Another 24 Great Italian Idioms to Help You Sound Even More Like a Local
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 were you feel confident in in general conversation, because 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 couple into the conversation yourself.
Food, Food and More Food
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Calare le brache
English translation: To pull down one’s pants
This idiom means to ‘give up’ or ‘back down’.
Birds, Dogs and Vino
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!
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, so 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.
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
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.
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’.
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
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’.
Fare troppi atti in commedia
English Translation: To make too many acts in a comedy
The phrase might be used when someone trying to do too many things at once. In many theatrical productions there are just 3 acts, also in comedies, 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’.
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
Si chiama Pietro e torna indietro
English translation: Its 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 lend something to someone, it works because in Italian ‘Pietro’ (Peter) rhymes with ‘indietro’ (back), so it’s a bit like saying ‘Its 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’ (Its name is Peter) when lending out the item, assuming the borrower knows exactly what they mean.
Tale madre, tale figlia (or) Tale padre, tale figlio
English translation: Such mother, such daughter (or) Such father, such son
More or less the same as ‘like mother, like daughter’ or ‘Like father, like son’ in English.
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
Caduto dalle nuvole
English translation: Fallen from the clouds
This phrase means to 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’.
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.
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
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.
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.
© 2020 Jerry Cornelius