Today I thought it would be useful to explore the nuances of tocar, an extremely common verb which means much more than “to touch.” Although this is its literal meaning, in 23 instances of its use I documented while living in Mexico / Guatemala, only two were used in this way. One of these came from an argument between a man and his angry girlfriend: “¡No se te ocurra tocarme!” Most uses of tocar, however, are figurative…. let’s look at five common uses which do not translate word-for-word in English:
1) To happen to or have an effect on someone:
This meaning of tocar refers to events or circumstances that are generally out of the person’s control. We don’t really have a single way to translate this into English but the concept is relatively simple to grasp. If, for instance, you run into a traffic jam and later need an excuse for tardiness, you can say “Me tocó un atorón” (atorón is a Mexican word for traffic jam- this varies by country). If you ran into bad weather on your vacation, you could say “Me divertí mucho, a pesar de que me tocó una tormenta.” If you resent your family and wish you’d been born into a different one, you could say “No me gusta la familia que me tocó.”
Tocar can also refer to the emotional impact that something causes, in the same way we might say “it touched my heart.” If, for instance, you hear a song that made you cry, you can say “Esa canción me tocó el corazón.”
2) To be one’s turn or time to do something:
This is a well-known meaning of tocar and is heard a lot when playing card games: “Ahora te toca a ti” (Now it’s your turn). Here a few other examples:
- “Ahora le toca a ella hacer esa decisión y a más nadie que a ella.” = Now it’s her turn to make that decision and no one else’s.
- “Te toca tomar la pastilla a las ocho.” = You have to take the pill at 8 o’clock.
- “Me toca trabajar este sábado.” = I have to work this Saturday
- “Nos han estado viendo la cara de idiotas a todos…ahora nos toca a nosotros vérselas a ellos.”* = They’ve been treating us like idiots… now it’s our turn to treat them that way.
*This example uses the highly idiomatic expression “vérselas”… see here for an explanation of its meaning.
In all of the preceding examples, it is possible to substitute tocar with tener que or hay que: “Tienes que tomar la pastilla a las ocho.”
3) To touch on a certain subject or topic:
This meaning is fairly transparent to English speakers, as we can easily say “I don’t want to touch that topic.” In Spanish this can be translated word-for-word: “No quiero tocar ese tema.” There are, however, a few idiomatic variants which don’t translate directly. The phrase “Por lo que a mí me toca…” means something like “As far as I’m concerned…”:
- “Por lo que a mí me toca, no quiero volver a verlos nunca” = As I far as I’m concerned, I never want to see them again.
- “Por lo que a mí me toca, ella es una la mujer más malvada sobre la faz de la tierra.” = As far as I’m concerned, she is the most evil woman on the face of the planet.
The closely related adjective tocante means “concerning” or “regarding,” as in the phrase “Esta conferencia es tocante a la salud de los niños” (This conference is about children’s health). Although you may hear tocante used on occasion, for most of us it’s easier to say: “Esta conferencia es sobre la salud de los niños.”
4) To be entitled to, to win or to obtain:
You may hear the expression “Me tocó la lotería” (I won the lottery– although I have yet to meet anyone who can legitimately claim this). This is a typical use of tocar and indicates that something was won or otherwise obtained by entitlement. Synonyms in Spanish are ganar or, when referring to entitlement, corresponder. Here are a few other examples:
- Me toca una pensión por los años que trabajé. = I am entitled to a pension for the years I worked.
- Me imagino que les toca una parte del dinero. = I imagine that they receive a part of the money.
- Nos toca la rebanada más grande del pastel. = We get the larger slice of the cake (a figurative way of saying, “We are entitled to the larger portion of something.”)
5) To hit rock bottom = tocar fondo
This one needs little explanation = Perdí mi trabajo y mi esposa me pidió el divorcio. He tocado fondo.
Another common meaning of tocar is “to play an instrument” = José sabe tocar la guitarra. Incidentally, the verb jugar, which normally means “to play” (as in sports or games), is never used with musical instruments.
As you can see, tocar is a power verb in Spanish and is used for all sorts of things besides its basic dictionary meaning. Practice and context will help you distinguish its various uses but, for now, me toca terminar este artículo…