Spanish Word of the Day: Picaresca

It might sound like a spicy ingredient you add to paella, but this word has come to define a common trait in Spanish society and politics, even according to Spaniards themselves.

Spanish Word of the Day: Picaresca
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Wisegie/Flickr

“Picaresca” may not have many different meanings in Spanish but it’s certainly a word that carries a lot of clout in Castilian. 

Next time you watch a rowdy TV debate on corruption in Spanish politics, or have a beer with your friend Manolo while he tells you how he carried on getting unemployment benefits while still working, you may hear the words “España, país de la picaresca”, “Spain, the country of guile or wiliness”. 

“Picaresca” comes from the word “pícaro” (rogue or rascal), a term which actually came to refer to a genre of Spanish prose fiction developed in the 1500s, “la novela picaresca” or picaresque novel.

The plot usually has a roguish anti-hero as its protagonist, who has to use his or her wits and craftiness to get by in a corrupt society. 

The earliest example of this type of satirical work is the anonymous 1554 classic “El Lazarillo de Tormes”, which tells the story of an impoverished boy from Salamanca who after being accused of stealing by his stepfather is taken under the wing of a blind beggar, who in turn teaches him how to survive in an unjust world. 

Historians have concluded that this distrust for institutions and desire to ‘beat the system’ has lived on in Spanish society, and that achieving better social positioning through illicit acts or deception is more socially accepted than in other countries. 

Despite having all the comforts that come with being married to a Spanish princess, former handball player Iñaki Urdangarín is a fine example of how “la picaresca” is rife in Spain's ruling classes, having set up fake NGOs in order to line his own pockets. Photo: AFP

A 2013 study on Values and World Views by the BBVA Foundation found that Spaniards are, together with the French, the Europeans who are most distrustful of politicians and religious institutions.

And while they are justifiably angry at how “la picaresca” of Spain’s political classes has led to countless corruption cases being uncovered in recent years, “la picardía” (a similar word to “picaresca” which means slyness, naughtiness or even lewdness but refers to people rather than in general) is an attitude which is somewhat accepted and secretly revered among a large section of the population. 

“Guile in the DNA” reads the headline of this opinion piece about Spanish attitudes in El País

Here are some examples of how these words are used:

Somos el país de la picaresca, casi todos nuestros políticos son corruptos.

We’re the country of wiliness, almost all our politicians are corrupt. 


Las Aventuras de Tom Sawyer tiene muchas características de una novela picaresca 

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has a lot of the traits of a picaresque novel


Juan tiene mucha picardía, siempre consigue que hagamos lo que quiere. 

Juan is very sly, he always gets us to do what he wants.  

Me miró con picardía así que supe que le gustaba.

She gave me a mischievous look so I knew she liked me.


Es una chavala muy pícara, consiguió que le diera €200.

She’s very cunning, she managed to get me to give her €200.


Mis nietos son unos pícaros, me dejaron la casa patas arriba.

My grandchildren are rascals, they made my house an absolute mess.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Spanish Word of the Day: ‘Incendio’

You’re probably familiar with this word but do you know how it’s different from ‘fuego’ (the Spanish word for fire)?

Spanish Word of the Day: 'Incendio'

The word fuego is probably one of the first words that Spanish language learners learn. 

It’s the most general word to refer to fire, as in the product of combustion.

It can be used when asking someone for a lighter (¿tienes fuego?), or the fire that burns on a bonfire or a campfire (el fuego de la hoguera), the flames of a fire (las llamas del fuego) and even in the sense of gunshots when someone shouts ‘hold your fire! (¡Alto el fuego!).

And it’s also the first word people will exclaim if a fire breaks out – ¡Fuego! (Fire!).

But when a fire is out of control, Spanish speakers rarely use the word fuego to describe this conflagration (yes, that’s a formal way of referring to an extensive fire in English). 

Instead they will call it un incendio (a fire) or el incendio (the fire). If it’s a wildfire or forest fire, they call it un incendio forestal.

That’s not to say you can’t use el fuego to refer to the fire in the general sense, but technically speaking if it’s a fire that’s broken out in a building or a forest fire that’s raging you should use the word incendio.  

There’s also the verb incendiar, to burn down or set fire to, in the active sense of someone choosing to burn something which sees the flames spread. You can also say prender fuego.

Or in the passive sense, as in a forest catching fire, incendiarse.

An example of the word ‘incendio’ in the Spanish press, with the headline reading “Spain’s fires leave two dead and more than 30,000 hectares destroyed”.


Un incendio forestal en Barcelona ha arrasado miles de hectáreas de bosque.

A wildfire in Barcelona has destroyed thousands of hectares of forest. 

Los bomberos intentaron apagar el fuego en un edificio de la Gran Vía pero al final el incendio se cobró tres vidas.

The firefighters tried to extinguish a fire in a building on Gran Vía but in the end the blaze claimed three lives. 

Es un pirómano, ha incendiado un hermoso bosque porque le gusta ver cómo las cosas arden. 

He’s a pyromaniac, he set fire to a beautiful forest because he likes to see things burn.