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What is the most powerful tool for learning a foreign language? It is our memory.
The only things that Italians love more than their family and good food are good conversations.
Italians and Italian-speakers are known for being friendly and eager to talk about everything from their family to the weather.
If you are trying to learn Italian, you will find no shortage of Italian speakers who would be happy to talk to you and help you improve your conversational skills. However, you might run into problems because Italian speakers have a lot of interesting and colorful idioms that they use daily.
An idiom is a phrase where literal translation is often very different from what the speaker means when they say it. If you really want to say you are “fluent” in Italian, you need to learn Italian idioms. Here are a few to start you off.
Translation: You wanted the bicycle
Meaning: Live with the consequences of your choices
This is a wise Italian idiom that basically counsels someone to learn to own up to their choices and live with what those choices brought. Similar to the English expression, “you make your bed, now lie on it”.
Translation: In the mouth of the wolf
Meaning: How to wish a performer luck
There is an Italian superstition that states that you should not wish a performer “good luck”. This is a superstition shared by many English speakers as well, so they would tell an actor or a musician to “break a leg”. Italians will say “in bocca al Lupo” under the same circumstances.
Translation: May the wolf die
Meaning: What to say in response to “in bocca al Lupo”
An English performer will probably just say “thanks” if you tell them “break a leg”. This, however, is the proper Italian response if someone tells you “in bocca al Lupo”.
Translation: Too extreme evils, extreme remedies
Meaning: Do what is needed
This phrase is used when a person realizes that, to solve a problem, they will have to do something they don’t really want to. Maybe they need to sell a family heirloom or contact a romantic rival, whatever it is; they wouldn’t do it if they were not desperate.
Translation: Arms stolen from agricultural work
This Italian idiom is used to imply that someone has been given a job they are unqualified for. They are “clueless” about what needs to be done.
Translation: To have short arms
This idiom is used to describe in Italian what we know in English as a “cheapskate” or a stingy person.
Translation: Don’t break my boxes
Meaning: Stop annoying me
If someone is getting on your nerves and you want them to stop, you can say this in Italian.
Translation: To throw the package
Meaning: Didn’t show up
This Italian idiom is used when you are trying to say that someone who you were expecting to meet, did not show up.
Translation: Something is boiling in the pot
Meaning: Planning or plotting
If you think that someone is up to something, like they are planning a surprise party, you can say that this is what they are doing.
Meaning: To drown in a glass of water
This implies that someone has great difficulty overcoming obstacles. The implication here is, their problems aren’t that serious but they are acting like it’s “the end of the world.”
Translation: To have a hen’s brain
Chicken isn’t necessarily known for their intelligence, which is why this Italian idiom is used to imply someone is stupid.
Translation: To have the horns put on you
When an Italian uses this idiom, they are saying that someone’s significant other is cheating on them.
Translation: Good as bread
Meaning: Good-hearted person
This Italian idiom is similar to the English expression “having a heart of gold”. It is used to describe someone who is an all-around good person.
Translation: Let’s say bread for bread and wine for wine
Meaning: Honest and direct
If an Italian person uses this expression, they are describing a person who doesn’t “sugar coat” or “beat around the bush”. If you ask them for their opinion, they will give it frankly and honestly.
Translation: Dog does not eat dog
Meaning: Everyone has a code of honor
This Italian idiom is equivalent to the idea that there is “honor among thieves”. The idea is that everyone has a certain standard of things that they won’t do because it’s not considered honorable.
Translation: To hold your hands with your own hand
Meaning: Do nothing
Someone who does this is implied to be lazy, good for nothing. This is the person who doesn’t contribute to a group project.
Translation: Mistaken fireflies for lanterns
This Italian idiom is something that is said when the speaker suspects that someone is confused. They are wrong in their opinion or their answer.
Translation: To pull down one’s pants
Meaning: Give up
This is a confusing phrase when translated. I can’t think why this would mean that a person is giving up.
Translation: It doesn’t rain on it
Meaning: I don’t doubt it
This is used by Italians to express confidence in an idea or opinion. They are confident that they are right.
Translation: To be between the anvil and the hammer
Meaning: Faced with two difficult choices
This is basically the Italian equivalent to the idea that you are “between a rock and a hard place”. You have two choices, and neither of these choices is particularly appealing.
Translation: A big piece
Meaning: Important person
This Italian idiom is the equivalent of the English expression “big shot”. It describes someone of power and influence, like the CEO or a company or a politician.
Translation: Keep water in your mouth
Meaning: Keep a secret
When an Italian speaker used this idiom, they are telling you that what they are about to say should be kept in the strictest confidence. It is a secret or private.
Translation: You’re not able to keep a chickpea in your mouth
Meaning: You can’t keep a secret
If you “blabbed” something that an Italian told you in confidence, you might hear them use this idiom.
Translation: I have no hair on my tongue
Meaning: I’m speaking frankly
If someone has decided to give the honest truth, with no “sugar-coating” this is the Italian idiom for it.
Translation: Reheated soup
Meaning: Rekindled love
This may not sound very appetizing, but many Italians – and people of other cultures – hope that this could happen to them. This basically refers to rekindled love. Maybe you dated in college but broke up. Then you saw each other again and decided to give it another try and now your relationship may be “reheated” but it is better and stronger.
This is usually used for a romantic relationship, but it can also be used for friends or business partners. In this case, it just means that you have renewed your relationship with someone else.
Translation: Everything makes soup
Meaning: Everyone has something to contribute
Think about it. When you make soup, you often toss bits of different ingredients in one pot of water. All these ingredients combine to make a tasty and nourishing dish. The idea behind this idiom is the same as “every little bit helps”, so whatever you can contribute to a task will count in the end.
Translation: Love rules without rules
Meaning: Do anything for love
This is basically equivalent to the idea that “all’s fair in love and war”. So, in the pursuit of love, Italians are prepared to do anything.
Translation: To make a mustache of it
Meaning: Don’t fuss
This Italian idiom may sound funny, but it’s actually bitwise. An Italian who tells you this is basically saying that something is not worth making a fuss over. You should treat a situation as insignificant because it’s not that difficult to bear.
Translation: It comes out as it comes out
Meaning: What will be will be
If an Italian speaker uses this idiom, they are basically saying that they are not bothered about something. It’s equivalent to the idea that “it is what it is”.
Translation: I know my chickens
Meaning: I know what I’m doing
Italians will say this if they want to say “I don’t need help”. It expresses confidence in one’s ability.
Translation: One pope dies, another will be made
Meaning: Life goes on
The idea behind this Italian idiom is, even if something bad happens to you, life will go on.
Translation: Neighbor’s grass is always greener
This is similar to the English idiom that states “the grass is always greener on the other side”. It denotes a feeling of envy for another person, who may or may not be your literal neighbor.
Translation: To make too many acts in a comedy
Meaning: Doing too much
If you hear someone saying this in Italian, they are basically telling you that you are taking on too many things at one time. If someone says this to you at work, you might want to think about delegating some tasks to others.
Translation: Fits you like a paintbrush
Meaning: A piece of clothing is the proper size
This is a flattering Italian idiom that means that something you are wearing fits you well. If you hear this from a salesperson at a fashion store, buy the outfit.
Translation: Forbidden fruit is the sweetest
Meaning: Making something forbidden makes it more interesting
The idea expressed here is, when we know we are “forbidden” from something, the more we want to do it.
Translation: He is all pepper
Someone who is “all pepper” is someone who is full of life or is always in high spirits. Someone who livens up a party.
Translation: To look for hairs in the egg
Meaning: To nitpick
This Italian idiom is used to describe someone who is very critical. The implication is that they are just looking for a reason to complain or be dissatisfied with something.
Translation: A dog in church
Meaning: An unwelcome guest
Dogs are not really allowed in churches, so they are unwelcome in the church. This Italian idiom is used to refer to a person, not a dog, who isn’t welcome or invited.
As native Italian speakers use idioms like the ones we’ve listed above almost automatically, it’s important to build up a mental database of these expressions if you want to understand daily conversations.
In order to “speak” with Italian speakers, you need to build up a mental database of common Italian words and common Italian idioms. By learning the idioms we list here and more, you can better follow along and participate in Italian conversations and Italian life.
We suggest that you download this free PDF of Italian idioms and commit to heart what they mean. You should also go through this list with a native Italian speaking tutor. They can help you with the pronunciation and also suggest a few more that it would be good to learn.
An idiom is a phrase where literal translation is often very different from what the speaker means when they say it. If you really want to say you are “fluent” in Italian, you need to learn Italian idioms.
Hai voluto la bicicletta - Live with the consequences of your choices, In bocca al Lupo - How to wish a performer luck, Crepi il Lupo - What to say in response to “in bocca al Lupo”
Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto. – Eat well, laugh often, love much.
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