Expressive Italian

In a recent post at Ishita Sood has made a list of some essential things to know when travelling in Italy, I love these kinds of lists which are very popular on the web. You know the sort of thing: the ten best beaches in the world, the five finest hotels in Spoleto, the eight best historic sites in Sardinia and so forth.


I’ve been having fun on this somewhat wet (though for the moment quite mild) day in the Lucchesia making a list of favourite Italian idiomatic expressions. This is also because my Italian friends have come out with these expressions and I’ve had to ask them what they mean. Similarly, Italian students in my English classes have asked me for the Englishequivalent for their idiomatic expressions.

Asking the students and scouring through the web I’ve come up with this little list of most-used Italian expressions, If you learn these and use them in the correct context (sometimes a little tricky) you’ll be admired for your mastery of one of the world’s most beautiful languages,

Fare la gatta morta Do the dead cat Play dumb
Ubriaco come una scimmia Drunk as a monkey Wasted
Fare il contropelo Shave against the hairs Scold
Trattare a pesci in faccia Treat with fishes in your face Be disrespectful
Avere un chiodo fisso in testa Have a fixed nail in one’s head Have a bee in one’s bonnet
Mettere la pulce nell’orecchio Put a flea in the ear Arouse somebody’s doubts
Saltare i fossi per il lungo Jump ditches the long way Do it with hands tied behind ones’ back (i. e. the most difficult way)
Piovere a catinelle To rain washbasins To rain cats and dogs
Oca giuliva Merry goose Not the sharpest tool in the box
Tirare la corda Pull the rope Take things too far
Avere argento vivo addosso Have quicksilver on oneself Be fidgety
Rimanerci di stucco Remain as stucco Be dumbfounded
Acqua in bocca Water in the mouth Keep it to yourself
Andare a letto con le galline Go to bed with the hens Go to bed early
Dormire come un ghiro Sleep like a dormouse Sleep like a log
Fuori come un balcone Outside like a balcony Out of one’s mind
Sputare nel piatto dove si mangia Spit in the plate one eats from Bite the hand that feeds one
La goccia che ha fatto traboccare il vaso The drop that made the vase overflow It’s the last straw
Stare con le mani in mano To be with your hands in your hand To sit on your hands (be rude)
Non ci piove It doesn’t rain on it No doubt about it!
Piove sul bagnato It’s raining on wet ground When it rains, it pours
Non sei capace di tenerti un cece in bocca. You’re not able to keep a chickpea in your mouth You can’t keep your mouth shut
Pietro torna indietro Its name is Pietro and it has to come back Its name is Jack and it has to come back i.e. If I lend you something I want it back.
Non avere peli sulla lingua To have no hair on your tongue To make no bones about something
Chiodo scaccia chiodo A nail drives out another nail You’ll get over it
Ogni morte di papa Every death of a pope Once in a blue moon
Avere un diavolo per capello To have a devil for each hair To be as angry as hell
Da che pulpito viene la predica Look from which pulpit this sermon is coming Look who’s talking
È il mio cavallo di battaglia It’s my battle horse It’s my strong point
Siamo alla frutta We’ve reached the fruit course in our meal (i.e.the end of a meal) This is really the limit!
Essere come il prezzemolo Be like parsley To have a finger in every pie (be everywhere)
È una testa di rapa: He/she/it ’s a turnip head Understand nothing (be thick)
Prendere fischi per fiaschi To mistake a whistle for a straw-covered bottle Misunderstand a lesson or concept
Mettere il carro davanti ai buoi Putting the carriage before the oxen Put the cart before the horse i.e., mistake the order of things
A fagiolo To the bean to the letter
Chi troppo vuole nulla stringe He/she /it who too much wants, nothing tightens He/she/it who wants too much, gets nothing
L’erba ‘voglio’ non cresce Grass species called ‘I want’ doesn’t grow Don’t say ‘I want’ – you’ll get nothing (perhaps it’s better to say ‘I would like’?).
Cogliere in castagna To pick in chestnut To catch someone red-handed
Cogliere/prendere la palla al balzo To take the ball at the bounce To snatch an opportunity
Avere le mani in pasta To have hands in dough To be capable of pulling strings to get things done.
Solo quattro gatti Only four cats Just a few people
Essere del gatto To be of the cat To be in trouble
I figli dei gatti prendono i topi The offspring of cats catch mice Like father like son (or like mother like daughter!)
Come Dio comanda As God commands The way things are supposed to be
Avere la coda di paglia Have tail made of hay Do something one doesn’t want
Avere le batterie scariche To have a run-down battery To be tired out
Come il cacio sui maccheroni As cheese is on macaroni Just what the doctor ordered
Come il cacio con la pera Like cheese with a pear Delicious, spot on
Amore a prima vista Love at first sight Love at first sight (!)
Spettegolare To gossip
Essere pane per i propri denti To be bread for one’s teeth To describe things that are challenging
Far ridere i polli To make chicken laugh To be ridiculous
Campa cavallo che l’erba cresce A horse only lives if the grass grows Nothing is accomplished by waiting
Se non è zuppa, è pan bagnato If it’s not soup, it’s wet bread Six of one, half a dozen of the other
E’ un oca He/she/it is a duck Stupid (unfair to ducks though).
Darsi all’ippica To give oneself to horse racing (or races) To give up
Una ciliegia tira l’altra One cherry pulls the other It’s difficult to stop enjoying this i.e., it’s moreish
Botte da orbi Barrels from blinds A knock-out
Essere uno stinco di santo To be the shinbone of a saint To be an angel
Fare un tiro mancino To do a left-hand throw To do something tricky, harmful, or unpleasant.
Il diavolo fa le pentole ma non i coperchi. The devil makes cooking-pots but not their lids There’s no such thing as the perfect crime
Essere uccelllo di bosco To be a bird of the woods To disappear
Non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco Don’t say cat if you don’t have it in the bag Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
Non sapere che pesci prendere Not to know what fish to take Not to know what to do
Fare lo stoccafisso To do the air-dried cod To be stuffy about things
Spavoneggiarsi To peacock oneself To show off
Cotto a puntino Cooked to a little dot A meal cooked to perfection
Mangiare cadaveri To eat dead bodies Have bad breath
Tanto va la gatta al lardo che ci lascia lo zampino. The cat goes to the lard so often that it leaves its little paw there An evil doer will eventually be found out.

Not only have I come across these expressions, I love them. Whenever possible I try to use them in the correct context – they are so expressive and colourful. I could also include some rather ruder, more slangy expressions, but I won’t because I am doing the air-dried cod and don’t want to unduly offend my readers.


Of course, Italian conversation centres on one’s health and food (as the English like to talk about the weather). With regard to food there are so many more Italian expressions centring on it. This useful link might help you increase your Italian food simile vocabulary:

One thing is certain, however. Using these expressions may even elicit the reply ‘che figata’ (cool!) ior eveb ‘ganzo’ (clever – also used for one’s boyfriend) from your Italian friends when speaking this incredibly beautiful and expressive language.

I’ve only just ‘esaminato la superficie’ (scratched the surface) of this truly fun part of language learning. Do add to my list or make your own. It’s easy to google ‘Italian expressions’. Proverbs next? ‘A buon intenditor, poche parole!’

10 thoughts on “Expressive Italian

  1. Great list! Thank you. I will definitely try to use some. I wonder if “Ganzo” is purely a Tuscan expression. I’ve used it with people from other parts of Italy and they were not familiar with the word.

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