One of the main clichés foreigners perpetuate about Spaniards is that they’re work-shy hedonists with a “mañana mañana” attitude towards any sort of responsibility.
Even among Spaniards themselves, there are regional stereotypes about southerners that claim they’re all vagos (lazy), especially those from Andalusia and the Canary Islands.
Studies have actually shown that people in Spain work longer hours than Germans and other northern Europeans, so it’s understandably frustrating for many Spaniards to hear the same stereotypes regurgitated again and again.
Without a doubt, there are idle people in Spain, just like anywhere else in the world. So what’s one way to describe this laziness in Spanish?
No dar un palo al agua, which in its literal sense means to ‘not hit the water with a stick’.
In fact, it’s the equivalent of saying in English ‘to not lift a finger’, ‘to never do an ounce of work’ or ‘to do sweet FA’ (FA standing for ‘fuck all’, or Fanny Adams, but that’s another story).
Even though we initially thought that this Spanish metaphor drew a parallel between not being able to do something as simple as throwing a stick in a lake or a river, the origins of this saying are actually from the world of sailing.
Sailors who weren’t willing to put in the work and let everyone else do the rowing were called out for loafing around and told ¡No das un palo al agua!, in the sense that their oars (the palo or stick refers to the oar) weren’t even touching the water.
So the next time you want to describe the fact that someone is not pulling their weight, remember this interesting Spanish expression. You can also use the shortened version – ‘no dar ni palo’.
It’s an expression which is widely used in all manner of settings (including formal ones), so you don’t have to worry about offending anyone, apart from perhaps the person who you are describing as working very little or not at all.
Pedro no da un palo al agua. Se pasa el día en las redes sociales aunque haya un montón de trabajo que hacer.
Pedro doesn’t lift a finger, he spends his days on social media even if there’s loads of work to do.
¡No das un palo al agua! ¡Eres un holgazán! ¡A ver si te pones las pilas!
You do sweet FA! You’re a right lazybones! Get your arse in gear!