manejar el cotarro [idiom] – to be in charge; to be at the helm; to rule the roost
I don’t watch much TV, although that just looks like a blatant lie when you consider that I spotted this week’s idiom twice on the gogglebox in the last few weeks. The first time the phrase caught my eye, Ana Pastor the presenter of El Objetivo was about to interview none other than Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whom she described as “el hombre que manejó el cotarro durante ocho años en este país” (the man who was at the helm for eight years in this country). I scrambled to the dictionaries and found out that this expression can also be used with the verb “dirigir“.
The second sighting came a few weeks later. This was in the Spanish subtitles of the film Cold Mountain, shown on telly the other night. Amidst the hardships of the American Civil War, the character Reverend Veasey observes that “these days the devil rules the roost” and the Spanish subtitles read, “en estos tiempos es el diablo el que lleva el cotarro“.
Obviously, from the context, “manejar/dirigir/llevar el cotarro” means “to rule the roost” or “to be in charge“. But what does this intriguing word “cotarro” mean? Well, the dictionaries weren’t absolutely in agreement on this one, so I’m going to share the fullest definition I found (from the Farlex free online dictionary).
cotarro s. m.
1 fam. Conjunto de personas reunidas que se hallan excitadas, inquietas o intranquilas.
2 Albergue para pobres y vagabundos.
3 fam. Ambiente social determinado.
4 fam. Actividad o negocio que desarrolla una persona.
5 Ladera de un barranco.
Shockingly, the DRAE’s definition missed both meanings 3 and 4, so traditionalists who believe the Real Academia has the last word on these things will be sorely let down. Anyway, as with most idioms, the individual words mean something quite different when put together, so as long as we understand the meaning of the whole expression, and the potentially (but not necessarily) negative connotation, I reckon we’re doing fine.