If you're learning Italian, you've probably mastered the basics of Italian grammar and vocabulary. But to truly immerse yourself in the Italian language and culture, you'll want to familiarize yourself with some of the delightful and quirky Italian idiomatic expressions. Italian idioms add color and character to the language, and using them in conversation can help you sound like a local. In this article, we'll explore 20 fun Italian idioms that will not only make you a more fluent speaker but also give you a glimpse into the heart of Italian culture.
1. In bocca al lupo (In the mouth of the wolf) This is the Italian way of saying "good luck." The response is "Crepi il lupo" (May the wolf die). You can also say "Buona fortuna" (literally "good luck"), but superstitious Italians will insist that "In bocca al lupo" is the only correct way. Example: "Domani ho un esame importante, sono molto preoccupato!" "Andrà tutto bene, in bocca al lupo!" Translation: "Tomorrow I have an important exam, I am very worried!" "It will be fine, good luck!"
2. Avere le mani in pasta (To have your hands in the dough) It means to be involved in something, especially a project or task. It is mostly used negatively, emphasizing that someone is engaged in dubious dealings. Example: "Non mi fido di quel politico, ha le mani in pasta in troppi affari" Translation "I don't trust that politician, he is involved in too many dubious deals"
3. Avere il diavolo in corpo (To have the devil in the body) This idiom describes someone who is hyperactive or full of energy. As you might have guessed, it's not a compliment, and it generally means that someone should calm down. Example: "Mio figlio non sta mai fermo, ha il diavolo in corpo. Non so più cosa fare!" Translation: "My son never sits still, he is hyperactive. I don't know what to do anymore!"
4. Mettere il carro davanti ai buoi (To put the cart before the oxen) This Italian idiom suggests doing things in the wrong order or rushing into something without proper preparation. You wouldn't put your cart before your oxen, so likewise, you shouldn't rush things. Example: "Ho conosciuto una ragazza stupenda, voglio chiederle di sposarmi!" "Non mettere il carro davanti ai buoi, forse dovresti conoscerla meglio prima?" Translation "I met a wonderful girl, I want to ask her to marry me!" "Don't rush things, shouldn't you know her better before?"
5. Tutto fa brodo (Everything makes broth) This expression refers to the idea that (almost) any food in your kitchen can be added to broth to make it tastier. It means that every little bit helps or contributes to a larger outcome. Example: "Ma vuoi mettere anche il corso di cucina nel curriculum?" "Si dai, tutto fa brodo!" Translation: "Are you really going to put your cooking classes in your CV?" "Yeah, why not, every little bit helps!"
6. Essere al verde (To be in the green) This idiom means "to be out of money," originating from the practice of painting the bottom of wax candles green. When a candle reached the green part, it meant it was almost consumed. In the past, candles were used as time markers at public auctions. Once the flame reached the end of the candle, that is, the green part, no more money bids could be made, and the auction was closed. "To be in the green" therefore began to indicate the time when no more money offers could be made. Over time, its meaning shifted to simply mean "to be broke." Example: "Vuoi venire alle Maldive con me quest'estate?" "Non posso, sono al verde!" Translation: "Would you like to come with me to the Maldives this summer?" "I can't, I'm out of money!"
7. Cercare il pelo nell'uovo (To look for a hair in the egg) Eggs are, of course, hairless. So only someone who is excessively pedantic would try to find a hair on it. Italians use this idiom to describe someone who's overly critical or nitpicky. Example: "La tua carbonara è buona, ma io avrei messo un po' meno pecorino e un pizzico di pepe" "Smettila di cercare sempre il pelo nell'uovo e mangia!" Translation: "Your carbonara is good, but I would have put slightly less pecorino cheese and added a pinch of pepper" "Stop being always so nitpicky and eat!"
8. Non avere peli sulla lingua (Not to have hairs on the tongue) You wouldn't be able to speak easily with hair on your tongue. Therefore, those who don't have hair on their tongue speak candidly, without holding back. Example: "Carla non ha peli sulla lingua, dice sempre quello che pensa!" Translation: "Carla doesn't mince her words, she always says what she thinks!"
9. Essere come il prezzemolo (To be like parsley) Parsley is a very common herb and, whether you like it or not, is an ingredient in numerous recipes. Just like parsley seems to be everywhere, this idiom refers to someone who is always around. Example: "Quell'attore è come il prezzemolo, è in ogni pubblicità, ogni trasmissione, ogni film... non lo sopporto più!" Translation: "That actor is everywhere, in every advertisement, every TV programme, every film... I can't stand him anymore!"
10. Avere le mani bucate (To have holey hands) If you had holes in your hands, things would just slip through them. So metaphorically, if you can't seem to hold onto your money, you have "mani bucate." Example: "Se Anna ti chiede dei soldi, non darglieli! Ha le mani bucate, e li spenderà inutilmente come al solito." Translation: "If Anna asks you for money, don't give it to her! She can't hold onto her money, and she will spend it unnecessarily like she always does."
11. Chiudere un occhio (To close one eye) This idiom has a similar equivalent in English and means to turn a blind eye to something or to intentionally overlook a situation. Example: "Oggi mi ha fermato la polizia perché andavo troppo veloce, ma dopo che ho chiesto scusa hanno chiuso un occhio e mi hanno lasciato andare." Translation: "Today I was stopped by the police for speeding, but after I apologized they turned a blind eye and they let me go."
12. Essere un buono a nulla (To be good at nothing) This is quite a straightforward (and rather unkind) idiom, used for someone who is incapable or useless. Example: "Mio marito è fantastico: cucina, pulisce sempre la casa e mi stira anche i vestiti!" "Il mio invece è un buono a nulla, non sa neanche usare il forno a microonde!" Translation: "My husband is fantastic: he cooks, always cleans the house and even irons my dresses!" "Mine on the contrary is a good-for-nothing, he doesn't even know how to use the microwave!"
13. Fare buon viso a cattivo gioco (To put on a good face for a bad game) This idiom signifies making the best of a bad situation or concealing one's true feelings. Example: "Nonostante la pioggia improvvisa durante il suo matrimonio, Maria ha cercato di fare buon viso a cattivo gioco e ha continuato a sorridere per le foto." Translation: "Despite the unexpected rain on her wedding day, Maria tried to make the best of the situation and kept smiling for the photos."
14. Avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca (To have the wine barrel full and the wife drunk) This idiom comes from more sexist times when men used to get their wives drunk, not the other way around. Having the wine barrel full and the wife drunk represents an ideal, although impossible, situation in which you achieve the desired result at no cost. More generally, this Italian idiom refers to someone who tries to have everything, even when this is not possible. The equivalent in English would be "To have the best of both worlds". Example: "Luca cercava di avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca cercando di lavorare a tempo pieno e dedicare abbastanza tempo alla sua famiglia, ma alla fine si è reso conto che era difficile bilanciare entrambi gli impegni." Translation: "Luca was trying to have the best of both worlds by working full-time and spending enough time with his family, but in the end, he realized it was challenging to balance both commitments."
15. Capitare a fagiolo (To come/be at the bean) When Italians say that something is 'at the bean,' they mean it's perfectly timed or suited to the situation. This Italian idiom originated in Florence and was first recorded during the Middle Ages. The most likely explanation for its origin is simply that the inhabitants of Florence had a fondness for beans. Who can blame them? Example: "Il tuo aiuto è capitato a fagiolo: avevo proprio bisogno di una mano con questo compito!" Translation: "Your help came at the right moment: I really needed a hand with this task!"
16. Essere come il cacio sui maccheroni (To be like cheese on macaroni) Cacio is a typical cheese from Rome, and this idiom originally hails from the Eternal City. Romans have a strong affinity for cacio on their pasta (it is undeniably delicious), and so this idiom describes a perfect match. Example: "La neve con questo paesaggio è come il cacio sui maccheroni: rende tutto più magico!" Translation: "Snow is a perfect fit for this landscape: it makes everything more magic!"
17. Avere una fame da lupi (To be as hungry as wolves) Wolves have an important role in folklore because of the threat they used to represent for communities. A hungry wolf is a dangerous one, as it hunts and devours any available prey. Therefore, someone who is hungry like a wolf is ready to eat anything voraciously. Example: "Dopo una lunga giornata di escursione in montagna, avevamo una fame da lupi e abbiamo mangiato tutto il cibo nel frigorifero." Translation: "After a long day of hiking in the mountains, we were starving and ate all the food in the fridge."
18. Essere un pesce fuor d'acqua (To be a fish out of water) This idiom, which exists in English as well, is used to describe someone who feels uncomfortable or out of place in a particular situation. Esempio: "Quando Maria si è trasferita in Giappone, si sentiva come un pesce fuor d'acqua a causa delle diverse abitudini culturali." Translation: "When Maria moved to Japan, she felt like a fish out of water because of the different cultural customs."
19. Avere la testa fra le nuvole (To have your head in the clouds) Like the previous Italian idiom, this one too has a literal match in English. When someone is daydreaming or not paying attention, their head is up in the clouds. Example: "Giorgio aveva la testa tra le nuvole, e si è dimenticato del colloquio di lavoro." Translation: "Giorgio had his head in the clouds and forgot about his job interview."
20. Fare qualcosa col cuore in mano (To do something with your heart in your hand) Despite sounding scary if taken literally, this Italian idiom is touching and sweet. It conveys that someone did something with utmost sincerity and dedication. Example: "Silvia ha dipinto quel quadro col cuore in mano, ci ha trasmesso la sua passione" Translation: "Silvia painted that picture with deep dedication, you can see her passion in it."
Learning these idioms will not only enhance your Italian language skills but also help you connect with native speakers on a deeper level. So, immerse yourself in the culture, embrace these fun expressions, and soon, you'll be sounding like a true Italian!
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In bocca al lupo, and a presto!