate-literally phrases that’s funny to think about. Literally, it means “You fall well on me.” But it’s how you would refer to a teacher you like or someone you just met and got along with–instead of the word gustar.
25. Dominguero & Dominguear
Dominguero: Sunday as an adjective, but also an insult to mean a bad/inexperienced driver (“Sunday driver”). Similarly, dominguear (“to Sunday”) can mean to do something at a relaxed pace or to have a chill, fun Sunday.
All these Sunday words! Even if these aren’t used across all of Latin America, and even if dominguear is slang that isn’t listed in the dictionary, they are just so perfect that I had to include them.