06/08/2020

Italian idioms

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Best Italian idioms and meanings

This is is possibly the largest collection of Italian idioms you can find online!

Idioms can be found in every language, and every culture has its specific ones: they originate from habits, events, cultural tradition and jobs. Most times they cannot be translated directly without losing part of their meaning.

The Italian language makes no exception, and we’re going to take a look at some of the most popular Italian idioms you might hear as you progress in your language studies.

Italian idioms add color to a language and make you sound competent and comfortable. Using idioms (may) make Italians think you know more of their language than you actually do. That’s good because it means people will respond in kind and help you both to expand your language skills and ease your acceptance into another culture.

Idioms often reflect cultural mores, traditions, and values. For example, in English, you say someone is as good as gold; in the Italian language, someone is buono come il pane (good as bread). Something terrible in English can be ugly as sin; in the Italian language, that same something is brutto come la fame (ugly as hunger).

A nonverbal idiom to be aware of is whistling. In the United States, at sports events, for example, you whistle (loudly) to show approval. In Italy, fischi (whistles) show disapproval. Whistling is the equivalent of booing.

Following are common Italian idioms that not only will make you sound more Italian but also will help you to understand Italian better.

Italian idioms for valuable insight into the culture

Whether you’re a beginner in learning Italian or an advanced speaker, learning some idioms and colloquialisms can really help you in your studies. Not only does using them make you sound more natural when you speak with other Italians, but they also build your confidence, making you sound like a native speaker. In fact, in some cases, ideas or thoughts can be expressed more effectively by using Italian idioms or colloquialisms than by using a long, complicated sentence.

Undoubtedly, Italian idioms and colloquialisms reflect the historical and cultural circumstances in which they have evolved. This can also offer you some precious insight into the language you’re learning. Nevertheless, we are all citizens of the same planet, so many idioms and colloquialisms are nearly universal, expressing similar ideas in different languages. So, even on this list, you may find a lot of similarities with your own native language.

Italian idioms are useful to understand native material like news and stories and make excellent material for learning Italian.

common italian idioms

Why learning Italian idioms is a must

Italian idioms are a little different from the literal and grammatically perfect sentence examples found in textbooks.

In real life, communication can not only be grammatically awkward (like “Long time, no see!”), it can also be a lot more figurative. (No, you’re not really “killing two birds with one stone,” but hey, you already know what that means.).

This also applies to Italian idioms.

An idiom means more than the individual words that make it up

Take the Italian expression “Fare il chilo!” (literally, “To make the kilo”) as an example. Anybody can pick up an Italian app and learn the meaning of individual words. But it takes a certain finesse to comprehend the full expression.

“Facciamo il chilo” means “Let’s rest after lunch.” As in, “Abbiamo mangiato un sacco, facciamo il chilo” (We ate too much, let’s take a post-lunch rest).

To more fully appreciate the meaning and richness of Italian idioms in this post, how about we first try looking at some of their counterparts in English?

Take “sit on the fence,” for example. What could this possibly mean to someone who’s not a native English speaker?

Well, you can sit on the fence all day long and never divine the meaning of this idiom by closely inspecting each word in the phrase. These babies are figurative in nature, and paying a visit to the finest stables in the world won’t reveal the meaning of “straight from the horse’s mouth,” either.

Idioms are creative ways of saying something

A native speaker won’t waste his breath saying, “The exam was not difficult at all. I found the questions very easy,” when he could have just easily uttered, “It was a piece of cake.”

Instead of saying, “That was awful! I don’t think anybody will ever pay to hear you sing,” a native speaker can just suggest, “Don’t quit your day job.” (The punch there can be both literal, as the speaker may be literally suggesting the person not quit their day job, and figurative, as they’re using one thing to say another.)

Every idiom has a story

Italian idioms didn’t just rise out of the water to join the ranks of literal phrases and expressions. They have origins and provenance, even if native speakers don’t remember them.

For example, “know the ropes” came from old sailing tradition, as being familiar with the rigging was an essential skill in working a ship.

Italian idioms are little peeks into the history, beliefs and traditions of the language that they carry.

The Italian idiom “Capita a fagiolo” (literally, “happens at the bean”), which is an expression used when something happens at exactly the right moment, is reminiscent of a time when the nation’s poor only had beans for meals. When you come “at the bean,” you come at a time when food is served.

And for the hungry peasant, that’s as perfect a time as there is!

All this being said, why don’t we proceed to the next section and look more closely at some interesting Italian idioms?

italian idioms and meanings

Italian Idioms: how to use them

The Italian language is not exclusively musicality and gestures — here’s a rundown of 11 marvelous Italian expressions that you can use to impress the locals.

As a writer madly in love with everything related to words and the pure joy of ars oratoria (the art of speaking), I owe all my feelings of nostalgia to the mesmerizing and fascinating melody of my mother tongue: Italian. I have friends who come from all over the world, and while I speak to them primarily in English (with the Italian hand gestures that make us famous, of course), I still have the habit of translating beloved Italian idioms that I consider perfectly suited to specific situations.

Don’t be surprised, then, if most of my sentences begin with, “You know what? In Italy we say [insert one of many Italian sayings here].” I can’t help it! È più forte di me! (“It’s stronger than me!”) So let’s take a look at my favorite Italian idioms.

Common Italian idioms about food

The best Italian idioms are possibly about food!

Food occupies many idiomatic expressions in Italian. The saying buono come il pane (as good as bread) is indicative of the value assigned to food in Italian culture. Here are some of the most common Italian idioms about food, followed by their English equivalents:

  • Tutto fa brodo(everything makes broth, soup) isn’t a cooking reference; it means that every little bit helps. If a store clerk or waiter gives you a discount, you may think tutto fa brodo, though you may not want to say it aloud. You don’t after all want to denigrate the clerk or waiter’s gracious gesture.
  • fare polpette di qualcuno (to make meatballs of someone): The English equivalent of this expression is to make mincemeat of someone.
  • cercare I peli nell’uovo (to look for hairs in the egg): In English, this means to be picky, to nitpick.
  • essere in un bel pasticcio (to be in a nice pie): This expression is equivalent to being in a pickle.
  • avere le mani in pasta (to have your hands in dough): In English, you’d say you have a finger in many pies.
  • qualcosa bolle in pentola (something boils in a saucepan): You use this expression to indicate that something‘s up.
  • cavolo! (cabbage!): The English equivalent of cavolo! is darn! or damn!

italian idioms about food

Inspiring Italian idioms about love

Here are the most common Italian idioms about love.

Flirting

Italians have a reputation for being flirty, so these Italian idioms and phrases could well come in handy if you’re navigating the Italian dating scene.

There are a few different terms for flirting: the reflexive verb ‘provarci‘ (roughly ‘to try it on with’), the phrasal verb ‘fare il filo a‘ or ‘corteggiare‘ (literally ‘to court’) are more formal alternatives, or you can use the Anglicism ‘flirtare‘, or ‘civettare‘, though the latter is generally restricted to women.

The noun ‘una civetta‘, which means ‘owl’, is used to talk about flirty women (the English equivalent could be ‘vixen’), while for men you could say ‘un donnaiolo‘ for a heterosexual man (it translates more or less as ‘womanizer’) or ‘un cascamorto‘, which comes from the term ‘cascare morto‘ (to fall down dead), suggesting dramatic swooning.

You can also use the verbal phrase ‘fare il cascamorto‘ to refer to a man who is flirting, usually in an over-the-top way, with someone.

Buttarsi‘ (literally ‘to throw oneself) means ‘to have a go’ and is often used in a romantic context, while ‘abbordare‘ means ‘to approach’ and ‘rimorchiare‘ (literally ‘to haul’) is ‘to pick someone up.

And if someone isn’t responding to your flirting? The phrase ‘fare il prezioso/la prezioso‘ (literally ‘being precious’) translates as ‘to play hard to get’.

Dating

The usual term for a date is ‘un appuntamento‘, but this also means ‘a (non-romantic) appointment’, so make sure you don’t get your wires crossed.

If you’re talking about one date, you’d say ‘ho un (primo) appuntamento con un ragazzo/una ragazza‘ (I have a (first) date with a guy/girl), but if you’re dating regularly, you can say ‘sto uscendo con qualcuno‘ or ‘mi sto vedendo qualcuno‘ (I’m going out with/seeing someone).

Some other useful dating vocabulary to have up your sleeve: ‘un appuntamento al buio‘, literally ‘date in the dark’ is the Italian term for a blind date; ‘pagare alla romana‘ (to pay the Roman way) is to split the bill equally, and ‘bidonare‘ or ‘dare buca a qualcuno‘ is ‘to stand someone up’.

And if you’re feeling like a spare part on someone else’s date, you might need the phrase ‘essere l’ultima ruota del carro‘ (to be the last wheel of the cart) or ‘reggere la candela‘ (to hold the candle) which both refer to being the third wheel.

Hugs and kisses

If the date goes well, you might find yourself engaging in any one of the following. ‘Andare a braccetto‘ is to walk arm in arm; ‘abbraciare‘ is ‘to hug’, also used in the platonic sense; ‘accarezzare‘ means ‘to caress’; ‘palpeggiare‘ is ‘to fondle’; and ‘coccolare‘ is ‘to cuddle’. ‘

Spooning’ uses the same imagery in Italian as its English equivalent: ‘fare il cucchaio‘ (literally ‘to do the spoon’).

The verb ‘baciare‘ means ‘to kiss’ and is related to the noun ‘un bacio‘ (a kiss). But if you want to get more descriptive, Italian has a rich vocabulary for talking about kisses. ‘Sbaciucchiarsi‘ is derived from ‘baciare‘ and might be rendered in English as ‘smooch’ or perhaps ‘snog’; it implies lots of repeated, romantic kisses.

French kissing is referred to either as ‘baciare alla francese‘ or ‘baciare alla fiorentina‘ (to kiss the Florentine way) — in fact, the latter variant has been recorded as early as the 17th century, when it appeared in an Italian erotic novel. There’s a good fact to impress your date with.

Some linguists actually believe that the term ‘French kiss’ arose from a misunderstanding by British and American soldiers during the Second World War who began to refer to the Florentine kiss as French, while others argue there’s a difference between the two types of kiss, with the French variety being more passionate

. To skip the etymological debate, you can always say ‘baciare con la lingua‘ (to kiss using tongues) or ‘slinguare‘ which means the same but is more fun to say.

Limonare‘ (literally ‘to lemon’) is another way of talking about a somewhat sloppy kiss, and probably derives from the action of lemon squeezers, while ‘pomiciare‘ comes from the noun ‘la pomice‘ (pumice stone), which gives some idea of the technique described.

Sex

Having sex can simply be referred to as ‘fare sesso‘ or ‘fare l’amore‘ (to make love). Much more vulgar alternatives, not to be used around Italian in-laws, are ‘scopare‘ (which also means ‘to sweep’), ‘fottere‘ (also meaning ‘to steal/swipe’), and ‘chiavare‘ (from ‘la chiave‘ meaning key, so more or less translating as ‘to unlock’).

In Italy, a one-night stand is known as ‘una botta e via‘, literally meaning ‘a bang and go’.

And if you’re short on time, it could be helpful to know that ‘farsi una sveltina‘ or ‘fare una cosina veloce‘ are two translations for ‘to have a quickie’.

Falling in love

Just as in English, in Italian it’s common to say ‘mi piace qualcuno‘ (I like someone) to talk about someone you have romantic feelings for. And just as in English, there’s a risk that the romantic undertone might not be picked up on, so if you want to be clearer, you can say ‘mi sono presa una cotta per qualcuno‘ (I have a crush on someone) or, stronger still, ‘mi sono innamorarto/a in qualcuno‘ (I have fallen in love with someone). Meanwhile, ‘sono pazzo/a per lui/lei‘ means ‘I’m crazy about him/her’.

If you’re talking directly to the object of your affections, make sure not to get confused by the verb ‘piacere‘, which is often tough for non-native speakers. ‘Mi piaci‘ is ‘I like you’, while ‘ti piaccio‘ means ‘you like me’. ‘Ti amo‘ or ‘ti adoro‘ are more emphatically ‘I love/adore you’, while if you’re letting someone down gently, you might say ‘ti voglio bene‘ (I like you a lot), which is generally reserved for platonic love.

Two of the most common pet names in Italy are ‘amore‘ (love) and ‘tesoro‘ (treasure), but there are plenty of more evocative alternatives, from ‘patatina‘ (little potato) to ‘cucciolotto‘ (little puppy).  It’s also common just to modify the person’s name with an Italian suffix, so a ‘Stefano’ could become ‘Stefanino’.

L’amore domina senza regole

(Love rules without rules)

All’s fair in love and war. Men in pursuit of the woman of their affections know this and won’t be bound by the usual limits of fair play.

Italian men, the likes of Casanova, are world-class romantics and can sweep you off your feet with their uber-sexy accent and perfectly-made pasta. So watch out when you visit Italia. You just might fall in love with the place, the pizza and the people.

italian idioms about love

Funny idioms about life

Here’s a list of Italian idioms about life.

Chiodo scaccia chiodo

Lit. Translation: A nail drives out another nail.

English Equivalent: You’ll get over it.

If you ever break up with someone and ask for advice from an Italian mamma or nonna (and believe me, Italian moms and grandmas are always the wisest), you will hear a phrase that goes like this: “Chiodo scaccia chiodo!”

In other words: You’ll forget about this rusty, nasty, bad nail because very soon a new shiny one will replace it! This encouragement is normally used in painful love affairs, but can be leveled at anybody who’s trying to come to terms with something (a job, a friend who’s not calling back, a fight).

  • Italian: “Sei ancora innamorato di lei? Dai, troverai presto qualcun altro… chiodo scaccia chiodo!”
  • English: “Are you still in love with her? Don’t worry, you’ll find someone else and get over it!”

Are’t Italian idioms so versatile?

L’erba del vicino è sempre più verde

(Neighbor’s grass is always greener)

You may have already guessed the English equivalent of this one: The grass is always greener on the other side.

The fact that it has an English equivalent suggests that this sentiment is part of human nature, a universal expression of discontent.

Yes, Italians feel it, too, the envy and longing for what others have. Doesn’t matter that they have some of the world’s most mouth-watering food, most beautiful art and most scenic spots—they sometimes feel they’re missing out, just like everyone else.

I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci

(Forbidden fruit is sweetest)

Now that we’re talking food, have you ever noticed that no matter what the doctor says, that last piece of cake is practically impossible to resist?

It seems that the more you’re prohibited from having something, the more that something becomes more appealing than ever.

You want what you can’t have, and “I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci” is the Italian recognition of this basic human irony. Some parents even use this on their kids. Employing reverse psychology, they say “Don’t,” when they actually are thinking, “Go ahead.”

I remember one couple who forbid their teenager from going to her grandma’s house. (“I forbid you to visit that old lady. You are never to set foot in her house again!”) Human nature works like magic and the teen found herself mysteriously gravitating towards grandma’s house just to watch TV. It was never on her radar before. I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci.

L’abito non fa il Monaco

(The dress does not make the monk)

Everyone knows that “clothes don’t make the man.” We shouldn’t judge anybody on looks, we shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover.” But if that man is covered in fine Italian leather and smells like Armani in the morning, we really can’t help but judge away—albeit favorably.

It means you can’t judge someone by their appearances.

Mal comune, mezzo gaudio

(Common bad, half rejoice)

Misery does love company. (This is a conclusion that has been borne out in psychological research.) To put it in a more positive way, “a trouble shared is a trouble halved.”

Tale madre, tale figlia/Tale padre, tale figlio

(Such mother, such daughter/Such father, such son)

Like mother, like daughter.

Like father, like son.

Such is life. It doesn’t matter which hemisphere on earth you live in. Soon enough, you’ll embody your folks’ spirits—hovering over others, asking them if they’ve eaten, just like Mom. Or fixing light bulbs even when they’re working perfectly fine, just like, well, Mom.

Tutto fa brodo

(Everything makes broth, soup)

This Italian expression means every little thing counts. Everything contributes something to the whole—whether it be a lone euro tossed into a donation basket, 10 minutes of quality time spent with your young daughter or a simple smile given to the old lady who rings up your groceries…

Imagine making soup. You’ve got a plethora of vegetables ready to be dunked into the water. You’ve got pinches of different spices and ingredients set to add a distinct flavor. Every little thing you have contributes to the whole. You don’t need a whole lot, just little pinches of many things, and you get exquisite soup.

I fatti parlano più delle parole.

This Italian idiom means that one can better judge people’s intentions by what they do rather than what they say. Similar to “Actions speak louder than words.”

Mai giudicare dalle apparenze.

This means that you should not judge something or someone based only on its/their appearance. Similar to “Can’t judge a book by its cover.

Tanto va la gatta al lardo che ci lascia lo zampino.

This Italian idiom means that being overly inquisitive, or sticking your nose in something can lead you into an unpleasant situation. Similar to “Curiosity killed the cat.

A caval donato non si guarda in bocca

This is said to advise someone not to refuse something that is being freely offered. Similar to “Never look a gift horse in the mouth!

Non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco

It is said to emphasise that you cannot depend on something happening before it has happened. Similar to “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched!

La mela non cade mai troppo lontano dall’albero

This means a child usually has a similar character or similar qualities to his or her parents. Similar to “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro

(If one pope dies, another will be elected)

This expression means that no one is irreplaceable, not even the Pope (who is the highest authority of the Catholic church).

Chi non risica non rosica

(Who doesn’t risk, doesn’t bite)

It’s better to risk than to lose the opportunity. It also means that you need to work hard to achieve good results.

Chiusa una porta, si apre un portone

(Once a door is closed, a main door will open)

Every lost opportunity or disappointment (represented by the door) represents the starting points for even bigger achievements (represented by the main door, which is bigger).

italian idioms about life

Italian idioms with animals

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There are many Italian idioms about animals. Here’s a selection:

In bocca al lupo!

In bocca al lupo! (Into the mouth of the wolf!) is an informal way to say Good luck! It probably has its origins in a hunting expression. You don’t reply with thank you but rather Crepi il lupo! (May the wolf croak!) Of course, you can wish someone buona fortuna, but the idiomatic form is much more common.

Originally used in opera and theatre to wish a performer good luck prior to a performance, it’s used to wish good luck to someone, especially before an important event (such as a job interview, match, exam). The standard response is “Crepi il lupo!” (“may the wolf die”). The English equivalent of it is “break a leg”.

We say, “Break a leg” to actors and musicians before they brave the stage to perform. The equivalent of that in Italian is “In bocca al lupo” (In the mouth of the wolf). Don’t say “Buona fortuna” (Good luck). That’s bad. There’s an Italian superstition that if you wish somebody good luck, bad things will happen instead.

The wolf reference may have come from the mythical twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who, as the story goes, were suckled and cared for by a she-wolf. So being “in the mouth of the wolf” may not be a bad thing after all.

But then the response to “In bocca al lupo” (which should never be “Grazie”), will turn the whole picture on its head, proving the fascinating nature of Italian idioms. You would say, “Crepi il lupo,” or “May the wolf die.” Or just “Crepi!” for short.

I know. Creepy, huh? But that’s really the standard reply.

So when in Rome…

Il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio.

It means that a person’s character, especially if it is bad, will not change, even if they pretend that it will. Similar to “A leopard cannot change its spots.

Fa un freddo cane!

Fa un freddo cane! (It‘s dog cold!) (or more idiomatically: really, really cold; a three-dog night) is just one of many Italian idioms that use animals to describe the character of something or someone. Occasionally, Italian and English use the same animal in their idioms but not always.

Other idioms with animals

Here are some examples of animal-related idioms, including their English equivalents and what they commonly refer to in Italian:

  • un coniglio (rabbit): A coward.
  • una civetta (owl): A flirt.
  • un pesce (fish): Someone who doesn’t talk.
  • un’oca (goose): Someone silly, flighty.
  • un pollo da spennare (a chicken waiting to be plucked): A mark, someone who can be taken advantage of.
  • uno struzzo (ostrich): Someone who can eat anything and suffer no side effects has the stomaco da struzzo (stomach of an ostrich).
  • una volpe (fox): Someone clever, who can always work difficult things out.
  • un camaleonte (chameleon): Someone who changes his principles or ideas according to his own best interests.
  • le farfalle (butterflies): To run after butterflies means to chase dreams, not to be realistic.
  • una cicogna (stork): Brings babies.
  • un ghiro (dormouse): You sleep like a ghiro instead of like a log.
  • il rospo (toad): Instead of eating crow, in Italian, you inghiottire il rospo (swallow the toad).

italian idioms with animals

Italian idioms with fare (to do)

In Italian, the most common Italian idioms use the following verbs:

  • Italian idioms with fare (to do)
  • Italian idioms with avere (to have)
  • Italian idioms with essere (to be)
  • Italian idioms with andare (to go).

Here’s a list of the most common idiomatic expressions with fare (to do):

  • fare gli auguri (to give one‘s wishes)
  • fare il bagno/la doccia (to take a bath/shower)
  • fare bello/brutto/caldo/freddo/fresco (to have good/bad/warm/cold/cool weather)
  • fare il biglietto (to get a ticket)

 

  • fare buon viaggio (to have a good trip)
  • fare colazione (to have breakfast/lunch)
  • fare i compiti (to do homework)
  • fare una conferenza (to give a lecture)
  • fare la conoscenza di (to meet; to make the acquaintance of)

 

  • fare il conto (to add up the total)
  • fare due, tre, . . . chilometri (to cover 2, 3, . . . kilometers)
  • fare un favore (to do a favor)
  • fare un giro (to take a tour)
  • fare male (to hurt; to ache)

 

  • fare una partita di calcio (to play soccer)
  • fare una passeggiata (to take a walk)
  • fare la pasta (to cook pasta)
  • fai pure! (go ahead!)
  • fare un regalo (give a present)

 

  • fare una sorpresa (to surprise)
  • fare la spesa (to go grocery shopping)
  • fare le spese (to go shopping)
  • fare lo spiritoso (to joke; to clown)
  • fare tardi (to be late)

 

  • fare una telefonata (to make a call)
  • fare le valige (to pack)
  • fare vedere (to show)
  • fare un viaggio (to take a trip)
  • fare una visita (to pay a visit)

italian idioms with fare

Italian idioms with avere (to have)

Notice that most of the idiomatic expressions with avere are translated with the verb to be in English.

  • aver caldo (to be warm)
  • avere . . . anni (to be . . . years old)
  • avere la corda al collo (to have no way out)
  • aver fame (to be hungry)
  • avere fegato (to be brave)

 

  • aver freddo (to be cold)
  • aver fretta (to be in a hurry)
  • avere grilli per la testa (to have fancy and unrealistic ambitions)
  • avere la luna storta (to be in a bad mood)
  • avere una memoria di ferro (to have a good memory)

 

  • avere molto caldo (to be hot)
  • aver paura (to be afraid of)
  • aver ragione (to be right)
  • aver sete (to be thirsty)
  • aver sonno (to be sleepy)
  • aver torto (to be wrong)
  • aver vergogna (to be ashamed of)

Italian idioms with essere (to be)

Here’s a list of the most common idiomatic expressions with essere (to be) and andare (to go).

  • essere a cavallo (to find a good solution to an issue)
  • essere al settimo cielo (to be very happy)
  • essere come il diavolo e l’acqua santa (to be extremely different)
  • essere nelle canne (to be broke; to be in difficulty)
  • essere un carciofo (to be credulous/awkward)

Italian idioms with andare (to go)

  • andare all’aria (to disrupt the plans; to be unsuccessful)
  • andare liscio (to go smoothly)
  • andare via (to leave; to go away)
  • andare a trovare (to pay a visit to someone)

italian idioms with avere

Italian idioms with colors

In English, you can feel blue (sad); a day or mood can be gray (depressing, overwhelmed); and humor and films can be black (sardonic).

In Italian, colors aren’t just everyday adjectives; they also appear in idioms to express emotions, fears, feelings, and passions. Colors charge Italian idioms with poetic nuance.

Here are some Italian idioms with colors:

  • Essere al verde (to be “ at the green“) means you‘re broke.
  • Un libro giallo (A yellow book) is a detective story or mystery.
  • Un libro rosa (A pink book) is a romance novel.
  • Un libro nero (A black book) is a blacklist.
  • Sogni d’oro (Golden dreams) are more likely to be sweet dreams in English.

Expressions like cronaca rosa (gossip columns), romanzo giallo (mystery novel), avere una fifa blu (to be filled with terror), dama bianca (the spectre of a woman [folklore has it that her appearance is an omen of death]), and anima nera ([to have] a wicked soul) are common in Italian.

Colors also create the Italian flag, which is called il tricolore (three-colors) because it’s green, white, and red. Any association of green, white, and red evoke the tricolore for Italians, so much so that these three hues have lost their function as adjectives and gained that of national symbols.

Here are a few more idiomatic expressions with colors:

  • zona blu (blue area), generally in the historical center of a town, where the circulation of cars is forbidden
  • diventare di tutti i colori (to show deep embarassment)
  • dirne/farne/vederne di tutti i colori (to say/do/see all kinds of preposterous things)
  • essere nero (to be filled with rage)
  • mettere nero su bianco (to put something down in black and white [as in black ink on white paper])
  • vederci rosso (to be very upset)

When a photo isn’t a colori (in color), it’s in bianco e nero (white and black) in the Italian language, not in black and white as in the English language!

Despite the use of colors in so many Italian idioms, don’t forget that colors are descriptors and that, as with every adjective in the Italian language, they agree in gender and number with the noun they describe:

  • una gonna nera (a black skirt)
  • tante gonne nere(many black skirts)
  • un giaccone verde (a green jacket)
  • due giacconi verdi (two green jackets)

Unlike in the English language, colors usually follow nouns in the Italian language: Indosso una gonna nera e un giaccone verde (I am wearing a black skirt and a green jacket).

Most of the colors are adjectives ending in -o, -a, (-i, -e in the plural forms), some end in -e (-i [plural]), while others remain unchanged in gender and number:

italian idioms with colors

More cool Italian idioms

Here are some random Italian idioms:

Ha molto sale in zucca

(Has a lot of salt in his gourd)

A gourd is an oddly-shaped fruit often used in the English equivalent to represent a person’s head or brain. So to “lose one’s gourd” is to be crazy or to lose one’s mind.

“Ha molto sale in zucca” refers to a person who has a good head—someone not only bright, but one who possesses a lot of good sense.

È tutto pepe!

(He is all pepper)

From salt, we go to pepper. Pepper is used to kick any cooking up a notch. There’s just something about it that brings life to bland dishes and imbues them with a richer flavor and aroma.

In Italy, especially in its Southern region, peppers are frequently used in dishes and you can often find little red peppers called “diavoletti” (little devils) strung together and hung to dry.

“È tutto pepe!”is used to describe somebody full of life—someone with a vibrant personality and a sunny disposition that lifts everyone’s spirits. So if you hear this said of you, take it as a high compliment.

Ti sta a pennello

(Fits you like a paintbrush)

Speaking of compliments, if you hear this one in one of Italy’s premier fashion stores, like Valentino, Versace, Prada, Armani or Dolce & Gabbana, it means the person assisting you is working on commission. Seriously though, it means the dress or whatever it is you’re trying on fits you perfectly. (It fits you so perfectly it looks like it’s been painted onto your body.)

Fare troppi atti in commedia

(To make too many acts in a comedy)

There are usually just three acts in a standard play. To have too many acts in a comedy means someone is trying to accomplish too many things at once. In English, you could say the person is “wearing too many hats” or has “hands/fingers in too many pies.”

Rompere il ghiaccio

(To break the ice)

This one means exactly what it means in English. “Rompere il ghiaccio” is to obliterate awkwardness between people in social situations, especially for those who have just recently met.

Buono come il pane

(Good as bread)

Okay, this will be the first of our food-related idioms, and I’m telling you that there will definitely be more on this list. They’re full-throated testaments to the high value and esteem Italians give to good food. (That’s why the Italians also have the idiom “Brutto come la fame,”which literally means “Ugly as hunger.”)

Bread is the perfect food. Young and old, rich and poor have been nourished by bread. It’s baked daily with equal parts fervor and reverence by Italian mothers and bakers. There’s really nothing sweeter-smelling than a fresh batch of perfectly baked bread.

“Buono come il pane” (Good as bread) is used to describe a person with a heart of gold. He or she is somebody who’s generally known for being kind and generous, generally has the qualities of a good person. You use “Buono come il pane” for such an individual. You can use it as a blanket description of a good person, when you really don’t have anything else to say about him or her.

Let’s say you admire an Italian politician for good leadership and integrity. Then some information about him comes to light that reveals him as a corrupt and ruthless person. You can say that you thought of him as “Buono come il pane.”

italian idioms with andare

A mali estremi, estremi rimedi

(To extreme evils, extreme remedies)

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” That’s the English equivalent to this baby. And the Italian version might have one-upped its English counterpart because of the rhyme in “A mali estremi, estremi rimedi.”

A witty turn of phrase is made so much tighter with rhyme and that’s why in another Italian idiom, “Si chiama Pietro e torna indietro”(“Its name is Peter and it comes back,” told to a friend to let them know that the thing they’re about to borrow should be returned), “Pietro” is the name used. Because it rhymes with “indietro” (back). The idiom wouldn’t have the same punch if, say, “Gary” were the name used!

Affogare in un bicchier d’acqua

(To drown in a glass of water)

To drown in a glass of water is to be easily overwhelmed with little problems. For example, a not-so-bright fellow running around in circles trying to solve a simple arithmetic problem, or a little girl who wails like it’s the end of the world because she lost her favorite hairpin, could be said to be drowning in a glass of water.

Conosco i miei polli

(I know my chickens)

Ever tried showing a toddler he’s not building his Legos right?

You know what happens? He defiantly snatches the blocks from your hand, as if saying, “Leave me alone! I know what I’m doing. I can handle this.”

“Conosco i miei polli” is said in that same spirit.

So if Italians want to express something like, “I know what I’m talking about,” or “I know who I’m dealing with,” or “This is right up my alley,” they utter this idiom with an air of quiet confidence.

Minestra riscaldata

(Reheated soup)

Italian boy meets Italian girl. The two fall in love.

The relationship has its ups and downs. Both fight to make it work.

They grow apart, and the relationship ultimately disintegrates.

Months after, they meet and try to rekindle the bond.

“Minestra riscaldata” is that state of reviving a relationship gone sour. It’s just never the same. The expression doesn’t just apply to romantic partners; it can also be appropriate to describe the bond between friends, business partners, etc.

Non avere peli sulla lingua

(Not to have hair on your tongue)

This Italian idiom means to be straightforward and speak one’s mind, regardless of the possibility of upsetting or insulting someone. In short, you’re not mincing any words. You simply say what needs to be heard. Period.

Trovarsi fra l’incudine e il Martello

(To be between the anvil and the hammer)

This happens when you’re left with a bad choice alongside another equally horrible option—like a lazy teenager made to choose between cleaning his car or cleaning his room.

This is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation where you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea. That kind of situation sucks big time…in any language.

italian idioms

Hai voluto la bicicletta? Allora, pedala!

(You wanted a bike? Now, pedal!)

Italy produces some of the world’s finest bicycles. And Bianchi, the world’s first bicycle company, established in the 1880s, is still churning out two-wheelers today.

Italy has embraced its biking culture, with color-coded bike lanes, large bike parking spaces and prevalent bike-sharing programs. It’s no wonder that the language has reflected this love affair with the bicycle in one of its idioms.

“You’ve made your bed, now lie in it” is its closest equivalent English idiom. Both have to do with gracefully facing the consequences of one’s actions or decisions. “Hai voluto la bicicletta? Allora, pedala!” is often remarked to a person whining about a state of affairs that they brought upon themselves.

“You married the wrong girl?”

“You failed the final exam?”

“You lost everything gambling?”

It’s your own doing. Deal with it!

Diciamo pane al pane e vino al vino

(Let’s say bread for bread and wine for wine)

Remember what we said a few idioms back about someone who doesn’t have hair on their tongue? The one who’s a straight shooter, yeah?

They’ll probably be saying, “Diciamo pane al pane e vino al vino.”

Or, if we go by the English equivalent, “Let’s call a spade a spade.” They’ll call it as it is. There’ll be no “sugarcoating” and no “beating around the bush.” If they think you’re a bad actor, they’ll tell you so. If they think your cooking sucks, you’ll hear about it.

Italian men have been known to call a spade a spade. So when you walk the streets of Florence and hear a “Ciao bella” thrown your way, you better believe it.

Useful Italian idioms

Avere un cervello di gallina

(To have a hen’s brain)

A person who acts stupidly, has low intelligence or has poor judgment is said to have a hen’s brain.

This Italian expression comes from the belief that the bigger the size of the brain, the more intelligent the animal. And judging from the size of its head, one can clearly say that a hen (or bird) does have a small brain animating the whole apparatus, and is therefore by this standard not too bright. And the person who acts stupidly (like the thief who posts his loot on Facebook), is said to possess a brain the size of a bird.

recent study, however, has revealed that birds’ brains are actually more complex and robust than formerly believed. An apology to all the feathered and winged members of the animal kingdom is probably in order.

Cane non mangia cane

(Dog does not eat dog)

Unlike most of the other idioms on this list, which basically agree with their English counterparts, this one is the complete opposite and a repudiation of the line “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” The Italian version holds a more optimistic view of the world. Yes, there’s “honor among thieves.” There’s a line that cannot be crossed, there’s a code of conduct that governs even the most sinister of people.

If even the dogs know their limits and don’t destroy their own kind, how much more is this true with humans? For example, a corrupt politician won’t tell on his equally corrupt comrade. A whole office staff will stick up for a colleague in trouble. A student won’t betray a classmate for the good graces of a teacher.

But as you may know, sometimes, humans prove different from their canine friends. An employee, student or even a friend can betray another. In these situations, the appropriate idiom then becomes “Cane mangia cane” (Dog eat dog).

italian idioms translation

Avere le braccine corte

(To have short arms)

We all have that uncle. You know the one. He always comes around for the holidays, but never brings you a present, always promising to next year. He never picks up the check because the bill always curiously arrives when he’s in the restroom.

“Avere le braccine corte” doesn’t refer to the T-rex, whose arms were literally short. The expression refers to a cheap person who never seems to have the arm length or strength to reach for his wallet.

Cornuto

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Stop reading, start speaking! With "Ripeti con me!"

(Horned)

This is a rather painful idiom that refers to someone cheating on someone else. The offending party may be evil and deserve to wear the “horns,” but in Italian tradition, the one wearing the “horns” is actually the victim, or the party being cheated on. So to be “cornuto” means your partner is cheating on you. The expression usually comes with a hand gesture for which the index finger and the pinky are held up, like during rock concerts.

Probably one of the biggest insults you can hurl an Italian man’s way is to say that he’s “cornuto.”

In reality, though, the expression doesn’t always mean that somebody is being cheated on. In fact, it’s often used just to rile up, say, somebody driving a beat-up Vespa who suddenly cut you off. Or a football referee perceived to be calling the game for the other team.

So if you just want to mess somebody up, this idiom and its corresponding hand gesture would be the way to go. Just don’t expect an Italian stallion to take it sitting down.

Raro come una mosca bianca

(Rare as a white fly)

Have you ever seen a white fly?

Exactly.

Non vedo l’ora

(I don’t see the hour)

This means you just absolutely cannot wait for something. You can’t think or see straight from excitement. Be it your Italian vacation, your Italian girlfriend coming for a visit or that Italian cheese recipe bubbling in the oven.

italian idioms list

Che palle!

(What balls)

This is a (strong but) widely-used Italian expression that could be translated as “Dang!” or “Sucks!”

Use it to express annoyance or irritation at a situation or person. Maybe the Italian waiter always brings you the wrong food (maybe because you didn’t roll your R’s correctly when you ordered). You could say “Che palle!” while being served.

(Seriously, though, it’s best to be courteous and gracious whenever you visit other countries.)

Stare con le mani in mano

Lit. Translation: To be with your hands in your hand / hold your hands with your own hand.

English Equivalent: To sit on your hands.

If you are at least a little bit familiar with Italian body language, you will immediately understand why this expression has a negative connotation for us: do you realize how frustrating it is for Italians to stay still without frantically gesticulating to express ourselves?

This Italian idiom could address someone who’s doing nothing while everyone else is working.

  • Italian: “Non stare lì con le mani in mano, aiutami con questa valigia!”
  • English: “Don’t just stand there! Help me with my luggage!”

You can also use this Italian idiom to highlight people’s poor manners if they were supposed to bring something (a gift or some food, for example) but didn’t, but came holding their own hands instead of holding something nice.

  • Italian: “Che maleducato! È arrivato alla festa di compleanno con le mani in mano.”
  • English: “How rude! He came to the birthday party holding his own hands.”

Non ci piove

Lit. Translation: It doesn’t rain on it.

English Equivalent: No doubt about it!

The weather is one of our favorite topics for small talk and our mood tends to drop when the sun isn’t shining: take those two things, put them together, and you’ll probably understand why there are so many Italian idioms related to weather.

Ending a discussion with non ci piove means you’re very confident of your closing line and that what you’re saying is so conclusive that it can’t possible be up for further discussion.

  • Italian: “L’Italia è il paese più bello del mondo, su questo non ci piove!”
  • English: “Italy is the most beautiful country in the world, there’s no doubt about it!”

Piove sul bagnato

Lit. Translation: It rains on wet ground.

English Equivalent: When it rains, it pours.

On the topic of rain and weather, here’s another Italian expression that I often use to describe a situation — one usually unfair or paradoxical — that will never change. For example, when someone who’s already insanely rich wins the lottery, or someone who’s very unlucky receives bad news.

  • Italian: “Ho perso il lavoro, la mia fidanzata mi ha mollato, adesso mi hanno anche rubato il portafogli… piove sul bagnato!”
  • English: “I got fired, my girlfriend broke up with me, and now I’ve lost my wallet… when it rains, it pours!”

how to use italian idioms

Acqua in bocca!

Lit. Translation: (Keep the) water in your mouth!

English Equivalent: Keep it to yourself.

As you can see there are many Italian idioms concerning the weather. Let’s stay in this humid micro-climate for a little while longer. In Italy, we love gossiping — non ci piove! We are also very careful not to reveal the source of the leak, however: nobody wants to be blamed for talking about other people’s business. Every time we want to say something we shouldn’t reveal, we always make sure our gossip-partner isn’t going to blow our cover. Acqua in bocca (keep the water in your mouth) is what we usually say as a warning.

  • Italian: “È un segreto, acqua in bocca!”
  • English: “It’s a secret, keep it to yourself!”

Non sei capace di tenerti un cece in bocca.

Lit. Translation: You’re not able to keep a chickpea in your mouth.

English Equivalent: You can’t keep your mouth shut.

This is what happens when someone is not able to… keep the water in his mouth! Was it really that difficult to swallow a tiny chickpea? Why did you let it out?!?

  • Italian: “Non dirgli niente, non si sa tenere un cece in bocca!”
  • English: “Don’t tell him anything, he’s not able to keep his mouth shut”

Pietro torna indietro

Lit. Translation: Its name is Pietro and it has to come back.

English Equivalent: Its name is Jack and it has to come back!

I’m very possessive of my books, and I could become your worst nightmare if you decide to borrow one from me. Don’t be surprised if, right before giving away one of my paper-based offspring, I warn you with a, “You remember his name, right? Pietro! Very good.”

This trick works in the Italian language because of the rhyme Pietro-indietro. If I had to translate it in English (and I’ll do it… “non ci piove!”), I would probably say, “Its name is Jack and it has to come back!”

  • Italian: “Mi presti questo libro?”
    • “Sì, ma c’è scritto Pietro sulla copertina!”
  • English: “Can you lend me this book?”
    • “Yes, but Pietro’s written on the cover!”

It is Italian idioms like this one that I truly adore.

Non avere peli sulla lingua

Lit. Translation: To have no hair on your tongue.

English Equivalent: To make no bones about something.

This Italian expression isn’t used to describe someone who’s particularly attentive to oral hygiene. No, nothing to do with that. People “without hair on their tongue” are not afraid to be too honest, even if they run the risk of offending someone; there are no filters between brain and tongue.

Similarly, we also say non le manda a dire (literally: “he doesn’t send someone else to say things on his behalf”).

  • Italian: “Non rimanerci male, non è cattivo… semplicemente non ha peli sulla lingua.”
  • English: “Don’t be disappointed, he’s not a bad person… he just makes no bones about this kind of thing.”

funny italian idioms

Avere un diavolo per capello

Lit. Translation: To have a demon for each hair

English Equivalent: To be mad as hell.

Is there anything that better describes the look and the mood of someone furious? This person is not simply as angry as a demon, nor does this person simply have one demon sitting on his shoulder. To explain this amount of rage, one must involve a horde of nasty demons ready to whisper bad advice and evil things into your ears. How many? As many as you have hairs on your head!

And now, imagine the scene and tell me if you can find a better expression!

  • Italian: “Lasciami stare…ho un diavolo per capello
  • English: “Leave me alone… I’m seething!”

Da che pulpito viene la predica!

Lit. Translation: Look from which pulpit this sermon is coming!

English Equivalent: Look who’s talking!

Religion, as you probably know, is a big deal in Italy — my grandma still tells me stories about being terrified by Sunday sermons. Why? Back in the day, it was very common for priests to expose their parishioners’ sins during the omelia from the pulpit. They didn’t say names and surnames — the secret of confession was “safe” — but they certainly knew how to make it clear who they were talking about.

This expression carries a truckload of emotional baggage and it’s one of the worst things you can say to describe a hypocritical person. Is that rich and greedy man saying that poverty in the world is a huge problem, and yet does nothing to ease the woes of the poor? Look from which pulpit this sermon is coming!

  • Italian: “Pensi che dovrei mangiare meglio? Senti da che pulpito viene la predica!”
  • English: “You think I should eat more healthily?! Look who’s talking!

È il mio cavallo di battaglia

Lit. Translation: It’s my battle horse.

English Equivalent: It’s my forte.

If you hear an Italian talking about horses and battles, don’t be scared. We are not in a Game of Thrones episode. Relax. We’re just bragging a little about our skills. After all, isn’t the battle horse the fittest, strongest, leanest one, the one you trust to save your life? Then, believe me, having the possibility to see other people’s battle horse is certainly a good thing.

This phrase is used to indicate someone’s forte (another Italian word, yeah!), and can be said in every context. If you’re not into horses, you could also use punta di diamante (“the sharp end of the diamond”).

  • Italian: “Il falsetto è il suo cavallo di battaglia!”
  • English: “His falsetto is his forte.”

Sputa il rospo

(Spit the toad)

This means “speak up.” To remember it, you could imagine releasing a toad from your mouth and letting it freely speak about the beauty and wonders of from whence it came.

Colto con le mani nel sacco

(Caught with his hands in the bag)

This Italian idiom is comparable to the English idiom, “caught red-handed” or “caught with one’s hands in the cookie jar.” These idioms refer to someone who got caught stealing cash or something else, often helping themselves to the detriment of others.

Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro

(One pope dies, another will be made)

This Italian idiom is used to signify how life goes on even after the worst of tragedies. Your Italian boyfriend broke up with you? Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea. If even the pope isn’t indispensable, the loss of something or someone shouldn’t stop your world from turning. Life goes on, as it always has.

Togliti dai piedi!

(Take yourself out of my feet)

Let’s say you’re peacefully walking the streets of Milan and somebody suddenly snatches your wallet. You decide to get some much-needed exercise and pursue the offender through the major thoroughfares of a foreign city. You would shout, “Togliti dai piedi!” as you gave chase. It means “Get out of my way!” You would then catch the bad man and give him a good scolding for what he did.

But in reality, you probably wouldn’t even know you’d been victimized by a pickpocket until it was too late. It’s always better to stay safe abroad and keep any valuables in your hotel (or better yet, never bring them on your vacation in the first place).

Alla come viene, viene

(It comes out as it comes out)

You don’t want to hear this from the staff of an Italian restaurant, ever. It means “It is what it is.” The expression gives the sense that a thing is done in a shoddy, slapdash manner.

cool italian idioms

Attaccare il cappello

(To hang up one’s hat)

Imagine a miner hanging his hard hat on the wall after a long day. He’s done, having finished his work. In the case of this idiom, however, the person hanging up his hat doesn’t have to work at all anymore because he’s just snagged a wealthy wife.

In English, we have the expressions “hang up one’s gloves,” “hang up one’s boots” and “hang up one’s hat.” They all mean to retire, or quit doing something. Notice that the objects referred to in the idioms—gloves, boots and hat—are those often used by the working class to perform various job functions.

The Italian “Attaccarre il cappello” not only means quitting in general, but has the added sense of quitting by virtue of marrying somebody rich (usually a man marrying a rich woman). So the Italian version wins this one, what with all the perks of a golden retirement.

Caduto dalle nuvole

(Fallen from the clouds)

This Italian idiom means to be completely taken by surprise, usually from news of something that’s negative in nature. “Taken aback” captures some of the same meaning, as in “She was taken aback when she heard that I lost the baby.”

Farsene un baffo

(To make a mustache of it)

Consider a mustache. It’s just there, growing on your face, without any effort. It’s always there, but you don’t really notice it. It doesn’t bother you at all.

To make a mustache out of something means to treat something as insignificant, or not bothersome or burdensome at all. So you don’t make a fuss about it.

Ogni morte di papa

(Every death of a pope)

Italians revere the Pope, but they do have an expression for saying “once in a blue moon” that’s based on his demise. It’s “ogni morte di papa.” These fellows often reach a ripe old age before checking out. (Seems like being close to God does have its perks.)

So really, the death of a pope doesn’t come very often, making the idiomatic expression a fitting description.

Un pezzo grosso

(A big piece)

From little things we go to big things.

“Un pezzo grosso” is synonymous to the English idiom “big shot” or “big wig,” usually referring to somebody of high importance or someone who wields strong influence over the whole.

For example, the Italian prime minister is “un pezzo grosso” of the whole Italian political system. In fact, the biggest of them all.

Calare le brache

(To pull down one’s pants)

“Calare le brache” means to chicken out and surrender. Another Italian idiom in the same vein is “chiudere bottega” (to close up shop), which means to give up.

You may not master Italian in a week or two, but it’s no reason to give up. Keep your store open and your pants up!

More Italian colloquialisms

Here is a list of Italian idioms that can help you with breaking the ice (or, rompere il ghiccio, if you’re in Italy) in your everyday conversation, as well as not panicking when they are used by Italians:

  • Oltre al danno, anche la beffa!

This Italian idiom means that you not only did you get ripped off (the injury), but you were also duped (insult). Similar to “Add insult to injury.

  • Fare l’avvocato del Diavolo

This means that you are presenting a counter argument in which you don’t really believe in, in order to start a debate. Similar to “Being the Devil’s advocate.

  • Avere gli occhi più grandi dello stomaco

This means that you are taking on more of something (food, task, project, etc.) than what you can process or handle. Similar to “Bite off more than you can chew.

  • Calmare i bollenti spiriti

This Italian idiom means that you are calming yourself or other people who are feeling angry. Similar to “Blow off steam.

  • Piangere sul latte versato

This means that you are complaining about a problem from the past that cannot be changed. Similar to “Crying over spilt milk.

best italian idioms

  • Concedere il beneficio del dubbio

This means that you should not doubt someone’s statement until proven otherwise. Similar to “Give the benefit of the doubt.

  • Prendere due piccioni con una fava

This Italian idiom means you can solve two problems with one solution. Similar to “Kill two birds with one stone.

  • È un gioco da ragazzi!

This Italian idiom means that a job, task, or other activity is very easy or simple. Similar to “Piece of cake!

  • Quando parli del diavolo e spuntano le corna

It is used when the person you have just been talking about arrives. Similar to “Speak of the devil!

  • Tenere le dita incrociate

This means to hope for a good outcome for someone or something. Similar to “Keep one’s fingers crossed.

  • Sbarcare il lunario

This means managing to stay alive, especially when one has very little money, or in very difficult circumstances. Similar to “Keep body and soul together.

  • Ride bene chi ride ultimo!

It is said to emphasise that the person who has control of a situation in the end is most successful, even if other people had seemed originally to have an advantage. Similar to “He who laughs last, laughs longest.

  • Aggiungere benzina sul fuoco

This means to say or do something that makes a bad situation worse. Similar to “Add fuel to the fire.

  • Pareggiare i conti

This means to do something equally bad to someone who has done something bad to you. Similar to “Get even with someone.

  • Bere come una spugna

This Italian idiom is used when talking about someone who drinks a lot or too much alcohol. Similar to “Drink like a fish.

  • L’ambasciator non porta pena

It is said to warn someone not to be angry with the person who delivers bad news (for which they’re not responsible). Similar to “Don’t shoot the messenger.

  • Avere lo stomaco di ferro

This means you have a very strong stomach which can withstand bad food or anything nauseating. Similar to “To have a cast iron stomach.

  • Farsi in quattro

It means to try very hard to do something good or helpful. Similar to “Bend over backwards.

 

More Italian idiomatic expressions

Vedere i sorci verdi

(To see green mice)

To face a difficult situation, to struggle while handling it. This Italian idiom originates in Rome, in the 30s, when a very famous aviation squad (205° Squadriglia) used three green mice as their symbol, painted on their planes. “Sorci” is the Roman dialectal variation of “topi” (mice).

Avere l’argento vivo addosso

(To have alive silver all over you)

A person with mercury on themselves is considered fidgety and full of energy, and this Italian idiom is usually used when referring to very active kids. Argento vivo, which literally means “alive silver” is an ancient name used for mercury, which is a very fluid and mutable substance.

Prendere un granchio

(To catch a crab)

To make a mistake, or to buy something worthless for a big sum. This Italian idiom originates from fishermen: while fishing, it can happen that a crab gets hooked by the bait. It will then start to strongly struggle, so that the fisherman would believe that they have caught a big prey, whilst it would be nothing more than a crab.

Acqua in bocca!

(Water in the mouth)

An injuction to keep a secret. The English equivalent is “Mum’s the word.”

Sano come un pesce

(As healthy as a fish)

It means to be very fit and perfectly healthy. This Italian idiom originated in ancient times, when people believed that fish could not fall ill. Because of the natural selection, it is rarer to observe sick fish, and their symptoms might not be as clear as other animals.

Affogare in un bicchier d’acqua

(To drown in a glass of water)

To be unable to handle a simple situation, to over-complicate things.

Piangere come una fontana

(Cry like a fountain)

Cry copiously, desperately.

Conosco i miei polli

(I know my chicks)

To know a situation very well and what to expect from it. It can also mean that you know how a person thinks and how they will act.

useful italian idioms

Essere una pecora nera

(To be the black sheep)

Black fleece is a recessive gene in sheep, so it’s rarer to see in a flock, and in the 17th and 18th black wool was considered commercially undesirable because it could not be dyed. Therefore this Italian idiom indicates someone different from the main crowd, or with different characteristics that its original group/family. The same concept is illustrated in some other languages by the phrase “white crow”.

Non avere peli sulla lingua

(To not have hair on your tongue)

To speak your mind, to be very honest and outspoken. Metaphorically, the hair would indicate an obstacle to express yourself, like a filter.

Tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare

Literally, Tra il dire e il fare c‘è di mezzo il mare means Between saying and doing is the ocean. The English equivalent is There is many a slip between cup and lip. Also, this expression is a comment on good intentions and the idea that they often don’t come to fruition.

O bere o affogare

In English, you leave someone to sink or swim; in the Italian language, you allow someone o bere o affogare (to drink or drown). Both the English and the Italian may seem a bit harsh. The expression in both cases is used to push someone to do better work; you may say it, for example, to a student who is showing a demonstrable lack of effort or discipline.

Un cane in chiesa

An unwelcome guest in English becomes un cane in chiesa (a dog in church) in Italian. It’s interesting that dogs aren’t acceptable in churches, but before the famous Palio of Siena (a traditional horserace), competing horses are taken into churches to be blessed.

Un pezzo grosso

Someone who’s really important is un pezzo grosso (a big piece) in Italian — the English equivalent is a big shot. Both idioms seem to reflect the belief that bigger is better.

Ad ogni morte di Papa

This phrase (every time a Pope dies) is the equivalent of once in a blue moon. It means very rarely. Because a Pope recently resigned, after nearly 600 years since any other Pope had done so, perhaps this saying will change.

Go practice these idioms

That’s it! You’ve just learned many of the most common and useful Italian idioms used by native speakers.

There are so many more, and this is really just a start.

Forge ahead with your study of Italian and you’ll be putting yourself in the way of some really interesting and creative idioms.

Want more? Check these collections of Italian proverbs, Italian quotes, and Italian sayings.

Have fun!

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