There's a series of podcasts called Quick and Dirty Tips, and I've been listening to one in particular dedicated to grammar. A recent topic touched on idioms, or phrases that, when taken literally, don't make any sense, but their meaning becomes understood through common usage. The example given in the podcast was "He is feeling under the weather". If you were to think of what "under the weather" means, literally, you might picture someone standing under a cloud of rain. But English speakers understand that it means that the person isn't feeling well. Some idioms have traceable origins, others are more obscure and are a bit more traceable. Still others are so strange that it's hard to even venture a guess as to how they could have possibly come into usage.
While there are many idioms of varying degrees of obscurity in the English language (ie, "between a rock and a hard place", "burn the midnight oil", "shoot the breeze"), I believe Spanish idioms - or as they are called in Spanish, dichos - may have an more colorful edge. Some examples of Puerto Rican dichos:
Más jala'o que un timbre de guagua
Literal translation: More pulled than a bus's bell
Sample sentence: I am so hungry that I am más jala'o que un timbre de guagua
This is a complicated one if you don't know the meaning of the term jala'o. First of all, it refers to the word halado, which, if you know a bit of Spanish, does not have an aspirated "j" sound (how the "h" sounds in English) because the letter H is silent. That's a somewhat common mispronounciation in PR, I find: to aspirate the "h" at the beginning of some words. We also tend to drop the -ado suffix and pronounce it "a'o", which sounds something like "a-u". People know it's wrong, but I suppose it's part of our accent. In any case, to feel jala'o is to feel so hungry that you feel the pit of your stomach start to sink, and is usually the precursor to hunger-induced nausea. So if you feel "pulled" then you can see where the dicho originated -- probably some poor soul who was starving while riding the bus, and in a particularly poetic moment was able to identify with the slacked and often-yanked cable of a bus bell. Also note that there is even a proper pronounciation for this entire idiom: you would never hear someone say "más halado que un timbre de guagua", rather, the words run together ("má' jala'o queun timbre'e guagua"). To say it properly would sound downright prissy. A proper Puerto Rican has nothing but disdain for the letters S and D.
Por un tubo y siete llaves
Literal translation: through a tube and seven faucets
Sample sentence: Lindsay Lohan has DUI's por un tubo y siete llaves
This idiom seeks to convey the image of something happening copiously. Again, with this one, once you know the meaning, you can understand the imagery. but unlike the previous dicho, I'm having a hard time imagining the moment the phrase was born. How many times do you find yourself in a situation where you are faced with seven faucets? And why seven, in particular? I suppose a young man could have been showering after gym class (or maybe he was in prison -- we need to keep our minds open here), marvelled at how one tube could feed so many faucets, and his inner philosopher emerged. In any case, this one makes me laugh because it reminds me of a day in my 5th grade English class where the teacher was asking us to come up with idioms, and my classmate Rafael spat out "by a tube and seven keys!" He said keys because the word llave means both faucet and key, and I'm guessing he had not yet deciphered what the phrase alluded to. Okay, maybe you had to be there.
Poner un huevo
Literal translation: Lay an egg
Sample sentence: This document cannot have any mistakes, so you can't poner un huevo.
How did "lay an egg" become synonymous with making a mistake? Laying eggs is natural, it's what chickens are supposed to do. A related dicho is meter la pata, which means to put in a leg. What? I don't get it; I can't even start to imagine how these were coined. Perhaps I don't want to let my mind go there, even if it could.
No se pierde un bautizo de muñecas
Literal meaning: He/she doesn't even miss a doll's baptism
Sample sentence: I was reading a copy of The Wall Street Journal, and I saw a picture of Paris Hilton hobnobbing with Alan Greenspan -- she'll go to any event, she won't even miss un bautizo de muñecas.
So what is a doll's baptism, you ask? I'll tell you. Just like little girls in the US, for example, will set up a tea party with their dolls, in PR girls used to baptize them. We're not just talking about sprinkling some water on their heads and calling it a day. They'd round them up, perhaps dress them up in white dresses, invite friends and family, and pretend to have a baptism. Someone would play the role of the priest, and I'm pretty sure the only "parent" present with the doll was the little girl herself. Single moms, perhaps? Scandalous. My neighbor Jenny did one, and in typical Jenny fashion the event was a blowout. Lots of neigbors came, the dolls were impeccable, and her brother Chago approximated a priest's garb and baptized the dolls. Other neighborhood girls brought their dolls too, to share in the beautiful moment, but Jenny's dolls were the stars of the show. In fact, her mother organized a doll beauty pageant and I actually had a role in this: I was to present the winner with her prize, which was a bottle of roll-on Avon perfume. The winner was - you guessed it! - Jenny's doll. Punch and cookies were served afterwards, and everyone agreed it was a beautiful ceremony.
Mas pela'o que el culo de un mono
Literal translation: More skinned than a monkey's ass
Sample sentence: Until payday, I am más pela'o que el culo de un mono.
The sample sentence should have shed some light onto the meaning of this saying: it means to be broke. Pela'o (pelado) technically means "skinned" and in our vernacular it means to not have any money. As far as pela'o goes, I can see the origin of the term (even more than I can understand how "broke" became English vernacular for the same thing). But the brilliance of this idiom is the introduction of a monkey's ass. If we follow the same technique of unlocking the origin of a saying by imagining what the person must have been doing in order to reach such an epiphany, then much fun can be had with this saying. And even if you don't care to think about monkey's asses, comparing anything to monkey's asses is just funny. Admit it.
Let's hear some other strange dichos, either in Spanish or in any other language!