As two of the most-spoken languages in the world, Spanish and English run into each other quite a bit. It’s no surprise, then, that certain Spanish words and phrases slip their way into English, and vice versa. But sometimes, the phrases that certain English-speakers think of as “Spanish” are not authentic. Sometimes they’re outdated phrases that almost no native Spanish speaker would use today, and other times they’re grammatically incorrect. When you’re learning Spanish for real, it’s important to avoid these Spanish phrases native speakers never use.
Throwing out random Spanish phrases when you’re speaking English — especially when they’re not real Spanish phrases — can be annoying or offensive to Spanish speakers. It’s sometimes called “mock Spanish,” and it’s important to avoid, particularly when you travel to Spanish-speaking countries. If you’re trying to learn Spanish, that’s a good first step to getting rid of linguistic stereotypes that oversimplify the richness of both the language itself and the many cultures that speak Spanish.
Spanish Phrases Native Speakers Never Use
Literal Translation: “no problem”
Starting with a phrase you might have heard several times, no problemo is not really Spanish. The Spanish translation of “problem” is masculine (it takes el instead of la), but it’s problema, not problemo. This is the kind of mock Spanish created by adding -o to the end of words to make them sound Spanish. In general, you shouldn’t do this, even if you’re trying to be funny.
To actually say “no problem” in Spanish, you can say no hay problema or ningún problema. Either of these are appropriate responses when someone asks you for a favor. If you’re being thanked for something, you can say de nada, which means “of nothing,” which connotes “it was nothing.”
Literal Translation: “no good”
Both of the individual words in this phrase are accurate, but no bueno is an incomplete sentence. You would have to say no es bueno to be grammatically accurate. But even if you don’t care about grammatical accuracy, no bueno is an obvious Americanism. It’s been said in American movies and TV shows for decades, and a Spanish speaker will probably immediately know you’re not a native speaker if you say this phrase.
Literal Translation: “Oh, hair bun!”
In the late 18th century, a woman named María Antonia Vallejo Fernández moved to Madrid to pursue a career in flamenco. She became famous for punctuating her songs with a call of ¡caramba!, which led to a new name for her: La Caramba. She also popularized a specific kind of hair bun, and that too started being called la caramba. But the phrase ¡Ay, caramba! really caught on because it’s similar to the word carajo, which is an inappropriate word referring to the male genitalia. In the same way an English speaker might say “darn” instead of “damn,” Spanish-speakers could have said caramba instead of carajo.
But you’re unlikely to hear the phrase very often today. It’s kind of gone out of style, especially as fewer people censor themselves in casual speech. But the phrase has stuck around for English speakers because it’s a catchphrase of Bart Simpson, as in the character on The Simpsons. That means it’s become very passé, and there are many other things you can yell instead (¡Ay, Dios mío!, ¡Madre mía! and more).
Literal Translation: “on fire”
The phrase en fuego has meant a few different things to English speakers over the years. In the mid-2000s, people used it to refer to people they find attractive. More recently, English speakers have described something they think is cool as fuego, which is a direct translation of the slang term “fire” (as in, “this mixtape is fire,” meaning it’s good). A Spanish speaker will not get these connotations at all, though.
Even en fuego’s literal meaning isn’t quite accurate. If something has gone up in flames, a Spanish speaker would more likely say it’s en llamas. This is a good example of the inability to translate from one language to another by simply translating each word individually.
Literal Translation: “very hot” or “very horny”
Technically, this isn’t one of the Spanish phrases native speakers never use. But often, English speakers will use muy caliente in inappropriate contexts. As you might be able to tell from the two possible translations above, caliente is a dangerous word. If you describe food as muy caliente, you’re saying it’s hot or spicy. But if you describe a person as muy caliente, you’re not calling them “hot” as in attractive, you’re calling them horny. This can lead to embarrassing situations.
no comprendo or no comprende
Literal Translation: “I don’t understand”
When you’re learning a language, knowing how to say “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand” is important. But, at the very least, you should learn how to say it correctly. The right translation for “I don’t understand” is No lo comprendo. It’s a little tricky because you have to conjugate comprender and also know how to use lo, but you’ll probably end up using this phrase quite a bit. There’s nothing wrong with admitting when you don’t know something.