Spanish makes a subtle distinction between proverbio [proverb] and refrán [?]. This distinction was described well here. I'll attempt to translate informally from that answer.

Although the two words can be considered synonymous, the connotations are different:

  • refrán: a colloquial, folksy saying or piece of advice. It needn't be about something weighty. It often features a rhyme, making it catchy and easy to remember.

  • proverbio: a bit more serioius than refrán. Generally speaking, it doesn't provide advice about banal matters, but has more of a moral, ethics tone.

For example:

Marzo ventoso y abril lluvioso sacan a mayo florido y hermoso. [Loosely: April showers bring May flowers; literally: Windy March and rainy April bring out a flowering and beautiful May.]

The subject matter of this refrán is the weather.

A proverb, on the other hand, is more formal, has a more serious subject matter and attempts to teach something.

Here's an example of a proverb:

No es oro todo lo que reluce. | All that glitters is not gold.

My German spouse informs me that refrán seems to be similar to Bauernregel (guidance for farmers), but with a particular focus on the weather. For example

Der April macht was er will. | April does whatever it wants to.

My question is what is the closest equivalent to refrán in English?

Edit after question was closed as a duplicate of a question that was closed because a sample sentence wasn't provided:

Sample sentence:

Spanish has a charming refrán that's relevant to your situation: [....]

An additional thought: I'd like ideally to find something as graceful as, for example, "turn of speech." But that won't work because a turn of speech is a fragment, not necessarily a whole sentence.

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    Google proverb synonym and then weed through the suggestions to find one you like.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 0:57
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    @HotLicks - In the original language the difference was too subtle for most dictionaries to make a distinction. I can rattle off plenty of words that a thesaurus would list, but I'm not sure which (if any) would match up with refrán. In conversation, there are situations where I recast the sentence and talk about "the old song and dance." Because "refrán" also refers to something that gets over-used (el mismo refrán). Hmm. Maybe homily approaches it? Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:09
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    @jxh - I disagree. First off, an idiom need not be a whole sentence, and I think refran is. Second, an idiom means more than the sum of its parts. In other words, if you consider the literal meaning of each word of an idiom, and add them all up, you get something rather different from the actual meaning of the idiom. Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:12
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    @HotLicks - Questions that look for the English equivalent of something used in another language are on topic here. On the other hand, a question about subtle differences in meaning of English words would not be on topic at any of the beta language sites. Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:13
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    @jxh - I still don't think so. You can understand that sentence just fine by figuring it out word for word, literally. Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:23

9 Answers 9


I think you just want to use saying (which is used in your definition of refrán):

A saying is a sentence that people often say and that gives advice or information about human life and experience.
We also realize the truth of that old saying: Charity begins at home.

In a list of words related to proverbs, saying is defined as:

A short well-known expression — a pithy remark of wisdom and truth or a general advice.
Example: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Smart Words

  • Thanks. I feel unsure. I think dicho lines up well with saying. Let me ask you this. Which is a broader term? Proverb or saying? Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:22
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    Saying is definitely broader. There is no single term I can think of for informal advice in the form of a pithy sentence other than saying. I can think of other terms like old wives' tale or piece of advice (again in your definition).
    – jxh
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:37
  • That's helpful. I'm getting closer. Proposal: informal saying. To distinguish from proverb. Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:40
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    @aparente001 I'd say "informal saying" is possibly redundant. The term "saying" is typically inferred to be informal (to me). Commented May 2, 2018 at 19:34
  • I like "saying," it's pretty folksy. Close second would be "maxim" - which carries the feel of a slogan and also often has a rhyme (early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise). Here are a bunch of collected maxims, which might be useful to you: libraries.udmercy.edu/find/special_collections/digital/cfa/…
    – Elby Cloud
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 23:28

If you don't like saying (which is jxh@'s excellent suggestion), how about an adage:

a saying often in metaphorical form that typically embodies a common observation. Example: She reminded him of the adage: "A penny saved is a penny earned."


Or possibly an aphorism:

1 : a concise statement of a principle

2 : a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment : adage. Example: the high-minded aphorism, "Let us value the quality of life, not the quantity"

3 : an ingeniously terse style of expression : aphoristic language


I think adage is probably closer to the weather examples.

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    Aphorism seems to be more formal, not less: between aphorism and proverb, seems like aphorism would be the proverbio. Adage is a much-superior suggestion, I think.
    – KRyan
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 12:57
  • @KRyan I agree - I've reordered.
    – abligh
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 18:46

Perhaps mildly obscure in today's language but I'm astonished that nobody has mentioned the word refrain yet. It has two meanings, but it's the noun we're interested in, which appears primarily in musical terminology:



1. a regularly recurring melody, such as the chorus of a song

2. a much repeated saying or idea


This corroborates with the given suggestion of saying above. With cursory research it is difficult to find a citable source for the Spanish, but it appears that refrain's etymological root is the same as the given refrán:


Middle English refreyn, from Middle French refrain, alteration of Old French refrait melody, response, from past participle of refraindre to break up, moderate, from Vulgar Latin *refrangere, alteration of Latin refringere




Borrowed from French refrain, from Latin re- (“back, again”) + frangō (“break”).


frangō being a conjugation of frangere, whose derived terms include refringo, which is itself etymologically composed of 're-' and 'frangō' and is a conjugation of the Latin refringere which was mentioned by Merriam-Webster regarding the origin of the English 'refrain', above.

This is why I think 'refrain' may actually be the closest equivalent word, even if it isn't particularly widely used outside of musical terminology.

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    TIL refrain has a second definition. Which is cool and all, but doesn’t speak well of trying to use it in this fashion, in my opinion.
    – KRyan
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 12:55
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    @KRyan I've actually seen 'refrain' used in this manner before, both in writing and spoken. I feel like I've even seen the word used in a sentence exactly as you gave in the above comment. Native US English speaker fwiw.
    – Doc
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 16:47
  • @NinjaDuckie - I'm glad of your answer and comments about usage but when discussing contributions and opinions about contributions, regarding my question, I'd appreciate it if everyone would keep a respectful tone toward everyone else. Maybe "good lord, no" is considered gentle and neutral where you live, but for me it comes over a bit strong. Commented May 2, 2018 at 18:34
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    @aparente001 Uh... nothing here struck me as disrespectful, and his response was good: I have heard the phrase “that old refrain” and similar. Without old, though, I didn’t recognize it; I actually thought of “old refrain” as a set phrase in which refrain (in the musical sense) was being used metaphorically.
    – KRyan
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 18:50
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    @aparente001 (It may be worth noting that “Good lord, no!” is, itself, a set phrase in English to agree heartily with someone’s critique by way of saying that you never meant to imply otherwise. A particularly devout adherent of the Ten Commandments might find it disrespectful, since it violates the Third Commandment, but in American society at least that level of devotion is unusual and the phrase is not particularly noteworthy for most of the population.)
    – KRyan
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 18:55

In addition to 'saying' you could use 'saw':

saw: a sententious saying; maxim; proverb

Usually combined with 'old':

He could muster an old saw for every occasion.


  • I see the connection, but sadly it's not a charming word. Generally speaking, a refrán is charming and gracefully devised. (I was going to say written but it didn't feel right, since I think refranes were generally part of an oral tradition. Commented May 3, 2018 at 4:05
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    @aparente001 I think it's a good match but I see your point. It's also a little archaic. Many people are not familiar with the term.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 14:31

Platitude is a possible one that occured to me.




A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.



Consider the word Adage:

a saying often in metaphorical form that typically embodies a common observation

  • She reminded him of the adage: "A penny saved is a penny earned."

Definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.


The question is based on a false premise: that a subtle difference in connotation in one language means that other languages make the same subtle difference in connotation. To flip the direction of translation, there is a subtle difference in English between safety and security, but the closest Spanish equivalent of safety (seguridad) is also the closest Spanish equivalent of security.

The English word proverb does not have the prestige connotations of proverbio. For example, Britannica says

Proverbs sometimes embody superstitions (“Marry in May, repent alway”), weather lore (“Rain before seven, fine before eleven”), or medical advice (“Early to bed, early to rise,/ Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”).

If you want to make a distinction within the same sentence (e.g. to translate Acaban de publicar un libro de proverbios y refranes españoles), the most straightforward translation would be ...proverbs and sayings...; but otherwise the appropriate English word is proverb.

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    Not built on a premise, but yes, built on a hope. // Are you saying the set of proverbios and refranes = the set of proverbs? Commented May 4, 2018 at 11:27
  • @aparente001, no, I'm saying that the set of proverbios y refranes is a subset of the set of proverbs. I don't wish to commit to whether or not it is a proper subset. Commented May 4, 2018 at 11:35
  • Okay, there may be some as yet unidentified critters out there that are also part of the set of proverbs. // I guess the wikipedia quote below the Spanish Beta question I linked to would lend support to your answer. Commented May 4, 2018 at 12:42

Have you considered a colloquialism?


\ kə-ˈlō-kwē-ə-ˌli-zəm \

1 a : a colloquial expression "Chicken out" is a colloquialism for "to lose one's nerve."

b : a local or regional dialect expression "Bodacious" originated as a Southern colloquialism.


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    Refrán is more of a set phrase than that, and also it's always a complete sentence -- but thanks for your contribution. Commented May 2, 2018 at 18:36

I'd suggest "refrain," since it can also mean "a comment or complaint that is often repeated." It's slightly formal, but it's probably the closest literal translation of "refrán," based on what you've said- and it shares a root, too, so that's a bonus.


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