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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Spanish expression of the day: ‘Para colmo’ 

If you want to learn to complain in Spanish, here is an expression you can use when you're at your wits' end. Do you know what “colmo” means?

Spanish expression of the day: 'Para colmo' 
Want to know how to say the last straw in Spanish? Photo: Engin Akyurt/Pixabay

We’re living through complicated times, where war, an ongoing pandemic and the rising cost of living all seem to be mounting up. 

But at least we can have a good old grumble about it, right?

If in Spanish you want to say to top it all off or to make matters worse, you say “para colmo” before mentioning what this undesirable cherry on the cake is.  

Examples:

Ha subido mucho el precio de la luz y de la gasolina y, para colmo, también el de los alimentos. 

Electricity and petrol prices have gone up a lot, and to make matters worse, also food prices.

Or

Está lloviendo a cántaros y, para colmo, tengo un pinchazo en la rueda.

It’s raining cats and dogs, and to top it off, I’ve got a flat tyre.

The noun (el) colmo isn’t used very often in Spanish on its own, but it means the peak, the rim, the brim of something. 

On the other hand, the expression el colmo de los colmos is very common and means the worst of the worst. 

Example:

Pagarle un pastón a un nutricionista para después comer hamburguesas todos los días es el colmo de los colmos. 

Paying a nutritionist a fortune to then eating hamburgers every day is the worst of the worst. 

It’s also traditional for some jokes in Spanish to start with the question ¿Cúal es el colmo de los colmos? to denote irony. 

Example:

¿Cúal es el colmo de los colmos? Que un mudo le diga a un sordo que un ciego les esta mirando.

What’s the worst of the worst? If a mute person tells a deaf person that a blind person is looking at them. 

Then there’s the verb colmar, which can mean to fulfil or meet (a target), to fill to the brim (of a glass) or reach the limit (usually patience), but again such uses aren’t very common in modern Spanish. 

But this does lead us to a fantastic Spanish expression that is used all the time in Spain – la gota que colmó el vaso – which in its most literal sense translates to ‘the drop that overfilled the glass’ but in reality has the same meaning as the ‘last straw’ or ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ in English. 

Example:

La invasión ilegal de Ucrania por parte de Putin fue la gota que colmó el vaso para el pueblo ruso.

Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine was the last straw for the Russian people.

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SPANISH WORD OF THE DAY

Spanish Expression of the Day: ‘No dar un palo al agua’

What do a stick and water have to do with working in Spain?

Spanish Expression of the Day: 'No dar un palo al agua'

One of the main clichés foreigners perpetuate about Spaniards is that they’re work-shy hedonists with a “mañana mañana” attitude towards any sort of responsibility.

Even among Spaniards themselves, there are regional stereotypes about southerners that claim they’re all vagos (lazy), especially those from Andalusia and the Canary Islands. 

Studies have actually shown that people in Spain work longer hours than Germans and other northern Europeans, so it’s understandably frustrating for many Spaniards to hear the same stereotypes regurgitated again and again.

Without a doubt, there are idle people in Spain, just like anywhere else in the world. So what’s one way to describe this laziness in Spanish?

No dar un palo al agua, which in its literal sense means to ‘not hit the water with a stick’. 

In fact, it’s the equivalent of saying in English ‘to not lift a finger’, ‘to never do an ounce of work’ or ‘to do sweet FA’ (FA standing for ‘fuck all’, or Fanny Adams, but that’s another story). 

Even though we initially thought that this Spanish metaphor drew a parallel between not being able to do something as simple as throwing a stick in a lake or a river, the origins of this saying are actually from the world of sailing.

Sailors who weren’t willing to put in the work and let everyone else do the rowing were called out for loafing around and told ¡No das un palo al agua!, in the sense that their oars (the palo or stick refers to the oar) weren’t even touching the water. 

So the next time you want to describe the fact that someone is not pulling their weight, remember this interesting Spanish expression. You can also use the shortened version – ‘no dar ni palo’.

It’s an expression which is widely used in all manner of settings (including formal ones), so you don’t have to worry about offending anyone, apart from perhaps the person who you are describing as working very little or not at all. 

Examples:

Pedro no da un palo al agua. Se pasa el día en las redes sociales aunque haya un montón de trabajo que hacer.

Pedro doesn’t lift a finger, he spends his days on social media even if there’s loads of work to do.

¡No das un palo al agua! ¡Eres un holgazán! ¡A ver si te pones las pilas!

You do sweet FA! You’re a right lazybones! Get your arse in gear!

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