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10 Common Italian Idioms

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 Italian, someone is buono come il pane (good as bread). Something terrible in English can be ugly as sin; in Italian, 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.

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.

Fa un freddo cane! and Other Animal Idioms

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.

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).

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.

Tutto fa brodo

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 brood, though you may not want to say it aloud. You don't after all want to denigrate the clerk or waiter's gracious gesture.

O bere o affogare

In English, you leave someone to sink or swim; in Italian, 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.

Buono come il pane: Food and Idioms

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 food idioms, followed by their English equivalents:

  • 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!

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.

Rosa, giallo, nero: Colors and idioms

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

  • 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.

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.

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