italian idioms

40 Cool Italian Idioms for the Smooth-talking Language Learner

Do you want to really sound like an Italian?

If so, it’s time to take on Italian culture and unique native speech with Italian idioms.

Idioms are words and expressions that are figurative in nature, but whose meanings are readily understood by speakers of the language.

This post will introduce you to 40 Italian idioms, getting you started on this important facet of Italian fluency.

Contents

1. In bocca al lupo (In the mouth of the wolf)

This is the equivalent of “break a leg.” Use this instead of “Buona fortuna” (Good luck).

There’s an Italian superstition that if you wish somebody good luck, bad things will happen instead.

But then the response should never be “Grazie,” instead, you would say “Crepi il lupo,” (May the wolf die).

2. Buono come il pane (Good as bread)

This will be the first of our food-related idioms, and I’m telling you that there will definitely be more on this list.

“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” as a blanket description of a good person, when you really don’t have anything else to say about him or her.

3. L’erba del vicino è sempre più verde (Neighbor’s grass is always greener)

You may have already guessed the English equivalent of this one: The grass is always greener on the other side.

The fact that it has an English equivalent suggests that this sentiment is part of human nature, a universal expression of discontent.

4. A mali estremi, estremi rimedi (To extreme evils, extreme remedies)

 This one means “desperate times call for desperate measures.” 

There’s not much more explanation needed for this as it is used anytime you normally would say the English version.

5. Affogare in un bicchier d’acqua (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, 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.

6. L’amore domina senza regole (Love rules without rules)

Italy is known for its romantic aura, so it makes sense to have an idiom or two that surrounds love. This has a similar idea to “all is fair in love and war.”

So watch out when you visit Italia. You just might fall in love with the place, the pizza and the people.

7. I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci (Forbidden fruit is sweetest)

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. 

8. Conosco i miei polli (I know my chickens)

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” they utter this idiom with an air of quiet confidence.

9. Minestra riscaldata (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.

10. Non avere peli sulla lingua (Not to have hair on your tongue)

This Italian idiom 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. 

11. Trovarsi fra l’incudine e il martello (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.

This is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation.

12. Hai voluto la bicicletta? Allora, pedala! (You wanted a bike? Now, pedal!)

Italy has fully embraced its biking culture, so 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.

13. Diciamo pane al pane e vino al vino (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.” 

14. Ha molto sale in zucca (Has a lot of salt in his gourd)

To “lose one’s gourd” is to be crazy or to lose one’s mind.

“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.

15. È tutto pepe! (He is all pepper)

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.

16. Ti sta a pennello (Fits you like a paintbrush)

Speaking of compliments, if you hear this one in one of Italy’s premier fashion stores 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.)

17. Fare troppi atti in commedia (To make too many acts in a comedy)

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.”

18. 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.

19. Sputa il rospo (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.

20. Colto con le mani nel sacco (Caught with his hands in the bag)

This one 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.

21. Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro (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.

22. Togliti dai piedi! (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!” 

23. Alla come viene, viene (It comes out as it comes out)

This means “It is what it is.” The expression gives the sense that a thing is done in a shoddy, slapdash manner.

24. Attaccare il cappello (To hang up one’s hat)

In English, we have expressions like “hang up one’s gloves” or “hang up one’s boots.” They all mean to retire, or quit doing something.

The Italian “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). 

25. L’abito non fa il monaco (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.”

26. Caduto dalle nuvole (Fallen from the clouds)

This 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.”

27. Mal comune, mezzo gaudio (Common bad, half rejoice)

Misery does love company. To put it in a more positive way, “a trouble shared is a trouble halved.”

28. Farsene un baffo (To make a mustache of it)

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.

29. Ogni morte di papa (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.

30. Tale madre, tale figlia/Tale padre, tale figlio (Such mother, such daughter/Such father, such son)

Like mother, like daughter. Like father, like son.

Such is life. Soon enough, you’ll embody your folks’ spirits—hovering over others, asking them if they’ve eaten, just like Mom. 

31. Tutto fa brodo (Everything makes broth, soup)

This Italian expression means every little thing counts.

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 for a stranger.

32. Un pezzo grosso (A big piece)

From little things we go to big things.

“Un pezzo grosso” is synonymous to the English idiom “big shot,” 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.

33. Calare le brache (To pull down one’s pants)

“Calare le brache” means to chicken out and surrender. 

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!

34. Avere un cervello di gallina (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.

It 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.

35. Cane non mangia cane (Dog does not eat dog)

This one is the complete opposite of the English “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.

36. Avere le braccine corte (To have short arms)

We all have that one family member or friend that is always trying to get out of paying for anything.

The expression refers to a cheap person who never seems to have the arm length or strength to reach for his wallet.

37. Cornuto (Horned)

This idiom refers to someone cheating on someone else. The offending party may be evil and deserve to wear the “horns,” but actually, the one wearing the “horns” is actually the one being cheated on.

The expression usually comes with a hand gesture for which the index finger and the pinky are held up, like during rock concerts.

38. Raro come una mosca bianca (Rare as a white fly)

Have you ever seen a white fly?

Exactly.

39. Non vedo l’ora (I don’t see the hour)

This Italian idiom 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.

40. Che palle! (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. 

Why Learning Italian Idioms Is a Must for Learners of the Language

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.

Idioms are creative ways of saying something with spice and punch. 

If you are able to understand Italian idioms, you will better understand speakers and their worldview.

Finally, it’s important to note that there’s a story or history to idioms. They have origins and provenance, even if native speakers don’t remember them.

Idioms are little peeks into the history, beliefs and traditions of the language that they carry.

The best way to pick up on these idioms is by hearing them be used by native speakers.

If you use FluentU, you can access hundreds of videos that will have native speakers using idioms in natural contexts. 

 

Now that you know 40 more Italian idioms, you are one step closer to sounding like a native!

Keep learning and you’ll soon know even more!

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