All the expressions and colloquial uses of ‘onda’ in Mexican Spanish

If you immerse yourself in Mexican culture, you’re gonna come across A LOT OF expressions with the word ‘onda’ (or ‘vibe’ in English).

Their origin can be traced back to a group of Mexican writers who were part of the so-called ‘Literatura de la Onda’ (or ‘La Onda Literature’) in the swinging sixties.

And, well, the rest is history: the word ‘onda’ and all its variations are now used by people from all generations, genders and walks of life.


KEY TAKEAWAYS


Here are the most popular colloquial uses of ‘onda’ in Mexican Spanish –

1. qué onda = what’s up

¿Qué onda con Fer? = What’s up with Fer?

2.buena onda = cool

Manu es muy buena onda; me cae muy bien. = Many is really cool; I like him a lot.

3. mala onda = mean

¿Por qué eres tan mala onda? = Why are you so mean?

4. sacar de onda = to scare / confuse

Esa situación me saca mucho de onda. = That situation really scares / confuses me.

5. tirar la onda = to hit on someone

¿Me estás tirando la onda? = Are you hitting on me?


To describe emotions or a state of mind


1 Agarrar la onda / Cachar la onda – To get the idea

Agarrar la onda’ literally translates as ‘to catch the vibe’ in English, and it’s used when someone ‘understands’ or ‘realizes’ something.

It’s akin to expressions like ‘to figure out’, ‘to get’ or ‘to get the hang of’.

Melisa – No le agarro la onda a tiktok. ¿Qué chiste tiene hacer bailecitos?

Joaquín – ¡Hay un montón de contenido de todo tipo! Mira, te enseño.



Melisa – I don’t get tiktok. What’s so interesting about people dancing?

Joaquín – There’s all kinds of content! Here, let me show you.


You can also use it when the person you’re speaking to just doesn’t understand something –

Sabina – No entiendo por qué Óscar se me queda viendo tan raro…

Nacho – Pues porque le gustas. ¿No agarras la onda, verdad?



Sabina – I don’t get why Óscar keeps looking at me like that …

Nacho – Because he likes you. You’re clueless, aren’t you?

2 Se me va la onda – I get distracted

If someone tells you that ‘se te fue la onda’ (or ‘you’ve lost the vibe’), they’re not saying that you’re no longer cool; it means that your head is in the clouds OR that you’re forgetful!

En una llamada

Hugo – ¿Qué pasó, wey? ¿Dónde estás? Llevo media hora esperándote.

Adriana – ¡Híjole, perdóname! ¡Se me fue la onda de que íbamos a vernos hoy!



During a phone call

Hugo – What happened, dude? Where are you? I’ve been waiting for you for half an hour.

Adriana – Darn it, I’m sorry! I totally forgot that we were going to see each other today!


Sofía – Entonces, ¿qué opinas?…¿Se te fue la onda, verdad?

Danilo – La verdad, sí. ¿Me puedes repetir lo que dijiste?



Sofía – So, what do you think? … You got distracted, didn’t you?

Danilo – I did, to be honest. Can you repeat what you said?



3 Sacar de onda – To be confused / worried / upset

This one literally translates as ‘to take out the vibe’ or ‘to get out of the vibe’.

It basically refers to that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you receive baffling or unsettling news, or when someone’s behavior confuses you no end.

Pablo – Estoy muy sacado de onda.

Lilia – ¿Por qué?

Pablo – Mi jefe anda raro conmigo. ¡Espero que no me vaya a correr!



Pablo – I’m really worried.

Lilia – Why?

Pablo – My boss has been acting weird around me. I hope he’s not gonna fire me!


Anny – No te vayas a sacar de onda con lo que te voy a decir…

Néstor – ¡Ya me pusiste nervioso con esa introducción!



Anny – Don’t get upset about what I’m gonna tell you …

Néstor – You already made me anxious with that introduction!


As a greeting


4 Qué onda – What’s up

‘Qué onda’ is an extremely common greeting, so much so that it’s widespread not only in Mexico but all across Latin America.

It can be translated as ‘what’s vibing’ and it’s used in a very similar way to the English expression ‘what’s up’

En una llamada telefónica

Samantha – ¡Qué onda, pá! ¿Cómo han estado?

Carlos – ¡Sam! Qué gusto escuchar tu voz, mija. Tu mamá y yo estamos muy bien.



During a phone call

Samantha – What’s up, dad! How have you guys been?

Carlos – Sam! It’s so nice to hear your voice, sweetheart. Your mom and I are doing great.


Ernesto – ¿Qué onda contigo? ¿Por qué estás tan de malas?

Miriam – Disculpa…Dormí apenas cuatro horas. Muero de cansancio.



Ernesto – What’s up with you? Why are you in such a bad mood?

Miriam – Sorry … I only slept four hours. I’m absolutely knackered.

Erika’s note – if you wanna master this popular greeting, make sure to check out our article on exactly how to use ‘qué onda’!

To describe someone’s character or behavior


5 Buena onda – Cool / Nice

‘Buena onda’ means ‘good vibe’ and it’s normally used to describe someone ‘kind’, ‘nice’, ‘good’ or ‘cool’.

Basically the kind of person that’d make a great friend!

Tu hermano es el chico más buena onda del equipo de fútbol.

Your brother is the coolest guy on the soccer team.


En la escuela

Olga – ¡Ay, qué mensa! Olvidé mi lonch.

Miranda – No te preocupes, compra algo en la cafetería; yo te lo disparo.

Olga – ¡Gracias! Qué buena onda eres.



At school

Olga – Oh, I’m such a moron! I forgot my lunch.

Miranda – Don’t worry, buy something at the cafeteria, my treat!

Olga – Thank you! You’re so kind.

Erika’s top tip – this one can also be used as an interjection. Check out our article on all things buena onda to find out more!


6 Mala onda – Mean / Uncool

Following the same logic, ‘mala onda’ (or ‘bad vibe’ in English) refers to someone ‘disagreeable’ or whose actions are seen as ‘hostile’ or ‘malicious’.

Hugo – ¿Quieres ir a la fiesta de Paco?

Manolo – La verdad, no. Se me hace una persona muy mala onda; siempre habla mal de sus propios amigos.



Hugo – Do you want to go to Paco’s party?

Manolo – Not really. I think he’s awful; he’s always criticizing his friends.


When used as an interjection, it usually refers to an ‘unfortunate’ event –

¡Qué mala onda! ¡Se canceló el concierto del viernes!

Gosh-darn! Friday’s concert has been cancelled!

7 Estar en onda (in decline) – To be cool / hip

A few decades back, it was also very common to use ‘estar en onda’ or ‘estar en la onda’ (which mean ‘to be in the vibe’ in English) as a synonym of ‘to be cool’.

It’s not that popular a phrase anymore, but you’ll still hear it being thrown around from time to time (mainly amongst older generations).

This irony wasn’t lost on the Latin Spanish dubbing team of The Simpsons, who translated Abe’s (Homer’s dad) rant about losing his “mojo” as follows:

Abe Simpson a Homero adolescente

Yo sí estaba en onda, pero luego cambiaron la onda. Ahora la onda que traigo no es onda, y la onda de onda, me parece muy mala onda. ¡Y también te va a pasar a ti!



Abe Simpson to teen Homer

I used to be cool, but then they changed what cool was. Now my vibe isn’t cool anymore and what’s cool seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!

8 Estar fuera de onda (in decline) – To be old fashioned / obsolete / out of the loop

Similarly, we have ‘estar fuera de onda’ (or ‘to be out of the vibe’ in English), which is, of course, the opposite of ‘estar en la onda’.

En una comida familiar

Madre – Uy, yo ya estoy fuera de onda con esas cosas de los toctoc.

Hijo – Claramente, má. ¡Se dice TikTok!



At a family dinner

Mother – Oof, I’m so out of touch with those toctoc thingies.

Son – Clearly, mom. It’s called TikTok!

9 La onda de + a person – Someone’s deal

‘La onda’ (preceded by the article ‘la’, as in THE vibe’) can also be used to talk about a person’s job, attitude, studies, hobbies and/or interests – i.e., what someone DOES.

¿Cuál es la onda de Ramiro? ¿Se dedica al teatro igual que tú?

What’s Ramiro’s deal? Does he do theater like you?


Haciendo planes entre amigos

Nadia – ¿Quieres ir a ver la Fórmula 1? Escuché que hoy hay descuentos en los boletos.

Pepe – No, gracias. Eso es más la onda de Marco, ¿por qué no le dices a él?



Making plans with friends

Nadia – Do you wanna go see the Formula 1? I heard the tickets are cheap today.

Pepe – No, thanks. That’s more Marco’s thing, why don’t you ask him?

10 La onda – The big deal

HOWEVER, when used to describe a person, ‘la onda’ is akin to expressions such as ‘big deal’, ‘hotshot’, ‘boss’ and the likes.

So, we’re not talking about someone ‘nice’ or ‘cool’ here (as in ‘buena onda’) but about “THE coolest” person around!

En un concierto

Paulo – Tu hermana es la onda*. ¡No puedo creer que nos consiguiera pases para conocer a la banda!

Mario – ¡Ya sé! En verdad que se lució.



At a concert

Paulo – Your sister’s the best. I can’t believe she got us backstage passes to meet the band!

Mario – I know! To be honest, she outdid herself.

*Erika’s top tip – ‘la neta’ is an extremely popular alternative!


11 Tirar mala onda – To be mean

There’s actually an expression to describe acting in a ‘rude’, ‘mean’ or ‘ill-intentioned’ way, and that’s ‘tirar mala onda’ (which literally translates as ‘to throw a bad vibe’ in English!).

No le tires mala onda a tu hermano; está chiquito y te admira un montón.

Don’t be mean to your brother; he’s only little and he admires you a lot.


Hermana – Ya ví que le estás tirando mala onda a mi novio. ¿Pues qué te hizo?

Hermano – Trato de no hacerlo, pero en verdad me cae muy mal.



Sister – I just realized how rude you are to my boyfriend. What did he do to you?

Brother – I try not to, but I really don’t like him.


To refer to romantic and/or sexual relationships


12 Tirar la onda – To flirt / To hit on someone

If someone throws (‘tira’) ‘la onda’ (or THE vibe’) your way, then they’re hitting on you!

Dos amigos echando el chisme en una fiesta

Raúl – ¿Ya viste que Alexis le está tirando la onda a Rui?

Jazmín – ¡Sí! ¿Pero sabías que Rui quiere volver con su ex?



Two friends gossiping at a party

Raúl – Have you seen that Alexis is hitting on Rui?

Jasmine – Yup! But did you know that Rui wants to get back with his ex?


By the way, if you wanna top up on your Mexican slang, you NEED to check out our “Master Guide” … it’s everything you need to know all in one place 👇🌵🇲🇽

Erika pointing to the word "Mexican Slang Master Guide"



13 Tener ondas con + a person – To have a fling / affair / dating

Depending on context, ‘tener ondas con alguien’ (or ‘to have vibes with someone’ in English) can refer to ‘dating’ (especially in the early stages, where there isn’t yet a firm commitment), OR ‘having an affair’.

César – ¿Por qué ya se hablan Alba y tú?

Nuria – Ah, es que tuvimos ondas hace un tiempo, pero no funcionó.



César – Why do you and Alba not speak to each other anymore?

Nuria – Oh, it’s because we dated a while ago, but it didn’t work out.


Omar – ¿Por qué se separaron Gilberto y Daniela?

Mildred – ¿No supiste? Al parecer Gilberto tuvo ondas con una chica equis.



Omar – Why did Gilberto and Daniela split up?

Mildred – Didn’t you hear? Apparently Gilbert had an affair with a random girl.


Before you go …

Hopefully you ‘agarraste la onda’ (or ‘grasped the concept’) and are now ‘la onda’ (or ‘the best’) when it comes to using these Mexican expressions!

But, wait, there’s another Mexican word that’s used in LOADS of different expressions: ‘PEDO’.

I highly recommend you check out how to use that next 😉

¡Hasta la próxima!

Rupert's lived in Mexico for nearly a decade and has been working as a Spanish teacher for even longer (over 10 years now, wow!). He specializes in simple (yet effective) explanations and is a veritable grammar-whizz.

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