What are idioms?
Idioms or idiomatic expressions are phrases that have a figurative meaning conventionally understood by native speakers.
This meaning is different from the literal meaning of the idiom’s individual elements.
In other words, idioms don’t mean exactly what the words say.
Idioms often reflect cultural mores, traditions, and values.
Have a look at two common English idioms and their Italian equivalents:
Mark is as good as gold.
Mark è buono come il pane.
Literally: Mark is good as bread.
That is ugly as sin.
Quello è brutto come la fame.
Literally: That is ugly as hunger.
In this post, 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.
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 traditions, and jobs.
Most times, idioms cannot be translated directly without losing part of their meaning. Also, literal translations sound very odd.
Italian idioms add color to a language and make you sound competent and comfortable.
In fact, using idioms may make Italians think you know more of their language than you actually do.
That’s great because it will make you expand your language skills and ease your acceptance into another culture.
Following are common Italian idioms that not only will make you sound more Italian but also will help you to understand Italian better.
Common Italian idioms with 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 bread and, thus, to food.
Here are some of the most common Italian idioms concerning food, followed by their English equivalents and their literal translation:
Buono come il pane.
A really good person.
Good as bread.
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.
Ha molto sale in zucca.
He/ She is very clever.
Literally: He/ She has a lot of salt in his/ her gourd.
A gourd is an oddly-shaped fruit often used in the English equivalent to represent a person’s head or brain.
“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/ She is full of life!
Literally: He/ She 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.
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.
Same old story.
Literally: 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.
Diciamo pane al pane e vino al vino.
Let’s call a spade a spade.
Literally: 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.
Here are some more food-related idioms:
Brutto come la fame
Ugly as hunger.
Tutto fa brodo.
Every little bit helps.
Literally: everything makes broth, soup
Fare polpette di qualcuno.
To make mincemeat of someone.
Literally: to make meatballs of someone.
Cercare i peli nell’uovo.
To be picky, to nitpick.
Literally: to look for hairs in the egg.
Essere in un bel pasticcio.
To be in a pickle.
Literally: to be in a nice pie.
Avere le mani in pasta.
To have a finger in many pies.
Literally: to have your hands in dough.
Qualcosa bolle in pentola.
Literally: something boils in a saucepan.
Darn! / Damn!
Funny idioms about life
Here’s a list of Italian idioms about life. We’ve also included an insightful explanation for each idiom.
Chiodo scaccia chiodo
You’ll get over it.
Literally: A nail drives out another nail.
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).
Sei ancora innamorato di lei? Dai, troverai presto qualcun altro… chiodo scaccia chiodo!
Are you still in love with her? Don’t worry, you’ll find someone else and get over it!
Aren’t Italian idioms so versatile?
L’erba del vicino è sempre più verde.
The grass is always greener on the other side.
Literally: Neighbor’s grass is always greener.
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
Literally: Forbidden fruit is sweetest.
Now that we’re talking about 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.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Literally: 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.
Here’s a similar one:
Mai giudicare dalle apparenze.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Literally: Don’t ever judge by the appearance.
This also means that you should not judge something or someone based only on their appearance.
It means you can’t judge someone by their appearance.
Mal comune, mezzo gaudio.
A trouble shared is a trouble halved.
Literally: Common bad, half rejoice.
Or “misery does love company”. This is a conclusion that has been borne out in psychological research.
Tale madre, tale figlia./ Tale padre, tale figlio.
Like mother, like daughter./ Like father, like son.
Literally: Such mother, such daughter./ Such father, such 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.
Every little thing counts.
Literally: Everything makes broth.
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.
Actions speak louder than words.
Literally: Facts speak more than words.
This Italian idiom means that one can better judge people’s intentions by what they do rather than what they say.
Tanto va la gatta al lardo che ci lascia lo zampino.
Curiosity killed the cat.
Literally: The cat goes to the lard so much that it leaves its paw.
This Italian idiom means that being overly inquisitive, or sticking your nose in something can lead you into an unpleasant situation.
A caval donato non si guarda in bocca.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth!
Literally: One shouldn’t look at the mouth of a gift horse.
This is said to advise someone not to refuse something that is being freely offered.
Non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco.
Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched!
Literally: Don’t say “cat” if you don’t have it in your bag.
It is said to emphasize that you cannot depend on something happening before it has happened.
La mela non cade mai troppo lontano dall’albero
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Literally: The apple never falls too far from the tree.
This means a child usually has a similar character or similar qualities to his or her parents.
Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro.
There are plenty more fish in the sea.
Literally: 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.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Literally: 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.
When one door shuts, another opens.
Literally: Once a door is closed, a main door opens.
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 with animals
There are many Italian idioms about animals. Here’s a selection and an explanation for each:
In bocca al lupo!
Literally: Into the mouth of the wolf!
There are different theories about the origin of this idiom.
Some say it probably has its origins in a hunting expression.
Others think 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.
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, or exam).
In English, we say, “break a leg” to actors and musicians before they brave the stage to perform.
The response to “in bocca al lupo” should never be “grazie”. Instead, you should say “crepi il lupo” (may the wolf die) or just “crepi!” for short.
Of course, you can wish someone “buona fortuna” (good luck), but this idiomatic form is much more common.
Actually, there’s an Italian superstition that if you wish somebody “buona fortuna”, bad things will happen instead. So, it’s always better to just say “in bocca al lupo!“.
Il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio.
A leopard cannot change its spots.
Literally: The wolf loses its fur but not its vice.
It means that a person’s character, especially if it is bad, will not change, even if they pretend that it will.
Fa un freddo cane!
It’s so damn cold!
Literally: It‘s dog cold!
This 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.
Avere un cervello di gallina.
To be bird-monded.
Literally: 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.
A 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.
There’s honor among thieves.
Literally: 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 eats dog).
Sano come un pesce.
To be very healthy.
Literally: 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.
Prendere un granchio.
To make a mistake.
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.
È il mio cavallo di battaglia
It’s my forte.
Literally: It’s my battle horse.
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”).
Sputa il rospo.
Literally: 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.
Raro come una mosca bianca
As rare as hens’ teeth.
Literally: Rare as a white fly.
Have you ever seen a white fly?
Essere una pecora nera.
To be a bad egg.
Literally: 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 than its original group/family. The same concept is illustrated in some other languages by the phrase “white crow”.
Conosco i miei polli.
I know who I’m dealing with, I know what I’m talking about.
Literally: I know my chickens.
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.
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.
Other idioms with animals
Here are some examples of animal-related idioms, including their English equivalents and what they commonly refer to in Italian:
literally: a rabbit
literally: an owl
someone who doesn’t talk
literally: a fish
someone silly, flighty
literally: a goose
un pollo da spennare
someone who can be taken advantage of
literally: a chicken waiting to be plucked
avere uno stomaco da struzzo
to eat anything and suffer no side effects
literally: stomach of an ostrich
someone clever, who can always work difficult things out
literally: a fox
someone who changes his principles or ideas according to his own best interests
literally: a chameleon
avere le farfalle nello stomaco
to have butterflies in the stomach
la cicogna porta i bambini
a stork brings babies
dormire come un ghiro
to sleep like a dormouse
literally: to sleep like a log
ingoiare il rospo
to swallow a bitter pill
literally: swallow the toad
Italian idioms with fare (to do)
Here’s a list of the most common idiomatic expressions with fare (to do):
fare gli auguri
to wish someone a happy birthday or to congratulate someone for something
fare il bagno/la doccia
to take a bath/shower
to have good/bad/warm/cold/cool weather
fare il biglietto
to get a ticket
fare buon viaggio
to have a good trip
to have breakfast
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
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
fare un regalo
to give a present
fare una sorpresa
fare la spesa
to go grocery shopping
fare le spese
to go shopping
fare lo spiritoso
to joke; to clown
to be late
fare una telefonata
to make a call
fare le valige
fare un viaggio
to take a trip
fare una visita
to pay a visit
Italian idioms with avere (to have)
Notice that most of the idiomatic expressions with avere (or its shortened version, aver) are translated with the verb to be in English.
to be cold
to be hot
avere . . . anni
to be . . . years old
to be hungry
to be thirsty
to be sleepy
to be in a hurry
to be afraid
to be right
to be wrong
to be ashamed
to be brave
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 la corda al collo
to have no way out
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)
to disrupt the plans; to be unsuccessful
to go smoothly
to leave; to go away
andare a trovare
to pay a visit to someone
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 broke
literally: to be “ at the green“
literally: golden dreams
un libro giallo
a detective story or mystery
literally: a yellow book
un libro rosa
a romance novel
literally: a pink book
un libro nero
literally: a black book
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 tricolorefor 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:
an area, usually the historical center of a town, where the circulation of cars is forbidden
literally: blue area
diventare di tutti i colori
to show deep embarassment
literally: to become of all colors
dirne/farne/vederne di tutti i colori
to say/do/see all kinds of absurd things
literally: to say/do/see something of all colors
to be filled with rage
literally: to be black
mettere nero su bianco
to put in writing
to put something down in black and white (as in black ink on white paper)
to be very upset
to see all red
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 whiteas 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 nerem
any 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 near 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 in the plural form), while others remain unchanged in gender and number:
More cool Italian idioms
Here are some random Italian idioms:
Ti sta a pennello.
It fits you really well!
Literally: It 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 wear too many hats.
Literally: 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.”
A mali estremi, estremi rimedi
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Literally: To extreme evils, extreme remedies.
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”, 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!
This idiomatic expression literally means “its name is Pietro and it comes back,” and is used to tell a frien that the thing they’re about to borrow should be returned.
Affogare in un bicchier d’acqua.
To make a mountain out of a molehill.
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.
Non avere peli sulla lingua.
To speak one’s mind.
Literally: Not to have hair on your tongue.
Non avere peli sulla lingua
To make no bones about something.
Literally: To have no hair on your tongue.
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.
In other words, it 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.
Here’s an example sentence:
Non rimanerci male, non è cattivo… semplicemente non ha peli sulla lingua.
Don’t be disappointed, he’s not a bad person… he just makes no bones about this kind of thing.
Trovarsi fra l’incudine e il martello.
To be between a rock and a hard place.
Literally: 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.
Hai voluto la bicicletta? Allora, pedala!
You’ve made your bed, now lie in it!
Literally: 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!
Useful Italian idioms
Here are some more Italian idioms:
Piangere come una fontana.
Literally: Cry like a fountain.
Avere le braccine corte.
To be really stingy.
Literally: To have short, little 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.
Deceived or bastard
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 is to say that he’ s “cornuto” /she’s a “cornuta”.
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
Non vedo l’ora!
I can’t wait!
Literally: 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.
Literally: 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 whisper “Che palle!” while being served. Just make sure they don’t hear you since it might sound rude.
(Seriously, though, it’s best to be courteous and gracious whenever you visit other countries.)
Stare con le mani in mano.
To sit on your hands.
Literally: to be with your hands in your hand.
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:
Non stare lì con le mani in mano, aiutami con questa valigia!
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.
Che maleducato! È arrivato alla festa di compleanno con le mani in mano.
How rude! He came to the birthday party holding his own hands.
Non ci piove!
No doubt about it!
Literally: It doesn’t rain on 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.
L’Italia è il paese più bello del mondo, su questo non ci piove!
Italy is the most beautiful country in the world, there’s no doubt about it!
Piove sul bagnato.
When it rains, it pours.
Literally: It rains on wet ground.
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.
Ho perso il lavoro, la mia fidanzata mi ha mollato, adesso mi hanno anche rubato il portafogli… piove sul bagnato!
I got fired, my girlfriend broke up with me, and now I’ve lost my wallet… when it rains, it pours!
Acqua in bocca!
Keep it to yourself.
Literally: Keep the water in your mouth!
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.
È un segreto, acqua in bocca!
It’s a secret, keep it to yourself!
Tenere un cece in bocca.
To keep the mouth shut.
Literally: To keep a chickpea in the mouth.
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?!?
Non dirgli niente, non si sa tenere un cece in bocca!
Don’t tell him anything, he’s not able to keep his mouth shut
Pietro torna indietro.
Its name is Jack and it has to come back!
Literally: Pietro comes 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!”
Mi presti questo libro?
Sì, ma c’è scritto Pietro sulla copertina!
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.
Avere un diavolo per capello.
To be mad as hell.
Literally: To have a demon for each hair
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!
Lasciami stare…ho un diavolo per capello
Leave me alone… I’m seething!
Da che pulpito viene la predica!
Look who’s talking!
Literally: Look from which pulpit this sermon is coming!
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!
Pensi che dovrei mangiare meglio? Senti da che pulpito viene la predica!
You think I should eat more healthily?! Look who’s talking!
Colto con le mani nel sacco.
Literally: 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.
There are plenty more fish in the sea.
Literally: 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!
Get out of my way!
Literally: 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 is what it is.
Literally: 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.
Attaccare il cappello.
To hang up one’s hat.
Literally: 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.
“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.
Literally: 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.
Not to care.
Literally: 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.
Once in a blue moon.
Literally: 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.
Literally: 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 give up.
Literally: 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!
Add insult to injury.
Literally: In addition to the damage, even the insult!
This Italian idiom means that not only did you get ripped off (the injury), but you were also duped (insult).
Fare l’avvocato del diavolo.
Being the devil’s advocate.
Literally: To do the devil’s lawyer.
This means that you are presenting a counterargument in which you don’t really believe in, in order to start a debate.
Avere gli occhi più grandi dello stomaco.
Bite off more than you can chew.
Literally: To have the eyes bigger than the stomach.
This means that you are taking on more of something (food, task, project, etc.) than what you can process or handle.
Calmare i bollenti spiriti.
Blow off steam.
Literally: To calm down the hot spirits.
This Italian idiom means that you are calming yourself or other people who are feeling angry.
Piangere sul latte versato.
Crying over spilled milk.
This means that you are complaining about a problem from the past that cannot be changed.
Concedere il beneficio del dubbio
Giving the benefit of the doubt.
This means that you should not doubt someone’s statement until proven otherwise.
Prendere due piccioni con una fava.
Kill two birds with one stone.
Literally: To take two pigeons with a broad bean.
This Italian idiom means you can solve two problems with one solution.
È un gioco da ragazzi!
Piece of cake!
Literally: It’s a children’s game!
This Italian idiom means that a job, task, or other activity is very easy or simple.
Quando parli del diavolo e spuntano le corna.
Speak of the devil!
Literally: When you talk about the devil and horns come out.
It is used when the person you have just been talking about arrives.
Tenere le dita incrociate.
Keep one’s fingers crossed.
This means to hope for a good outcome for someone or something.
Sbarcare il lunario.
To make ends meet.
Literally: To unload the almanac.
This means managing to stay alive, especially when one has very little money, or in very difficult circumstances.
The verb sbarcare in this context is used as “to get by”, whilst the word “lunario” refers to an ancient calendar or annual almanac quite popular in the countryside which used to include news about fairs and markets, weather forecasts (lunario includes the word luna which means “moon”), predictions for the future and much more.
So the figurative meaning of this expression comes from the idea of surviving with little money until the end of the year.
Ride bene chi ride ultimo!
He who laughs last, laughs longest.
Literally: Laughs best who laughs last!
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.
Aggiungere benzina sul fuoco
Add fuel to the fire.
This means to say or do something that makes a bad situation worse.
Pareggiare i conti.
To settle a score.
Literally: To match numbers.
This means to do something equally bad to someone who has done something bad to you.
Bere come una spugna.
To drink like a fish.
Literally: To drink like a sponge.
This Italian idiom is used when talking about someone who drinks a lot or too much alcohol.
L’ambasciator non porta pena.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
Literally: The ambassador is not bringing pain.
It is said to warn someone not to be angry with the person who delivers bad news (for which they’re not responsible).
Avere lo stomaco di ferro.
To have a cast-iron stomach.
Literally: To have a stomach made of iron.
This means you have a very strong stomach that can withstand bad food or anything nauseating.
Farsi in quattro.
Bend over backwards.
Literally: To be in four (as in too many things at the same time).
It means to try very hard to do something good or helpful.
More Italian idiomatic expressions
Let’s have a look at some more Italian idiomatic expressions:
Vedere i sorci verdi.
Literally: 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 ants in one’s pants.
Literally: 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.
Acqua in bocca!
Mum’s the word.
Literally: Water in the mouth.
An injunction to keep a secret.
Tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare.
There is many a slip between cup and lip.
Literally: Between saying and doing is the ocean.
This expression is a comment on good intentions and the idea that they often don’t come to fruition.
O bere o affogare.
To sink or swim.
Literally: 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.
Literally: a dog in church.
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.
Italian expressions about love
You just read lots of useful idioms. Let’s now focus on the most common Italian expressions and sayings about love.
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’)
- more formal alternatives like ‘fare il filo a‘ (literally ‘to make the thread to’) or ‘corteggiare‘ (literally ‘to court’)
- the Anglicism ‘flirtare‘
- ‘civettare‘, which comes from the word civetta (owl) and is generally restricted to women
- ‘fare il cascamorto, which refers to a man who is flirting in an over-the-top way with someone
- ‘buttarsi‘ (literally ‘to throw oneself’), which means ‘to have a go with someone’
- ‘abbordare‘, which means ‘to approach’
- ‘rimorchiare‘ (literally ‘to haul’), which means ‘to pick someone up’
Here’s the vocabulary referring to flirty people:
- ‘una civetta‘ (an owl): used to talk about flirty women
- ‘un donnaiolo‘: for a heterosexual man (it translates more or less as ‘womanizer’)
- ‘un cascamorto‘: comes from the term ‘cascare morto‘ (to fall down dead), suggesting dramatic swooning.
And if someone isn’t responding to your flirting, here’s a very common phrase we use:
Fare il prezioso/la preziosa.
To play hard to get.
Literally: to pretend to be precious.
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 a date, you’d say:
Ho un appuntamento con un ragazzo/una ragazza.
I have a date with a guy/girl.
However, if you’re dating regularly, you can say:
Sto uscendo con qualcuno.
I’m going out with someone.
Mi sto vedendo qualcuno.
I’m seeing someone.
Some other useful dating vocabulary to have up your sleeve:
un appuntamento al buio
a blind date
Literally: a date in the dark
pagare alla romana
to split the bill equally
Literally: to pay the Roman way
bidonare / or dare buca a qualcuno
to stand someone up
And if you’re feeling like the third wheel, you might say:
essere l’ultima ruota del carro
Literally: to be the last wheel of the cart
reggere la candela
Literally: to hold the candle
Hugs and kisses
If the date goes well, you might find yourself engaging in any one of the following:
andare a braccetto
to walk arm in arm
fare il cucchaio
Literally: to do the spoon
If you want to get more descriptive, Italian has a rich vocabulary for talking about kisses.
smooch or snog
This word is derived from ‘baciare‘ and implies lots of repeated, romantic kisses.
baciare alla francese
baciare alla fiorentina
to kiss the Florentine way
The latter variant has been recorded as early as the 17th century, when it appeared in an Italian erotic novel. This could be 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.
baciare con la lingua
to kiss with the tongue
You could also say ‘slinguare‘ which means the same but is more fun to say.
to give a sloppy kiss
Literally: to lemon
to make out
Limonare 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.
to have sex
to make love
There are much more vulgar alternatives, not to be used around Italian in-laws. Here they are:
Literally: to sweep
Literally: to steal/swipe
Literally: to unlock (from ‘la chiave‘ meaning key)
Here’s more vulgar vocabulary:
una botta e via
a one-night stand
Literally: a bang and go
farsi una sveltina / fare una cosina veloce
to have a quickie
Falling in love
Here are some common expressions you might want to use if you fancy someone:
Mi piace qualcuno.
I fancy someone.
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.
Mi sono innamorarto/a in qualcuno.
I have fallen in love with someone.
Sono pazzo/a per lui/lei.
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:
I like you.
you like me.
If you want to be more emphatic, you can say:
I love you.
I adore you.
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.
Here are some of the most common pet names in Italy:
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.
Go practice these idioms and expressions
That’s it! You’ve just learned many of the most common and useful Italian idioms, sayings, and expressions 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.
If you want to read more about the relationship between idioms, culture, and traditions, and about why it is important to learn idioms, keep on reading!
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.
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.
When you say you’re “killing two birds with one stone”, you don’t really mean it, 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: how to use them
First of all, don’t try to memorize all of them because, as you could see, there are way too many.
Stick to the ones you like. Try to really grasp the meaning of them. If you have doubts, ask a friend.
That way, you’ll be sure to really understand what they mean.
Once you feel comfortable, you’re ready to use them.
However, don’t try to force yourself. Saying an Italian idiom should be spontaneous, so wait for the right context and if you feel you’re ready to say it, go for it!
Italians will be impressed!
In bocca al lupo!