Meanings of 'Santo' in Spanish Language

These portraits in a South American locker room can be referred to as "santos" in Spanish.

Pablo Matamoros/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Catholicism has always been the dominant religion in countries where Spanish is dominant. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that some words related to the religion have come to have broad meanings. One such word is santo, which is most commonly translated as "saint" as a noun, "holy" as an adjective. (Like the English words "saint" and "sanctify," santo comes from the Latin word sanctus, meaning "holy.")

According to the Diccionario de la lengua española, santo has no less than 16 meanings. Among them:

  • Perfect and free of sin.
  • A person declared as such by the Church.
  • A virtuous person.
  • Said of something that is dedicated to God or a holy service.
  • Said of something that is generated.
  • Describing a religious festival.
  • Sacred.
  • Holy.
  • Said of something that brings good luck.
  • Characteristic of the Catholic church.
  • A person's saint's day or name day.
  • A spouse.
  • A picture of a saint.
  • A type of portrait in a book.

In many cases, "holy" is a good translation of santo as an adjective, even when it isn't to be understood literally. For example, "No sabíamos que estábamos en suelo santo" could be translated as "We didn't know we were on holy ground."

Santo also is used in a variety of idioms and phrases. Here are some of them:

  • ¿A santo de qué?: Why in the world?
  • Llegar y besar el santo: to succeed at something immediately or on the first try. (Su sustituto, Juanjo, llegó y besó el santo: gol en su primer partido. His substitute, Juanjo, pulled it off right away: a goal in the first period.)
  • Campo santo: cemetery.
  • Espíritu Santo: Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost.
  • Guerra santa: holy war.
  • Hierba santa or hoja santa: a type of tropical herb.
  • Hora santa: prayer is given before the Eucharist, or in commemoration of the suffering of Jesus.
  • Hueso de santo: a type of almond pastry in the shape of a bone.
  • Lengua santa: the Hebrew language.
  • Mano de santo: fast and complete cure for an ailment or problem.
  • Quedarse para vestir santos: to remain unmarried (said of a woman).
  • Santa Faz: an image of the face of Jesus.
  • Santa Sede: Holy See.
  • Santo de cara: good luck. (Cierto es que no todo el mundo tiene el santo de cara. It's certain that not everyone has good luck.)
  • Santo de espaldas: bad luck. (Los habitantes de El Ídolo describen a 1998 con una frase: "Tuvimos al santo de espaldas". The residents of El Idolo describe 1998 with the phrase: "We had bad luck.")
  • Santo de pajares: a person whose sainthood can't be trusted.
  • Santo y seña: military password.
  • Semana Santa: Holy Week (the week preceding Easter, including Good Friday).
  • Tierra Santa: Holy Land.

Santo can function as either a noun or adjective. As such it is frequently used in additional forms santa, santos and santas.

Of course, Santo and its variations also have been used as a title of sorts before the names of Saints: San José (St. Joseph), Santa Teresa (St. Teresa).

Sample Sentences Showing Uses of Santo

Jerusalén, Santiago de Compostela y Roma son las principales ciudades santas del cristianismo. (Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, and Rome are the main holy cities of Christianity.)

El Estado Islámico instó a los musulmanes a lanzar una guerra santa contra los rusos y los estadounidenses. (The Islamic State urged Muslims to launch a holy war against the Russians and the Americans.)

Mi santo y yo somos incompatibles en gustos cinematográficos. My husband and I are incompatible in which movies we like.

El Jueves Santo es el momento central de la Semana Santa y del año litúrgico. Maundy Thursday is the climax of Holy Week and of the liturgical year.

El jazz no es santo de mi devoción. Jazz isn't my cup of tea.

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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Meanings of 'Santo' in Spanish Language." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Meanings of 'Santo' in Spanish Language. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Meanings of 'Santo' in Spanish Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).