Another day, another Spanish idiom

Yesterday I came across an interesting article on El País about the founding of the Real Academia Española, one of my favorite institutions. The article relates, with a lamentable lack of detail, how a group of eight Spaniards began meeting in 1713 to create the first Spanish dictionary. Three other colleagues soon joined the project, it received royal sanction the following year, and the rest is (linguistic) history. Missing from the article are the founders’ identities (besides the Marqués de Villena) and backgrounds (more nobility? writers? scholars?). Still, it’s an inspiring tale.

As usual, I read the article with an eye out for unfamiliar vocabulary. All I encountered was a novel (to me) expression: the author compares the RAE’s founding to cuatro gatos [que] se lanzaban al abismo (“four cats who jumped into an abyss”). Lanzarse al abismo was clearly a metaphor for starting a venture into the unknown. Cuatro gatos, on the other hand, seemed purely idiomatic.

Thanks to an appeal to the friendly folks on the Spanish-English vocabulary forum, and a Google search that yielded similar results, I learned that cuatro colloquially refers to a small quantity (in English we’d say “a handful”) and gato can be slang for “person”. ( itself gives a slang interpretation of gato as “person from Madrid”, but the usage seems to be more general.) So the mystery sentence boiled down to “a small group of people started an uncertain venture”.

I love the parallel between this use of gato and the English slang meaning of cat as “a cool person”. The choice of cuatro to stand for “a handful” is also pleasing. As a rule of thumb, I think of three as “a few” and five as “several”; four is right in between. From a literary perspective it was also rather bold to mix literal numbers (8 and 11 founding members) with the metaphorical number 4.

Still, it’s hard to shake off the image of a cat playing a lemming…



5 thoughts on “Another day, another Spanish idiom

  1. Lucrecia

    In Argentina we also use the phrase “cuatro gatos locos” to refer to “a few random people”. The word gato is used in so many different ways and with so different meanings (even just within Argentina) that it’s so hard to tell what the word can mean in addition to its literal meaning: a cat.

    I also think that we not only use the number “cuatro” but I’m quite sure I’ve heard people say the number “two” more often. The context to use this phrase is: when you’re at a place (probably boring) where there are just a few people and it’s not important. E.g. “Hey, ¿dónde estabas anoche? te estuve llamando” “Nada importante. Fui a una fiesta, pero no estuvo muy buena que digamos.” “Ah, ¿por qué? ¿era poca gente?” “Sí, éramos dos gatos locos nomás. ¡Un embole!” (Embole = boredom [Arg.])

    1. jhochberg Post author

      “Dos gatos locos” — that’s a good one! I’ll have to remember it. Why are all your cats crazy in Argentina? It makes me think of the old Krazy Kat cartoons. Gracias por leer y escribir — Judy

      1. Irene

        Yes, I think it’s more common to say “dos gatos locos” refered to “a few random people” than “four”, like Lucrecia said. I found this looking for the origin of this expression (I use to say it very often) and this is the most accurate article I have found, thank you!


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