Learn 42 Tagalog idioms you can actually use in day-to-day conversations!
No matter where you go, no matter who you meet, if you go out of your country to travel or learn a new language, you’ll encounter some words or phrases which meanings you just can’t guess from their literal translations. These are called idioms and Tagalog has a lot of them. Too many and too lalim (“deep”), that some are limited to Shakespearean-level of Tagalog literature while some just too hard to use in everyday conversations.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with memorizing and using some of the older idioms. In fact, we encourage you to study them to see how Filipinos see the world. After all, who would’ve thought of using basang-sisiw, literally “wet chick”, to describe something pitiful? Filipinos did and it worked.
It is kinda pitiful, the poor thing.
But since this is Learn Tagalog Fast and we want you to be able to use conversational Tagalog immediately, here are 42 Tagalog idioms that in-the-know foreigners will need in day-to-day conversations!
Literal: from the word “tigas” or “hard” | Actual: cool
If you’ve been around young Filipinos or the Tagalog side of the Internet, most likely, this is not your first rodeo with flipped Tagalog words. Filipinos love flipping the pronunciation and/or spellings of words to make it sound cooler or edgier, much to the dismay of some Tagalog grammarians.
Literal: starfruit | Actual: turncoat, traitor
Originally from the Tagalog word for “starfruit”. It has its figurative meaning because of its many sections (“many-faced”) when cut cross-wise.
Literal: guard-invade | Actual: opportunist
To some, this originated from guards who pretend to guard something, only to steal it for themselves given the first opportunity. Regardless of its origin, batay-salakay means that you pretend to be helpful or good to gain the trust of the people around you and take advantage of that trust to steal something or do something bad.
Literal: from the word “baroque” | Actual: crass, crude; hillbilly
Usually used to refer to an informal or non-standard variety of language. For example, someone is speaking broken English. Their English is barok. It can also be used to describe a person like an English-speaking person would use “hillbilly”.
Literal: broken-head | Actual: a person liable to start a fight
Mainit ang ulo
Literal: hot-head | Actual: a person liable to get angry
Literal: heavy person | Actual: an important person
Literal: With ability | Actual: a wealthy person
Literal: With a say (in something) | Actual: a person with power/talent
Binyagan na yan!
Literal: Baptize it already! | Actual: Time to use and dirty a new thing
If you are wearing a new pair of shoes, particularly white shoes, be alert of the Binyagan na yan! It means that the new shoes needed to be break-in and the person who shouted this will most likely step on your brand new shoes to “help” you.
Butas ang bulsa
Literal: the pocket has a hole in it | Actual: “I don’t have any money”
What happens when your pockets have holes in them? Most likely, you lose your money, right?
Dumugo ang ilong
Literal: The nose bled./ nosebleed | Actual: something is too hard or complicated
Usually used when someone is speaking full-on English or “deep” Tagalog and you want to say that it’s too hard or complicated to understand.
Labas sa ilong
Literal: out of the nose | Actual: to lie; to say something you don’t mean
Literal: see “mapapel” | Actual: a person who always want to have a role in something
Kapal ng mukha
Literal: thick face | Actual: shameless
Malaki ang ulo
Literal: big-head | Actual: a person with big ego
Literal: a lot of paper | Actual: a person who always want to have a role in something
Matigas ang ulo
Literal: hard-head | Actual: a stubborn person
Tigas ng mukha
Literal: hard face | Actual: shameless
Literal: shrimp | Actual: a person with a really nice body, but have an ugly face
Konting kembot na lang
Literal: just a few more shaking of the hips | Actual: “just a few more”, “almost there”
It is unknown where this phrase came from but saying konting kembot na lang means that you are almost finished with your goal. You can also use this to say “just a few more minutes/hours/days”. For example:
“Malapit na bang mag-lunch?” (“Is lunch break near?”/”Are we about to eat lunch?”)
“Konting kembot na lang.” (“Just a few more minutes.”)
Lakas ng tama
Literal: The hit is powerful | Actual: (something is) really intoxicating
Literal: With a hit | Actual: a drunk/intoxicated person
Literal: scratchy | Actual: a person with excessive sexual needs/activities
Makati ang kamay
Literal: scratchy hand | Actual: a person liable to steal something
Makati ang palad
Literal: scratchy palm | Actual: lucky person
Makati ang kamay may mean “thief” but if a person has scratchy palms, it is said that they are going to be lucky and gain money out of nowhere.
Makati ang paa
Literal: scratchy feet | Actual: a person liable to wander around
May nunal sa talampakan
Literal: (A person) with a mole on their sole. | Actual: a person liable to wander around
It is a common belief that if a person has a mole on their sole, they are more likely to wander around or travel.
Literal: Harden up, you! | Actual: ‘Like hell!’/ “Over my dead body!”
Literally means “Harden up” or “Stiffen up”, it has the same effect as “Over my dead body”. However, in this case, you are indirectly saying that the person can only get what they want after they die and stiffen up.
Literal: with mood-swings | Actual: a person is having mood-swings/ being moody
It refers to the sudden mood-swings a person can have, usually negative. For example, your friend is usually friendly and outgoing but acts up whenever she’s hungry. May sumpong siya.
May toyo sa utak/ulo
Literal: There’s soy sauce in the brain/head | Actual: a crazy person
Literal: dead-hungry | Actual: a constantly hungry person; glutton
Literal: err… plastic | Actual: a fake person
A plastic is someone who will act all good and friendly but will dirty your name or reputation behind your back.
Literal: burst-nape | Actual: meals that may cause the eater to have a heart attack or stroke
Crispy pata, bulalo, taba ng talangka, lechon... Do I need to say more?
Literal: theact of sipping | Actual: a suck up, a kiss-ass
Literal: broken record | Actual: a person who keeps on repeating a statement
Literal: broken head | Actual: a crazy person
Literal: chick | Actual: easy
Yes, chicks don’t only convey pitifulness. They can also convey that something is very easy to do or accomplish.
Literal: hungry-sleep | Actual: a person who loves sleeping, often excessively
Literal: dry | Actual: a person who hasn’t had any sexual actions lately
Utang na loob!
Literal: a debt of one’s inner self | Actual: expression of frustration
In Filipino culture, utang ng loob means the debt to one’s self and to others. It is the deep sense of gratitude and the sense of obligation to repay the person who has done you a favor. In colloquial Tagalog, utang ng loob is used to express exasperation or frustration about something inconvenient or harmful. It is likehow English speakers use “Seriously?!” to express annoyance.
Literal: no backbone | Actual: a person who can’t stand for themselves/ for something
When a person can’t stand for themselves or their principles, they don’t have any backbone.