Do you want to really sound like a native Italian speaker? If so, it’s time for you to learn Italian idioms. We use them all the time, both in speech and writing.
Learning about Italian idioms and sayings will not only make you truly understand real Italian as it is spoken by native speakers, it will also make you sound less like a textbook and more natural.
But first, what are idioms?
Idioms are creative, colorful ways of saying something with spice and punch. They reflect cultural customs, traditions and values.
Most of the time, Italian idioms rely on metaphors or analogies, and their meaning is not obvious from looking at single words. The key to understanding Italian idioms is never to read them in a literal sense. Their words often seem totally random when translated literally. Try and understand their meaning, instead.
Here are some of the most common Italian idioms.
In bocca al lupo
Literal meaning: in the mouth of the wolf.
“In bocca al lupo” is an informal way to wish someone good luck. Don’t reply with grazie (thank you), but rather “Crepi il lupo!” (may the wolf die) or just “Crepi!”, for short.
Its use originated with hunters wishing each other to find themselves in dangerous situations, as a way of wishing good luck.
“In bocca al lupo” corresponds to the English expression “Break a leg”.
Gettare la spugna
“Gettare la spugna” has its almost literal equivalent in the English idiom “To throw in the sponge (or towel)”.
It means that you give up, quit and stop trying to do something, because you know that you can’t succeed. This beautiful expression derives from boxing, where throwing in the sponge is done by a boxer’s trainer to stop the fight.
Prendere qualcuno a pesci in faccia
Literal meaning: to slap someone in the face with a fish.
What it means: to treat somebody like dirt, to mistreat.
This is a very common expression used when someone has treated you disrespectfully. For example:
Oltre a non ricevere uno stipendio, gli stagisti vengono spesso presi a pesci in faccia – In addition to not being paid, interns are often treated like dirt.
Salvare capra e cavoli
Literal translation: To save goat and cabbages.
The closest idiomatic expressions I can think of in English are “to have it both ways” and “to have the best of both worlds”.
This idiomatic expression refers to an ancient riddle which dates back to the 9th century. A farmer has to cross a river with a goat, a cabbage and a wolf he purchased in a market. He can only take one item across at a time, and can’t leave either the goat with the cabbage, and the wolf with the goat. If left unattended together, the goat would eat the cabbage, and the wolf would eat the goat.
“Salvare capra e cavoli” means finding a solution to a tricky situation without compromising any positive outcome.
Prendere la palla al balzo
Literal meaning: to take the ball at the bounce.
What it really means: to seize the opportunity, to seize the moment.
Example: Mi è stato offerto un lavoro in cui verrei pagato il doppio per lavorare la metà. Ho preso la palla al balzo e ho accettato – I was offered a job where I would get paid twice as much to work half the time. I seized the opportunity and accepted!
Sputare il rospo
Literal meaning: to spit the toad.
English equivalent: to get something off one’s chest.
When someone says “Sputa il rospo!”, they are telling you to reveal something that you had kept hidden or that has caused you emotional discomfort.
Tirare l’acqua al proprio mulino
Literal meaning: to pull the water to your mill.
What it means: to act in your own interest, to serve your own interests, to selfishly consider your own needs and no one else’s.
English equivalents: to look after number one, to further your own cause.
Example: Viviamo in una società individualista in cui ognuno si preoccupa solo di tirare l’acqua al proprio mulino – We live in an individualistic society in which everybody looks after number one
La goccia che ha fatto traboccare il vaso
Literal translation: the drop that made the vase overflow.
English equivalent: the last straw, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Italian idiomatic expression “La goccia che ha fatto traboccare il vaso” refers to the last in a series of irritating things which makes you very angry or upset. It indicates all the times you have been repeatedly irked until you can’t take it anymore and explode.
Avere l’argento vivo addosso
Literal meaning: to have the alive silver on one’s body.
What it means: to be very energetic, lively, hyperactive and in high spirits.
English equivalent: to be full of beans.
Here is an example: Al mattino ho sempre l’argento vivo addosso – I’m always full of beans in the morning.
Restare con un pugno di mosche
Literal meaning: to be left with a handful of flies.
What it means: to remain empty-handed.
This idiomatic expression is commonly used when someone fails to achieve any results or success. For example:
Silvia si aspettava l’eredità, ma è rimasta con un pugno di mosche – Silvia was expecting the inheritance, but she was left empty-handed.
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Avere voce in capitolo
Literal translation: to have voice in chapter.
What it means: to have the right, power or an active role in making a decision about something.
English equivalents: to have a say in the matter, to have a voice in the matter.
Example: È opportuno che i cittadini abbiano voce in capitolo nella scelta dei candidati al Parlamento – Citizens should have a say in selecting candidates for Parliament.
Andarci con i piedi di piombo
Literal meaning: to go there with the feet of lead.
What it truly means: to tread carefully, to tread lightly, to be cautious, to do something cautiously.
Example: Non puoi accusare qualcuno senza prove, devi andarci con i piedi di piombo in questo tipo di situazioni – You can’t accuse someone without evidence, you have to tread carefully in this kind of situation.
Tutti i nodi vengono al pettine
Literal meaning: all the knots come to the comb.
What it means: chickens come home to roost.
This idiom means that sooner or later you have to face the consequences of your mistakes. For example:
Veronica pensava di farla franca, ma alla fine i nodi sono venuti al pettine – Veronica thought she could get away with it, but eventually the chickens came home to roost
Andare nel pallone
Its literal meaning: to go in the big ball.
What it means: to be confused, to feel so embarrassed and self-conscious that you can’t think straight.
In northern Italy, we also say “andare in banana” (literally, to go in the banana) with the same meaning.
Here is an example: All’esame sono andato completamente nel pallone e ho fatto scena muta – My mind went foggy during the exam and I couldn’t utter a word
Essere a cavallo
Literally: to ride on a horseback.
English equivalents: to be home and dry, to be out of the woods.
This lovely idiom implies that you are going to make it, you found a successful way to solve a problem and have a good chance to obtain good results.
Example: Siamo a cavallo! – We’re on the right track!
Sbarcare il lunario
Literal meaning: to unboat the moonriver.
What it means: to get by financially, to have enough money to pay for your basic expenses.
English equivalent: to make ends meet.
Example: Costantino deve fare due lavori per sbarcare il lunario – Costantino has to work two jobs to make ends meet
Capire Roma per toma
Its literal meaning: to understand Rome for toma cheese.
What it means: to misunderstand something completely, to understand one thing for another.
English equivalent: to get the wrong end of the stick.
Example: Io glielo avevo detto, ma deve aver capito Roma per toma – I had told him, but he must have misunderstood.
Arrampicarsi sugli specchi
Literal meaning: climbing on mirrors.
English equivalent: to clutch at straws, to grasp at straws, to grab at straws, to try to prove that black is white.
This idiomatic expression is used when someone tries to convince you that they are right, or makes a desperate attempt to sort a problem out.
Essere al settimo cielo
Literal meaning: to be in seventh heaven.
What it means: to be extremely happy, joyful and elated.
English equivalents: to be on cloud nine, to be over the moon, to be on top of the world.
Example: Serena era al settimo cielo quando ha scoperto di essere incinta – Serena was over the moon when she found out she was expecting.
Tutto fa brodo
Its literal meaning: Everything makes broth.
English equivalent: It’s a grist for the mill.
This lovely Italian idiom means that every little thing counts, every little bit helps. Let’s look at an example:
Tutto fa brodo quando si è disperati e non si sa da dove cominciare – Every little thing counts when you are desperate and don’t know where to start.
Mettere la pulce nell’orecchio
Literal meaning: to put a flea in someone’s ear.
This funny expression means to plant a seed of doubt, to arouse someone’s doubts or suspicions. For example:
È stata Guendalina a mettergli la pulce nell’orecchio – It was Guendalina who raised his suspicions.
Tagliare la testa al toro
Its literal meaning: To cut off the bull’s head.
This graphic idiom means to eliminate every indecision and clinch the question once and for all. For example:
Tagliamo la testa al toro e decidiamo una volta per tutte quali dipendenti licenziare – Let’s settle things once and for all and decide which employees to lay off.
Avere le braccine corte
Literal meaning: To have short arms.
English equivalent: to have short arms and deep pockets.
The funny expression “Avere le braccine corte” refers to a stingy, tight-fisted person, who never seems to have the arm length to reach for his wallet. In other words, it refers to someone who has plenty of money but very little desire to spend it.
Suonato come una campana
Literal meaning: rang like a bell.
What it truly means: wacky, loony.
English equivalents: nuts, nutty.
Here is an example: Marta sarà anche carina ma è suonata come una campana – Marta may be pretty but she is nuts.
Far vedere i sorci verdi
Literal meaning: to make someone see green rats. Note that sorcio is the way Romans call rats.
What it means: to give someone trouble.
English equivalent: to put somebody through the mill.
This Italian idiom originally referred to a Second World War air force squadron which adopted three green rats as its logo.
Here is an example: Giulia, quell’uomo ti farà vedere i sorci verdi – Giulia, that man will put you through the mill.
Tirarsi la zappa sui piedi
Its literal meaning: to throw the hoe on your own feet.
English equivalents: to shoot oneself in the foot, to cut one’s own throat, to be the author of one’s own doom.
“Tirarsi la zappa sui piedi” means to damage your own plans or progress through silly actions. For example:
Emilio si è tirato la zappa sui piedi da solo con quei commenti provocatori – Emilio shot himself in the foot with such inflammatory remarks.
Remare contro / Mettere i bastoni tra le ruote
Literally: to backstroke / to put sticks in the wheels.
English equivalent: to throw a spanner in the works.
What it means: to interfere, to deliberately foil a plan.
If someone “rema contro” or “ti mette i bastoni tra le ruote”, they deliberately cause problems which spoil the success of your plan or prevent something from happening in the way you planned it.
Its literal meaning: Reheated soup.
Italians use this idiomatic expression when couples go back together after a break-up, mostly because of the lack of better alternatives or because of fear of the uncertainty of what would happen next.
Saltare di palo in frasca
Literal meaning: to jump from pole to branch.
What it means: to jump from one topic to another, to hop from one subject to another.
Example: È difficile non perdere il filo del discorso, perché Michela salta continuamente di palo in frasca – It’s difficult not to lose the thread of what she’s saying, because Michela continually jumps from one topic to another.
Far ridere i polli
Literal translation: to make chickens laugh.
What it means: to be utterly ridiculous.
English equivalents: to make a cat laugh, to be the laughing stock of the city.
Here is an example: Con quel parrucchino in testa, Pietro fa ridere i polli – Pietro is utterly ridiculous with that toupée on.
Avere la puzza sotto al naso
Literal meaning: to have the stink under the nose.
What it means: being snobbish, snobby, stuck-up, haughty, arrogant.
English equivalent: to have your nose in the air, to be toffee-nosed.
Example: Abbiamo cenato in un ristorante di lusso, pieno di gente con la puzza sotto il naso – We had dinner in a luxury restaurant full of snobby people.
Perdere le staffe
Literal meaning: to lose the stirrups.
What it means: to lose your temper, to get angry, to lose control.
Example: Simone ha perso le staffe e se ne è andato sbattendo la porta – Simone lost his temper and went out, slamming the door behind him.
Tagliare la corda
Its literal meaning: cutting the rope.
What it really means: to sneak away, to sneak off, to leave quickly.
Here is an example: Dopo il lancio del bouquet abbiamo tagliato la corda – We sneaked away after the bouquet toss.
Mangiare la foglia
Literal meaning: to eat the leaf.
What it means: to see through something, to suspect, to understand that something strange is going on.
English equivalent: to smell a rat.
Example: Gli inquirenti hanno mangiato la foglia quando sono emerse versioni contrastanti sull’accaduto – The investigators smelled a rat when conflicting versions of the facts came out.
Per un pelo
Its literal meaning: for a hair.
What it means: almost, by an extremely short distance or slim margin of time.
English equivalent: by a hair’s breadth.Here is an example: La tragedia è stata evitata per un pelo – A tragedy was narrowly avoided.
Its literal meaning: to hold bench.
What it really means: to speak a lot in a group of people, to lead a discussion.
Example: Elena ha monopolizzato la conversazione e ha tenuto banco tutta la sera – Elena monopolized the conversation and talked and talked and talked all night.
Rimettersi in sesto
Its literal meaning: to put oneself back in sixth.
What it means: to recover, to get better, to get back in shape.
Example: Camilla e Francesca torneranno al lavoro appena si saranno rimesse in sesto – Camilla and Francesca will get back to work as soon as they feel better.
Non stare più nella pelle
What it literally means: to not stay in the skin any more.
What it truly means: to look forward to something, can’t wait for something.
Here is an example: Non sto più nella pelle dalla voglia di vederti! – I can’t wait to see you!
Fare le scarpe a qualcuno
Literal meaning: to make the shoes to someone.
What it means: to kick someone out of his job, to undermine someone.
English equivalent: to pull the rug out from under someone (so that they fall).
Here is an example: Il mio collega ha tentato di farmi le scarpe – My colleague tried to pull the rug out from under my feet.
Literal meaning: last beach.
What it really means: last chance, the final recourse or expedient.
“Ultima spiaggia” is an expedient adopted only in desperation. For example:
Negli anni Novanta i siti di incontri rappresentavano l’ultima spiaggia per asociali e disadattati di procurarsi un appuntamento, ma i tempi sono cambiati – In the early nineties, dating sites were considered the last resort for loners and misfits to find romance, but times have changed.
Calzare a pennello
Literal meaning: to put on at the paintbrush.
What it means: to fit perfectly, to be the correct size.
English equivalents: to suit to a T, to fill the bill, to fit the bill.
Example: Questi jeans a vita alta ti calzano a pennello – These high-waisted jeans fit the bill.
Unire l’utile al dilettevole
Literal meaning: to unite the useful to the delightful.
What it means: to do something pleasurable that is also useful or productive.
English equivalents: to combine the useful with the pleasurable, to mix business and pleasure.
Example: Raggiunge la perfezione chi unisce l’utile al dilettevole – Those who combine the useful with the pleasurable reach perfection.
Avere la coda di paglia
Literal meaning: to have the tail of straw.
What it means: To have a guilty conscience, to have something to hide.
If you have a guilty conscience, you tend to overreact and get angry in a situation about which you feel guilty.
Vuotare il sacco
Literal meaning: to empty the sack (!!).
What it means: to tell all, to confess all.
English equivalents: to come clean.
Here is an example: Aldo, ti conviene vuotare subito il sacco – Aldo, you better come clean with me right now.
A ogni morte di papa / Una volta ogni morte di papa
Literally, it means every time a pope dies, which is very rarely.
English equivalent: once in a blue moon.
Example: Da quando è finita la scuola, io e Martina ci vediamo una volta ogni morte di papa – Since school ended, Martina and I see each other once in a blue moon.
Senza arte né parte
Literal meaning: without art nor part.
What it really means: to have no skills, to have no talent.
Example: Armando è un sempliciotto senza arte né parte – Armando is a simpleton with no talent at all.
Far venire il latte alle ginocchia
Its literal meaning: to make the milk come to the knees.
What it means: to be extremely boring, to be sickening boring.
English equivalents: to bore someone to tears, to bore someone to death, to be like watching paint dry.
Example: Quel film mi fa venire il latte alle ginocchia – That movie is sickening boring / That movie bores me to tears.
Literal meaning: to attach button.
What it really means: to start talking to someone you don’t know.
Example: Tommaso è molto disinvolto e sa come attaccare bottone con una ragazza in modo brillante – Tommaso is very confident and knows how to chat up a girl.
Have fun practicing them in conversations. The more comfortable you get using Italian idioms, the closer you get to reaching full fluency.
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