Today we’ll explore a number of colloquial expressions which, to some degree, transcend grammatical comprehension. Rather than over-analyze them, I’ll ask you to keep an open mind and simply accept these terms as part of the language. If you commit them to memory, they’ll become great allies in your efforts at self-expression.
With a small number of verbs, Spanish has a special construction which looks like this:
Verb + se + las
First off, I want to make a distinction. I’m not referring to the direct and indirect object pronouns which are traditionally attached to the ends of transitive verbs (such as comprárselas, buscárselas… if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here before proceeding). I’m referring to a reflexive type of construction in which the very meaning of the verb is modified by virtue of adding se and las. Rather than confuse you further, let me demonstrate by presenting the terms themselves:
- gastárselas: You probably know that gastar means “to spend,” “to wear out,” or “to waste.” The expression gastárselas, however, means “to behave badly.” The las doesn’t refer to anything in particular but is simply part of the expression. It acts like a direct object, even if we don’t know or care what it means. Let’s see some examples:
- “Ten mucho cuidado con mi jefe porque no te imaginas cómo se las gasta.” = Be very careful with my boss because you can’t imagine how badly he acts.
- “Mi hijo se puso berrinchudo en la fiesta y la echó a perder. ¡Ya sabes cómo se las gasta!” = My son threw a tantrum at the party and ruined it. You know how he is [how he behaves]!
If you say “¡Cómo se las gasta!” you’re basically saying the equivalent of “What nerve he/she has!” It is simply a manner of depreciating the behavior of another. Although the meanings vary, all of the following verbal expressions follow the same pattern…
- ingeniárselas: The verb ingeniar means to “to invent” or “to devise.” The expression ingeniárselas is similar and means “to work out a problem.” Here are a few examples:
- “Te las ingeniaste para que nadie te viera cuando robaste los dulces.” = You worked it out so that no one saw you when you stole the candies.
- “Aunque no ha estudiado, estoy seguro de que mi hermana se las ingeniará para pasar el examén.” = Even though she hasn’t studied, I’m sure that my sister will figure out how to pass the exam.
This expression implies that the person uses his or her astucia, cunningness or intelligence to surmount an obstacle. It has a close relative:
- arreglárselas: The verb arreglar means “to fix,” whereas arreglárselas means to “to manage” or “to get by”:
- “Yo no sé cómo, pero me las arreglaré para salir de este embrollo.” = I don’t know how, but I’ll figure a way out of this mess.
- “No sé cómo se las arreglan con tantos gastos.” = I don’t know how they get by with so many expenses.
The meanings of ingeniárselas and arreglárselas overlap, but the former is more about “contriving” whereas the latter leans more to the idea of “coping.” That said, the two expressions are pretty much interchangeable… check out this example: “Ese muchacho siempre se las arregla / ingenia para fastidiar.” = That boy always manages to be annoying.
In rarer instances, you will hear the expression agenciárselas which is yet another synonym: “Ella se las agencia para pasar el examen.”
- dárselas: Last week we discussed some of the different things you can do with the verb dar. When used with the formula “verb+se+las” it means to “boast of” or “to pretend to be.” A close synonym in Spanish is the verb “presumir”:
- “A mí me cae mal la gente que se las da OR presume de lista.” = I can’t stand the people who think they’re so smart.
- “Ese hombre se las da de guapo.” = That man thinks he’s so handsome.
A close relative of dárselas is echárselas, although its use seems to be more regionalized (it is understood in Mexico, although I’m not sure if elsewhere): “A mí me cae mal la gente que se las echa de lista.”
- vérselas: This is a great expression and is commonly heard on Spanish soap operas. It means “to deal with” or “to answer to someone.” In other words, it refers to the repercussions someone will face for his or her actions:
- “Le dije que ya nos dejara a vivir en paz si no quería vérselas conmigo.” = I told her to leave us alone if she didn’t want to face me.
- “Si le hace daño a mi hija, tendrá que vérselas conmigo.” = If he hurts my daughter, he will have to deal with me.
- “Si comete el crimen, se las verá con las autoridades.” = If he commits the crime, he’ll deal with the authorities.
The term is generally used in a threatening manner and implies that someone will react hostilely if provoked. The term “to deal with” has a broader meaning in English, but with vérselas its specifically about dealing with consequences.
As you can see, all of the above are set phrases in which neither se nor las have any concrete meaning. Just remember how these expressions are used and you’ll have handy, street-friendly ways of misbehaving, contriving, coping, bragging and threatening!
Hasta la próxima…