I like variety—so I love travelling, exploring and writing fiction and non-fiction on a daily basis.
In this look at Italian idioms, we explore some more expressive shortcuts hidden within the "Bella Lingua." This time the focus is on colours and animals. But no piece on Italian idioms would be complete without a reference to food, so of course we have a few of those too.
Some of the original meanings of the idioms that follow are lost in the mists of time. So if you come across any alternative origins for them, please feel free to comment below, or even add any weird and wonderful Italian idioms your have come across in your travels. Enjoy!
The Animal Kingdom
- Italian idiom: Raro come una mosca bianca
- English translation: Rare as a white fly
This expression is used when something is found to be rare or unusual, it is said to be as rare as a white fly (which are pretty rare!).
- Italian idiom: Far vedere i sorci verdi
- English translation: To make someone see green mice
This idiom has a (fairly) recent historical back story. Back 1936, an Italian air force’s 205th squadron adopted an emblem featuring three green mice, the image was then imprinted on the fuselages of the Savoia-Marcetti SM79 three-engine aircraft they flew. The planes were particularly efficient and the pilots highly skilled, and the squadron won many prizes in international competitions. The squadron then went onto take part in numerous bombing raids during World War II, and Benito Mussolini would brag about the ability of the Italian pilots during the period.
So in later years, when someone said to you "I’ll make you see green mice." It was meant as a warning that you were about to suffer a crushing defeat.
- Italian idiom: Fare una vita da cani
- English translation: To lead a dog’s life
This idiom means that someone has a very difficult life.
- Italian idiom: Essere come cane e gatto
- English translation: To be like dog and cat
This is equivalent to the English expression "to fight like cats and dogs."
- Italian idiom: Avere sette vite come i gatti
- English translation: To have seven lives like cats
This saying means to be resistant to illness or danger. In Italy, cats are said to have seven lives, whereas in England we say they have nine—if I’m reincarnated as a cat, I would prefer to be an English variety please.
- Italian idiom: Quando il gatto manca i topi ballano
- English translation: When the cat is away, the mice dance
This equates to the English idiom "when the cat is away, the mice will play."
- Italian idiom: Il serpente che si morde la coda
- English translation: A snake that bites its own tail
This means to end up back at square one, in a vicious circle, and you can’t break out of it. You will hear various versions of this idiom in Italy, often with the snake replaced by a cat or a dog.
- Italian idiom: La pecora nera
- English translation: The black sheep
This is the same as the English idiom, meaning someone has a bad reputation, as in "he is the black sheep of the family."
It's a Colourful World
- Italian idiom: Un matrimonio bianco
- English translation: A white wedding
Unlike in the UK, where this phrase would mostly refer to the bride’s dress, in Italy this means that the wedding is unconsummated or sexless. So the white in this idiom stands for virginity.
- Italian idiom: Vedere tutto rosa
- English translation: To see everything in pink
This is the same as "to see through rose-tinted glasses" in English—in other words, to have an overly optimistic viewpoint.
- Italian idiom: Principe Azzurro
- English translation: Blue prince
This would be the equivalent of Prince Charming in the English versions of fairy tales; in Italy, the Blue Prince. Blue eyes are relatively rare in Italy, so are often perceived as attractive. Blue was also the traditional colour of the House of Savoy, which might explain the noble connotations. So Principe Azzurro is often used as shorthand to describe an attractive, kind and charming man.
- Italian idiom: Essere al verde
- English translation: To be at the green
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This can be a confusing expression, as it means someone is "broke" or "short on cash." Equally, Italians might say they are "in the red" (in rosso), just like in in the US or UK when referring to a negative bank balance (as negative numbers might be printed in red on a bank statement). Essere al verde has a more ancient history and one that appears to come from the medieval custom of making bankrupts wear green hats. Another theory is that it emanates from when an unlucky gambler, who has lost all his chips at the casino, is left staring at the empty green table (at the green). There are many theories for this one, so if you’ve heard any more please comment below.
- Italian idiom: La verde età
- English translation: The green age
The colour green is often associated with freshness. So when someone refers to a person in the "green age" they are generally referring to someone who is young. However, this phrase is sometimes used ironically.
- Italian idiom: Cronaca rosa
- English translation: Pink column
Pink (or rosa) often has connotations of positivity in Italy. But like a lot of western cultures, it also refers to the feminine side of things, and more recently to the LGBT community. A "pink column" often refers to the gossip column in a newspaper, as these are perceived to be of more interest to women readers (not my opinion). A cronaca nera (black column), however, is where you'll find the latest crime news.
- Italian idiom: Notte in bianco
- English translation: A sleepless night
This idiom’s historical genesis comes from when prospective knights had to spend an entire night fasting, praying and reflecting on their future responsibilities. During this time, the knights would wear white as a symbol of purity before embarking on their new life. The term was first used to refer to a sleepless night by the writer and journalist Italo Calvino back in the 1950s.
- Italian idiom: Andare in bianco
- English translation: To go white
You might think this idiom means to be scared—to "go white" with fear, as it might do in English. However, what this actually means is to fail at something, and that can often be a romantic effort.
More Idioms About Food
- Italian idiom: Essere buono come il pane
- English translation: To be as good as bread
This means to be a really good person. The English equivalent idiom would be "to be as good as gold."
- Italian idiom: Andare liscio come l’olio
- English translation: To go smooth like oil
This self-explanatory idiom is used when something goes very smoothly and proceeds without any problems.
- Italian idiom: Non c’è trippa per gatti
- English translation: There is no tripe for cats
This means there is no chance of you getting what you want. You could also translate as "not a hope in hell!" The phrase seems to emanate from one Ernesto Nathan, mayor of Rome from 1907–1913 who, on checking the financial plans for the city, found an expense to feed the local cats. Since he was of an apparent frugal disposition, he decided this was one expense Rome could do without and summarily cancelled it, writing the phrase "Non c’è trippa per gatti” on the finance plans.
I hope you enjoyed this latest batch of Italian idioms. And remember, if you come across any more interesting ones, please share them with the other readers using the comments below.
Need Even More Italian Idioms?
- 20 Great Italian Idioms to Help You Sound like a Local
If you want to find out why it's lucky to be "in the wolf's mouth," but it is always better to "spit out a toad," then all will be explained here.
- 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!
© 2020 Jerry Cornelius
Jerry Cornelius (author) on October 14, 2020:
Thanks Heidi, and it sounds like your dogs have a great life - which is exactly how it should be!
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 14, 2020:
Without this important background, a lot of non-native Italian speakers would be befuddled by these phrases. But I do have to say that "leading a dog's life" has a whole different connotation for me. For our dogs, "a dog's life" is one filled with treats, naps, and fun.
Thanks for sharing the explanations! Ciao!
Jerry Cornelius (author) on October 14, 2020:
Thank you Liz, yes probably the years of studying Latin has paid off. Glad you like the article.
Jerry Cornelius (author) on October 14, 2020:
Hi Lisa, I'm happy this article brought back some good memories of Italy. I think idioms are a little like a piece of music or a certain smell were they can transport you back in time to when you first heard them or who said them.
Liza from USA on October 14, 2020:
I have not heard these Italian idioms for a very long time. I studied the Italian language when I was a university student in Malaysia and Italy. It was the one of the best time I ever had as "studentessa" Certainly, brings back the pleasant memory, Jerry. Thank you for sharing!
Liz Westwood from UK on October 14, 2020:
This is a fascinating and well-illustrated article. Although I never studied Italian, I am amazed at how many of the written words seem familiar. Maybe it's all the years of studying Latin.