One of the best ways to get to know a language is to get to know its idioms. An idiom is usually a group or pair of words that is used for its figurative meaning, which is quite different and difficult to figure out if you just have the literal one. Just think of the English idiom “It’s raining cats and dogs!” to see what I mean. Every language has them, and while there are similar ones between languages, every language has its own. Italian idioms are some of the weirdest and most expressive parts of this wonderful language, and so here we share with you our absolute favorites. Enjoy!
In bocca al lupo
This literally translates to “In the mouth of the wolf.” And from this translation it might seem a long way to what it actually means in Italian: Good luck (or something similar to our own idiom “break a leg”)! It is actually bad luck to say to someone “Buona fortuna” or what we Anglo speakers would guess to be the equivalent to our good luck. And it is more bad luck to respond to someone’s wishing “in boca al lupo to you,” with “grazie,” or thank you. Instead, your response should be, “Crepi il lupo,” or “may the wolf die.”
This idiom literally translates to “beastly physique.” And from here, it’s actual, idiomatic meaning might be easily gathered: it is a compliment for someone with a well-toned, worked-out body. So next time you’re off to the gym in Rome, say your working on your fisica bestiale, and you’ll be understood.
Ti porto come una giacca in primavera
Not something you would say everyday, this idiom literally translates as “I’m going to take you around like a jacket in spring.” To understand the meaning of this, you must picture Italians walking around in spring with their jackets slung over their shoulders, their fingers strung through the little loop for hanging them on hooks. The context of this idiom is playfully aggressive, and the meaning is something close to “I’m going to pick you up and drag you around!” Italians can always be counted on for their stylish dramatics!
La bocca che ha traboccato il vaso
The literal translation of this idiomatic saying is, “The mouth that overflowed the glass.” It has the same counterintuitive feel to it as its English relation: The straw that broke the camel’s back. And it means the same thing: that something small has set you, or someone else, too far over the edge.
Passare in cavalleria
I assume that this idiom comes from the times when there was war all over Italy. Literally this idiom means in English: To pass with the cavalry. And if something passes along with the cavalry, you might as well forget ever seeing that something again, which is what it really means.
Culo e camicia
A simple phrase has a simple translation: rear end and shirt. But of the course this idiom’s real meaning can hardly be guessed by this pairing. It means something like our “two peas in a pod” or “hand and glove,” and is used to describe two people who are perfectly fitted to each other. But you’ve got to ask an Italian why this makes sense!
Avere dente avvelenato
This can be translated as “to have poisoned teeth” and maybe it dates from the time when a good dentist was hard to find, though don’t quote me on it. Its idiomatic meaning is to have a grudge against, or have it in for someone. Poisoned teeth certainly don’t recall a pleasant image.
Non avere peli sulla lingua
By the bottom of this list, it may seem that Italians are obsessed with idioms about the mouth. Well, here’s another. Literally this idiom means “not to have hair on your tongue.” It is used to describe someone that is frank, who doesn’t hold back her opinion even if it’s not pretty. You can ask someone to speak without hair on their tongue or you can use it to announce that what you’re about to say may not be agreeable.
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Curious about more international idioms? Read the blog “Idioms of the World” for funny sayings in Polish, Japanese, French and Russian!