Meanings of "tocar" that you might not know

Although "tocar" in Spanish means "to touch", it also has a variety of other meanings that its English counterpart does not.

Apr 07, 2020
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Yeah, yeah. We all know that tocar means "to touch", but it has many other uses as well. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about tocar, you should continue reading because this is one of the most important verbs to master in order to sound more natural when speaking Spanish.

Let's see what other meanings the verb tocar has.

Playing an instrument or performing a musical piece

While in English we play a musical instrument or a piece of music, in Spanish we use the verb tocar for this purpose.

  • Empecé a tocar la guitarra cuando tenía 12 años.
    I start playing the guitar when I was 12 years old.
  • Espero que la banda toque mi canción favorita en el concierto esta noche.
    I hope the band plays my favourite song at the concert tonight.

Expressing obligation

This verb is one of the most common ways that we use to express obligation or necessity, especially when it's something that we don't want to do. Using tocar in this way shows a lack of enthuisiasm about the obligation in question.

  • Me toca lavar los platos.
    I have to do the dishes. - but I don't want to
  • Te toca esperar tu turno con paciencia.
    You have to wait patiently. - but I know you're not exactly enjoying it
  • A Camila le tocaba bañar al perro todos los fines de semana.
    Camila had to give the dog a bath every weekend. - but it wasn't her favourite activity in the world
  • Cuando toca, toca.
    When you've got to, you've got to. - kind of like "you've gotta do what you've gotta do"

Indicating distribution

Following the same grammatical structure - indirect object + verb + subject, when talking about distributing something between recipients, we use the verb tocar as an equivalent to the English "to get".

For example, if we have eight pieces of pizza and there are four people, we could say:

  • A cada una le tocan dos pedazos.
    Each person gets two pieces.

Some more examples:

  • En el testamento dice lo que les toca recibir a cada uno de los hijos del difunto.
    In the will it states what each of the children of the deceased will receive.
  • “La vida es como una caja de chocolates, nunca sabes lo que te va a tocar.”
    "Life is like a box of chocolates - you never know which one you're gonna get.

Tocar can be used to talk about not only distributing physical items like pieces of pizza, but also to indicate distribution of turns, whether in a game, a waiting list, or anything else. As a result, in Spanish if you wanted to say "it's my turn", you would say "me toca".

For example, in a waiting room, the receptionist might say something like:

  • Sr. Pérez, ya le toca.
    Mr. Pérez, it's your turn.

Making a sound to get someone's attention

This is another very common use of the verb tocar. Actions like "knocking at the door", "honking the horn", "ringing the doorbell", etc translate to "tocar la puerta", "tocar la bocina" y "tocar el timbre", respectively.

What all of these expressions have in common is that the actions and sounds that they refer to are in general produced by one's hand making contact with something, although there are exceptions, such as "tocar el silbato" (to blow the whistle).

Speaking superficially about a topic

Another use of tocar that translates quite easily to English is to bring up or discuss some topic, but not at length or in detail, like "to touch on a topic".

Here are some examples:

  • Ellos tienen ideas muy diferentes sobre la política, así que mejor no tocan ese tema.
    They have very different ideas about politics, so it's best for them not to touch on that topic.
  • Nosotros hablamos sobre muchas cosas en la reunión pero apenas tocamos el tema que a mí me interesaba más.
    We talked about many things in the meeting but we barely spoke about what I was most interested in.

Other common expressions

Tocar madera: to knock on wood

This works just like the expression "knock on wood" in English.

  • Si la cirugía es un éxito, toco madera, podré volver al trabajo dentro de un mes.
    If the surgery is a success, knock on wood, I'll be able to return to work in a month.

In Spanish, however, "tocar madera" is sometimes used to express hope that something bad doesn't happen, which is a bit different from how "knock on wood" is used in English:

  • Si nos pasa algo malo, toco madera, donaremos todo nuestro dinero a la caridad.
    If something bad happens to us (but hopefully it won't!), we will donate all of our money to charity.

Tocar fondo: to hit rock bottom

  • Mi amigo se quedó sin casa, sin esposa, sin hijos y sin trabajo. Tocó fondo.
    My friend was left without a home, wife, children or job. He hit rock bottom.

Now that you have a better understanding of the verb tocar, les toca practicar! Check out our podcast to work on your listening skills and learn about traditional games in Colombia.

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