I like variety—so I love travelling, exploring and writing fiction and non-fiction on a daily basis.
Trying to get to grips with learning Italian can be tricky, especially when the locals will often use idioms as a shortcut to describe a person or situation.
Italian idioms, like any locally-based sayings, can be confusing and are often not meant to be taken literally, and as such, their meaning can be less than obvious.
The Problem With Idioms
Common English idioms such as "biting off more than you can chew," "costs an arm and a leg" and "fit as a fiddle" might make complete sense if you have been brought up on the rain-swept streets of Manchester. But if you are not a native of an English-speaking country such as the UK, you are really going to struggle making sense of "pulling someone’s leg."
So it is in Italy, idioms may cause confusion to the non-native speakers. Because even if you have successfully learned Italian to the degree where you feel confident in in general conversation, since you did not grow up in Italy, you may have missed these common phrases that the locals use.
Here are few well-known Italian idioms that you may come across in your interactions in Italy. Hopefully this will help you recognise what they mean, and maybe you can throw a couple into the conversation yourself.
Food, Food and More Food
- Italian idiom: Capita a fagiolo
- English translation: Happens at the bean
This is an expression that is used when something happens at exactly the right moment. It is believed to come from when poor Italian workers would come in from the fields just at the moment when food was being served, which might’ve consisted of a simple dinner of beans.
- Italian idiom: I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci
- English translation: Forbidden fruit is sweetest
This expression comes from the irony that we often want what we cannot have, and what we want is often "off limits." So we desire it even more.
- Italian idiom: Ha molto sale in zucca
- English translation: Has a lot of salt in his gourd
This phrase emanates from the fact that a gourd (the English name used for typical large, fleshy fruits with a hard skin, some varieties of which are edible such as pumpkins) is sometimes used to represent a person’s brain or head. So in this idiom, "Ha molto sale in zucca" refers to a person who is intelligent and possesses common sense. In other words, they have a good head.
- Italian idiom: È tutto pepe!
- English translation: He is all pepper
Pepper, as we all know, is used to spice up dishes and bring out the best of the flavour. So this phrase, when used about a person, means he or she is full of life, has a vibrant personality and are good to be around.
Hats, Dresses and Trousers
- Italian idiom: Attaccare il cappello
- English translation: To hang up one’s hat
This idiom basically means to retire or to give up doing something, usually due to some good fortune such as marrying a rich wife/husband. Historically, it may come from when the workmen finished work for the day and would "hang up their hat" as they prepared to rest for the evening.
- Italian idiom: Ti sta a pennello
- English translation: Fits you like a paintbrush
This often used to compliment someone on what they are wearing or are trying on in a clothes shop, meaning it is a perfect fit—or in other words, it looks like it has been painted onto your body.
- Italian idiom: Calare le brache
- English translation: To pull down one’s pants
This idiom means to "give up" or "back down."
Birds, Dogs and Vino
- Italian idiom: Avere un cervello di gallina
- English translation: To have a hen’s brain
Usually an insult, this phrase describes someone who acts stupidly or is not very intelligent and compares their brain with that of chicken, which has quite a small one and is therefore believed to be less intelligent. If there are any smart chickens out there, please don’t write in to complain!
- Italian idiom: Cane non mangia cane
- English translation: Dog does not eat dog
This the opposite of the English idiom "dog eat dog" in that this Italian version refers to a code of conduct amongst one’s own peer group. For example, a thief will not betray another thief, a schoolboy will not tell on a classmate, etc. Of course if the situation is reversed, then "cane mangia cane" or "dog eat dog" applies in Italy too.
- Italian idiom: Diciamo pane al pane e vino al vino
- English translation: Let’s say bread for bread and wine for wine
This idiom basically means: let’s do some straight talking and say it as it is. The nearest English equivalent would be "let’s call a spade a spade."
Love, Anvils and Chestnuts
- Italian idiom: L’amore domina senza regole
- English translation: Love rules without rules
This equates to the English idiom "all’s fair in love and war." In other words, in the pursuit of love, there are no rules.
- Italian idiom: Trovarsi fra l’incudine e il martello
- English translation: To be between the anvil and the hammer
This is used to describe a "damned if you do, damned if you don’t" type of situation, as when you are faced with two equally unpalatable choices. The English equivalent might be "between a rock and hard place."
- Italian idiom: Non mi rompere i maroni
- English translation: Don’t break my chestnuts!
This is a phrase you might come across when someone is really annoyed with someone else—this is the "clean" version. The more vulgar version substitutes the word "chestnuts" for a part of the male anatomy, usually accompanied by two-handed pointing south gesture—but of course, you wouldn’t use that version in polite conversation. It basically means "don't annoy me!"
Monks, Comedies and Kilos
- Italian idiom: L’abito non fa il monaco
- English translation: The dress does not make the monk
In English, we might say "clothes make the man," but this idiom is more like "clothes don’t make the man" and so means we should not judge someone simply on the way that they dress. Maybe a more similar idiom in English might be "don’t judge a book by its cover."
- Italian idiom: Fare troppi atti in commedia
- English Translation: To make too many acts in a comedy
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The phrase might be used when someone trying to do too many things at once. In many theatrical productions, there are just three acts, so to have too many acts means there is too much going on. In English, we might say that a person is "wearing too many hats" or "spinning too many plates."
- Italian idiom: Fare il chilo
- English translation: To make the kilo
This phrase is used to say that we have eaten too much, at lunch for example, and now we need to take a rest or nap (to aid digestion, of course).
Peter, the Mother, the Father and the Moustache
- Italian idiom: Si chiama Pietro e torna indietro
- English translation: It's name is Peter and it comes back
This is an odd one, and makes no sense at first glance. You would use this phrase when lending something to someone. It works because in Italian "Pietro" (Peter) rhymes with "indietro" (back). So it’s a bit like saying "It's name is Zack and I want it back." This is a well-used in idiom, and just to confuse matters, people will often shorten the idiom and simply say "si chiama Pietro" ("it's name is Peter") when lending out the item, assuming the borrower knows exactly what they mean.
- Italian idiom: Tale madre, tale figlia/Tale padre, tale figlio
- English translation: Such mother, such daughter/Such father, such son
More or less the same as "like mother, like daughter" or "like father, like son" in English.
- Italian idiom: Farsene un baffo
- English translation: To make a moustache of it
Often used when you don’t make a big deal of something or something doesn’t bother you at all—like a moustache doesn’t bother you when it’s on your face. It’s just there and you don’t even think about it most of the time.
Clouds, Misery and Soup
- Italian idiom: Caduto dalle nuvole
- English translation: Fallen from the clouds
This phrase means to be taken completely by surprise, usually by some bad news. In English, we might say "taken aback," as in the example: "she was taken aback when she heard of Tom’s sad demise."
- Italian idiom: Mal comune, mezzo gaudio
- English translation: Common bad, half rejoice
This phrase essentially asserts that "misery loves company." So if everyone is in the same bad situation, it only feels half as bad as it would have if you were suffering alone.
- Italian idiom: Tutto fa brodo
- English translation: Everything makes broth/soup
This expresses the sentiment that everything can add up to something worthwhile; such as donating to a charity or volunteering for some local organisation—small gestures that can make positive difference—just like when you add several different ingredients to a soup to make it taste good.
It Is What It Is, Even for Big Shots
- Italian idiom: Alla come viene, viene
- English translation: It comes out as it comes out
This means "it is what it is," and is usually used when a situation or something is less than satisfactory, but it seems there is little that can be done about it.
- Italian idiom: Un pezzo grosso
- English translation: A big piece
This means the same as "big shot" or "big wig" in English and is used to describe someone who has power or influence.
Need More Italian Idioms?
- 20 Great Italian Idioms to Help You Sound Like a Local
If you liked this article, why not try my first article on this subject too, and find out why it's lucky to be "in the wolf's mouth," but it is always better to "spit out a toad!"
- Italian Idioms About Colours, Animals and Food
This article focuses on the weird and wonderful world of Italian idioms and explores the linguistic shortcuts that make the Italian language so fascinating.
© 2020 Jerry Cornelius
Jerry Cornelius (author) on February 10, 2020:
Thanks, JC. hai ragione!
JC Scull from Gainesville, Florida on February 09, 2020:
La lingua più bella di tutto il mondo.
Jerry Cornelius (author) on February 06, 2020:
No, problem, happy everyone is enjoying this topic.
Rida Fatima from Pakistan on February 06, 2020:
thank you for sharing such an interesting article.
Pioneer Home Tuition from Dehradun on February 05, 2020:
Such an interesting article, I would like Italian language.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 05, 2020:
These are fascinating phrases. I would like to travel to Italy and learn Italian one day.
Jerry Cornelius (author) on February 05, 2020:
Thank you, Lorna. Really happy you enjoyed it and it brought back some good memories.
Lorna Lamon on February 05, 2020:
Such an interesting article Jerry and even after living in Tuscany for three years I still struggled with some Italian idioms. Luckily the Italian family I lived with were great teachers and it was a lot of fun, particularly for them. An enjoyable trip down memory lane.