italian sayings that will help you sound like a native speaker
Any memorable expression can become a saying, if enough people repeat it. A saying usually contains a piece of advice and sometimes may be difficult to explain to a foreigner. The Italian language is rich in such expressions and these are called detti. For this post, I’ll go over the numerous examples of Italian sayings so you can start practicing right away.
Italian Sayings Using “Who”
Many sayings are meant to warn people or discourage them from doing something. There is a number of cautionary expressions in Italian starting with who (chi) :
- Chi dorme non pecca (He who sleeps, doesn’t sin)
It’s truly difficult to sin when sleeping. However, this proverb actually refers to the fact that only someone who doesn’t act at all can avoid making mistakes. A related proverb “Chi dorme non pecca, ma non piglia pesce” goes even further in saying that “He, who sleeps doesn’t sin but also doesn’t catch fish.” In other words, inactivity may feel safe but it won’t get you far in life.
- Chi semina vento, raccoglie tempesta (He who sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind)
This saying warns people against doing bad things as such actions will only bring them worse things in return.
- Chi cerca trova (He who seeks, finds)
This saying has its equivalent in many languages. It’s used to give people encouragement when they’re tired of trying and lose hope in their success.
- Chi di spada ferisce, di spada perisce (He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword)
The meaning of this old Italian detto is easy to understand. Figuratively, it warns people that whatever they use to achieve their goals may later be used against them. More literally, it’s an encouragement to refrain from being violent.
- Chi non ha testa, abbia gambe (He who doesn’t have a head, has legs)
It’s a way of saying that if you’re forgetful and your memory doesn’t work well, you have to find alternative solutions to solve the problems created because of it. Often the saying is used almost literally. For instance, you could mention it when someone left home without their homework and needed to come back to fetch it (= use their legs).
- Chi non lavora, non mangia (He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat)
Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth and they don’t ever have to worry about work and making the ends meet. Most of us aren’t that lucky. The saying just states the simple truth that nothing comes for free and without work you can’t expect to pay your bills (or eat).
- Chi trova un amico, trova un tesoro (He who finds a friend, finds a treasure)
The value of friendship should not be underestimated. A friend can prove to be of great help in many situations in life so cherish him or her in the way they deserve it. Someone more skeptical created a related humorous saying: “Chi trova un tesoro, trova un amico” (He who finds a treasure, finds a friend). This brings me to my next point, which is…
Funny Italian Sayings
Some Italian sayings are also funny and entertaining and below I’ve added a few you can use to make others crack a smile:
- Volere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca (To want a full cask and a drunk wife)
In English you can’t have your cake and eat it too, while Italians prefer to comment on the inability of having a full cask and a drunk wife. The meaning of the two sayings is the same but the Italian version is certainly funnier.
- Tanto va la gatta al lardo che ci lascia lo zampino (The cat goes to the lard so often that he leaves a paw there)
Getting away with something may be possible once but don’t do it again because next time you may not be so lucky!
- Hai voluto la bicicletta? Adesso pedala! (You wanted a bicycle? Pedal now!)
This is a funny Italian way of saying “I told you so”. “You wanted a bicycle? Pedal now!” means that you’ll have to deal with the consequences of whatever it is that you’ve done.
- Non dire “gatto” se non ce l’hai nel sacco (Don’t say “cat” before you have it in your bag)
Bragging prematurely doesn’t bring anything good to anyone. It’s hard not to agree.
- Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your parents/family, Easter with whoever you want)
This saying is only used seasonally but it’s quite popular so it’s good to know it. Many Italians spend Christmas traditionally with their parents and the rest of the family. The celebration of Easter is much more relaxed and the inhabitants of bella Italia often spend it with their friends.
- Chi asino è e cervo esser si crede, al saltar della fossa se n’avvede (He, who is a donkey and thinks he is a deer, will realize his mistake when jumping over a ditch)
This is a funny way of saying that there’s no point in bragging about yourself because sooner or later the truth will come out.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of Italian sayings. However, it contains the ones that you’re likely to hear. Which one is your favorite? You can let me know in the comments section. Perhaps while reading this post you have also wondered: “Wait…aren’t these proverbs?”. As many people confuse these two and struggle with the distinction between them I have prepared the answer.
The Difference Between Proverbs and Sayings
There are some differences between a saying and a proverb. A saying is just a repeated truth that has gained popularity, while a proverb has additional qualities such as the fact that it contains a moral lesson. You can call any proverb a saying and be correct but it will not necessarily be true the other way round. Having said that, today many people use the two terms interchangeably.
Magdalena Osiejewicz-Cooper has lived in Bologna and Palermo. Apart from Italian she speaks fluent Polish and French. She is currently self-studying Spanish.
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