As a language student struggling to ‘make ends meet’, socialising with other students in the same economic condition as myself, “Estar a dos velas” was quite a common expression among my friends in the early days when I arrived in Spain. (Not much has changed, I might add!)
We could be in the supermarket, ‘coppering up’ our pesetas to pay for the provisions of the day. My friend María Ángeles often said:
“¿Puedes prestarme cincuenta pesetas? Estoy a dos velas!”
Searching in the (real paper) dictionary later on, I found ‘vela’ could mean either a) a sail, (as in a sail on a sailing ship), or b) a candle!
So my literal translation was “Can you lend me fifty pesetas? I’m at two sails” or “I’m at two candles.”
The strange thing is that every time María Ángeles said this she would stick two fingers up to her nostrils and drag them down a bit to her top lip. Fortunately I have seen this expression accompanied by this strange gesture in many other Spanish friends.
She wasn’t the only one doing it!
From the context (which is the best language teacher on earth) I had understood it meant that my dear friend was stoney broke, and needed me to lend her fifty pesetas, but why the reference to sailing ships and/or candles?
I just couldn’t ‘fathom’ it.
A lot of expressions are of maritime origin. Many in the past have attributed this expression “Estar a dos velas” could mean “being with two sails”, the association deriving from being without resources to travel, leading to the idea of having no money.
However, another more popular theory (and probably more logical) is that the origin of the term is relating to two candles.
This theory explains the term coming from the illicit gambling circles of past centuries.
Card gaming and gambling taking place at night was candle-lit in those days. These meetings would involve a “banker” (much like the idea in Monopoly) holding the money and controlling events.
In order to do so, the ‘banker’ would bring along his two candles to illuminate his accounts and the proceedings which were taking place. When someone got lucky and “cleaned out” the bank, the banker was referred to as having been left with only his “dos velas” (two candles) and no money.
To support this theory even more, is the real fact that many Spanish people always accompany this expression with the solemn gesture of brushing down from their nostrils to their mouth, in reminiscence of a little pauper boy, often depicted with a runny nose.
The runny nose itself is here being compared to the running wax from the two candles!
The strange nosey gesture is that if you have a runny nose, you are probably stoney broke!
ESTOY A DOS VELAS = I’M TOTALLY BROKE!
I hope this helps.
Please let me know your favourie idiomatic expressions in Spanish in the comments below.
For more on verb ESTAR see: To Be or not To Be………… in Spanish