On my morning walk (in the drizzle and under grey west country skies) I found myself wondering about the above saying. I returned to my gaff and googled. I knew roughly what it meant, but
Literally Buscarle très pies al gato means to look for three legs on the cat. Obviously it is a saying, so the literal meaning isn’t the actual meaning.
So what does it mean?
I found a reference to this on lasfrasesparahoy where they suggest that the Real Academia Española (big dudes who are officially responsible for overseeing the Spanish language) state that it means empeñarse temerariamente en cosas que pueden acarrearle daño.
This translates as ‘insist recklessly in things that can bring you damage’. empeñarse could mean ‘insist on’ or ‘get into’ depending on the context but I think here ‘insist on’ is a better translation.
I found another meaning here the gist being No le busques tres pies al gato para indicar que no debe uno complicar lo sencillo o intentar probar lo impossible. The expression ‘no le busques tres pies al gato’ indicates that you should not overcomplicate or try to prove the impossible.
Well, that seems similar but not identical to the meaning given by Real Academia Española.
I googled some more and discovered a definition stating it meant Significa buscar el lado negativo de las cosas ‘to look for the negative side of things’. I don’t like this one.
I googled some more and a common translation given is ‘to split hairs‘ . This means to argue about small or unimportant details.
Stop splitting hairs.
I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone use it.
So what does it mean?
I think the primary translation is ‘Don’t look for trouble/complications where there aren’t any’.
I think is can also be used in the sense of ‘splitting hairs’ E.g. Yo no le busco tres pies al gato, simplemente que me parece absurda la explicación dada. ‘I don’t want to split hairs but the explanation given seems ridiculous to me’.
There might also be another meaning of ‘there is no point flogging a dead horse’. I’m not sure about this.
None of these match empeñarse temerariamente en cosas que pueden acarrearle daño which I may have mistranslated – which is distinctly probable.
After writing this, it is still raining, there are still paw prints everywhere, my dog is still wet, and I am still none the wiser about this saying. I need to find more examples, and all will become clear.
Besos, peace, ciao
Nice explanation! Very useful for me.
Busco tres pais del gato means “I’m looking for trouble.” I said that to my Spanish teacher in class when he asked how I was. I also said it to a girl from Spain who laughed heartily because she too was looking for trouble. We found it together.
I looked into these replies, but they don’t connect with a cat of 3 legs vs 4 legs. A cat with 4 legs is the normal, the one we have and recognize everywhere. Looking for a cat with 3 legs is looking for an animal which probably does not exist, or it has been amputated., but we are talking whether we usually will find a cat with 3 legs/paws. But when do we use this phrase? When we are looking for an alternative explanation, instead the explanation we already received. Some people will be happy with the given explanation, and will belong to the group who accept the cat has 4 legs… I don’t argue about that. But, it is possible another person will not be satisfied with the explanation for her question, and will look for another alternative answer, and maybe will lead to a nice discovery… but in the view of others, this person is just wasting her time.
Lastly, I would wonder if the saying should be more proper if we say, we are looking for the 5th leg/paw of the cat. This is likely an extremely rare event, or an impossible fact. If we clearly have a cat with 4 legs, why are we looking for the 5th leg?
Finally, I don’t accept myself that looking for the cat with 3 legs will lead to trouble… why not to discovery? why not to enlightment? “Splitting hairs” is totally different to what is being said… I can comment in another opportunigy.
The problem with Spanish is that all of what you said is correct. It all depends on the context you are saying. The definition that the Real Academia Española used is the main general definition. For example
If someone is insisting on fighting you, you can tell them No le busques tres pies al gato. “Do not recklessly insist on fighting me because I will cause you harm (damage)”
If someone is insisting on driving drunk, you can tell them No le busques tres pies al gato. “Do not recklessly insist on driving because you might crash and damage yourself”
How do the other sentences that you used fit the Real Academia Española definition:
“I think is can also be used in the sense of ‘splitting hairs’ E.g. Yo no le busco tres pies al gato, simplemente que me parece absurda la explicación dada. ‘I don’t want to split hairs but the explanation given seems ridiculous to me’.”
If you are splitting hairs means you are overly critical of small details, by doing this you might annoy of you conversational partner. (the person you are annoying can cause you harm (damage) by punching you or by no giving you a promotion, by talking bad about you etc..)
Does this make senses to you?
Thanks for your examples.
In light of these, I wonder if ‘no le busco tres pies al gato, simplemente que me parece absurda la explicación dada’ would be better translated as ‘I don’t want to caus trouble but …’.
I was never entirely satisfied with ‘splitting hairs’ as a translation. You are correct as it means being overly critical, but it doesn’t normally include the idea of harm or damage to yourself. If I am splitting hairs with someone, I’m being pedantic but not necessarily placing myself in any particular danger.
I could say ‘I dont want to split hairs but this phrase seems impossible to translate’ in English but I suppose ‘No le busco tres pies al gato pero esta frase me parecer impossible de traducir’ would be incorrect in spanish as I am not worried about suffering damage?
The way I learned this expression was as the meaning of splitting hairs. I learned the full expression as “No busca tres pies al gato cuando sabiendo el tiene cuatro”
Thank you! That makes the most sense to me!
Neniu klarigas … kial tri!?!
Ĉu “serĉi ion pri kio oni scias ke ĝi estas”?
Why three indeed:)
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me!
I grew up in Peru, and the phrase “buscarle tres pies al gato” is used when you’re wasting your time looking for answers or when you’re overcomplicating something that could be simple.
I am an interpreting student and in my translation class this saying was an assignment. The best answer I came up with was “Don’t make mountains out of molehills.” And yes, I am a southerner 🙂
From my Dichos class many years ago at Centro Bilingüe de Cuernavaca, I recall it simply as ‘looking for (or asking) for trouble.
Spanish Air Force squadron ALA 12 uses this expression as their motto. In the early 1990s I went to Torrejon air force base outside of Madrid and set up a bench for them. At the end of the trip they presented me with a beer stein with their logo of a snarling cat with this expression. They gave me the explanation of not looking for trouble, but they also said that if you were looking for three paws on a cat you might get struck by the fourth one.
I found this used in La Reina del Sur, the telenovela. There is did seem to mean ‘insist recklessly in things that can bring you damage’.
I came to this site after hearing an old Yuri song, Que Te Pasa, where she sings, “Deja de buscarle ya esos cinco pies al gato.” Seemed to be saying, “Stop looking at the past and move forward with life” or similar.