I like variety—so I love travelling, exploring and writing fiction and non-fiction on a daily basis.
Use the Language the Locals Use
Have you have ever tried to learn another language and have occasionally wished that knew a few phrases that the locals use as a shortcut to describe a person or situation?
Idioms fulfill this role in many languages, including Italian. The only problem is they can be confusing when translated literally, and their meaning not always very obvious.
Encountering Confusing Idioms
Imagine if you were a not a speaker of English, and you were trying to learn English as a second language and came across these common English idioms:
- "It’s raining cats and dogs": You probably wouldn’t venture outside for fear of being hit by a free-falling labrador.
- "Sitting on the fence": You might think this is a peculiar and potentially painful balancing act.
- "Break a leg": This might sound like an insult or a threat, but is actually neither.
Some Italian idioms are just as likely to cause confusion when you come across them in your travels around Italy and your interactions with Italians. Idioms are rarely discussed in language courses, so often you come across them randomly. This article gives you 20 Italian idioms that you may recognise on your Italian adventures, so you can know instantly what someone is trying to express—and additionally, you can throw in the odd idiom into the conversation to impress the locals.
Wolves, Water and Popes
- Italian idiom: Affogare in un bicchier d’acqua
- English translation: To drown in a glass of water
This is usually used to describe someone who is easily overwhelmed by life's little problems. In English, we might call them a "drama queen." In Italy, they would be drowning in a glass of water.
- Italian idiom: Ogni morte di papa
- English translation: Every death of a pope
This expression describes something that doesn’t happen very often. In English, we might say "once in blue moon." This idiom seems to come about due to the fact that popes tend to last to ripe old age, and so a new one is a rare occurrence.
- Italian idiom: In bocca al lupo
- English translation: Into the wolf’s mouth
There are several theories as to where this phrase originates from, but the consensus seems to be that it goes back to Romulus and Remus (the mythic founders of Rome) who had the good fortune to suckle from a she-wolf.
The expression basically means good luck, because in Italy saying good luck or "buona fortuna" is sometimes considered unlucky (please don’t write in, I’m not making this stuff up).
When someone wishes you "in bocca al lupo," the correct response is "crepi il lupo" (may the wolf die) and not "grazie" (thank you) which is again, sometimes considered to reverse any good fortune.
Bread, Hunger and the Inability to Reach
- Italian idiom: Avere le braccine corte
- English translation: To have short arms
This is a great idiom to describe someone who is the last to buy a drink at the bar and always reluctant to part with their money. It is more or less the same as the English idiom for a stingy person "who has deep pockets." The result is the same in that they seem to have great difficulty in reaching down to their wallet.
- Italian idiom: Buono come il pane
- English translation: Good as bread
Italians, as you probably know, are obsessed with food. Good bread is at the heart of Italian cuisine and is considered a perfect food. When someone is referred to as "good as bread," then it means they are kind and generous individual and have many good qualities.
- Italian idiom: Brutto come la fame
- English translation: Ugly as hunger
Yet another food-inspired phrase, this equates to the English idiom "as ugly as sin."
Bicycles and Horns
- Italian idiom: Hai voluto la bicicletta? E adesso pedala!
- English translation: You wanted the bike? Now you’ve got to ride it!
This is used when someone won’t take responsibility for their own actions. It’s a little like the English idiom "you made your bed, now lie in it!" and is often said with a heap of sarcasm and an "I told you so" attitude.
- Italian idiom: Fare le corna a qualcuno
- English translation: To have the horns put on you
This is a popular, if rather bizarre, idiom in Italy. It is often used as an insult or in casual conversation. It is a little difficult to explain, but if an Italian tells you that your girlfriend has "put the horns on you," then it means she’s cheating on you. It can also be used as an offensive insult, especially when accompanied by the obligatory Italian hand gesture which in this case is a fist raised in the air with the little and forefingers stretched outwards like "horns." You may often see Italian drivers give this signal to other drivers that have annoyed them.
Gardening, Spitting Toads and Blessings
- Italian idiom: Piantala!
- English translation: Plant it!
A great one to use when someone is annoying you, especially if you asked them nicely a few times. Basically, it means "stop it." Similar English sayings might be "knock it off" or "knock it on the head."
- Italian idiom: Vai a farti benedire/Vai a quel paese
- English translation: Go get blessed/Go to that town
Both of these expressions are a way of telling someone, very impolitely, to "get lost." I’m sure you can guess what the rather rude English equivalents might be.
- Italian idiom: Sputi il rospo
- English translation: Spit out the toad
This means to tell the truth or finally tell of a secret you have been keeping. The English equivalent would be to "spill the beans."
Hands, Arms and Chickens
- Italian idiom: Conosco i miei polli
- English translation: I know my chickens
You will hear this expression when someone believes they know what they are doing and considers themselves an expert in something. So don’t try to tell them they are wrong, because they "know their chickens."
- Italian idiom: Colto con le mani nel sacco
- English translation: Caught with his hands in the bag
This is an easy one to understand as it means the same as the English term "caught red-handed" and often refers to someone stealing money or committing another crime and being caught in the act.
- Italian idiom: Braccia rubate all’agricoltura
- English translation: Arms stolen from agricultural work
This tends to refer to someone doing something smart, clever or intellectual when they clearly have no idea of what they are doing. This phrase, basically, says that they would be better off labouring on a farm.
Green Grass, Bald Tongues and Ice
- Italian idiom: L’erba del vicino è sempre più verde
- English translation: The grass of the neighbour is always greener
Of course, this means the same as the English expression "the grass is always greener on the other side" and refers to anyone envious or longing for something better than they have, even if that proves not to be the case.
- Italian idiom: Non avere peli sulla lingua
- English translation: Without hair on his tongue
This is expression is used when you want a brutally honest opinion from someone, even if you suspect you might not like the answer. You would ask them for their opinion "without hair on their tongue."
- Italian idiom: Rompere il ghiaccio
- English translation: To break the ice
This means exactly the same as in English, meaning doing something to get rid of that awkward feeling when strangers sometimes meet.
Remedies, Packages and Reheated Soup
- Italian idiom: A mali estremi, estremi rimedi
- English translation: To extreme evils, extreme remedies
This is the equivalent of the English version "desperate times call for desperate measures," but obviously it sounds way more poetic when spoken out loud in Italian.
- Italian idiom: Tirare il pacco
- English translation: To throw the package
When you "throw the package," it means you didn’t show up to meeting with a friend or have stood someone up on a date.
- Italian idiom: Minestra riscaldata
- English translation: Reheated soup
I like this one, as it ties up nicely the trio of Italian obsessions: love, friendship and food. "Minestra riscaldata" is about rekindling a relationship that has gone bad, whether that is with a romantic partner, business partner or even with a friend.
Share Any Additional Italian Idioms You Know About!
I hope you have found these common Italian expressions and idioms helpful, and they help enhance your conversations with Italians. If you come across any more weird and wonderful Italian idioms please share them on the comments of this article.
Need More Italian Idioms?
- Another 24 Great Italian Idioms to Help You Sound Even More Like a Local
If you like Italian idioms, then you'll find another 24 of them here, including why it is important to keep one's pants up!
© 2019 Jerry Cornelius
Jerry Cornelius (author) on May 15, 2019:
Thanks Liz, yes I need to remember to throw a few into conversation when next in Italy - hopefully without inadvertently insulting someone.
Liz Westwood from UK on May 15, 2019:
This is a fascinating article and highlights the different idioms that we use. This would be useful for anyone attempting conversational Italian.