15 Italian Idioms for Your Everyday Conversation
Idioms can be found in every language, and every culture has their specific ones: they originate from habits, events, cultural tradition and jobs. Most times they cannot be translated directly without losing part of their meaning. Italian makes no exception, and we’re going to take a look at some of the most popular Italian idioms you might hear as you progress in your language studies.
In bocca al lupo (Into the mouth of the wolf)
Originally used in opera and theatre to wish a performer good luck prior to a performance, it’s used to wish good luck to someone, especially before an important event (such as a job interview, match, exam). The standard response is “Crepi il lupo!” (“may the wolf die”). The English equivalent of it is “break a leg”.
Affogare in un bicchier d’acqua (To drown in a glass of water)
To be unable to handle a simple situation, to over-complicate things.
Piangere come una fontana (Cry like a fountain)
Cry copiously, desperately.
Conosco i miei polli (I know my chicks)
To know a situation very well and what to expect from it. It can also mean that you know how a person think and how they will act.
Chi non risica non rosica (Who doesn’t risk, doesn’t bite)
It’s better to risk than to lose the opportunity. It also means that you need to work hard to achieve good results.
Essere una pecora nera (To be the black sheep)
Black fleece is a recessive gene in sheep, so it’s rarer to see in a flock, and in the 17th and 18th black wool was considered commercially undesirable because it could not be dyed. Therefore this expression indicates someone different from the main crowd, or with different characteristics that its original group/family. The same concept is illustrated in some other languages by the phrase “white crow”.
Non avere peli sulla lingua (To not have hair on your tongue)
To speak your mind, to be very honest and outspoken. Metaphorically, the hair would indicate an obstacle to express yourself, like a filter.
Vedere i sorci verdi (To see green mice)
To face a difficult situation, to struggle while handling it. This idiom originates in Rome, in the 30s, when a very famous aviation squad (205° Squadriglia) used three green mice as their symbol, painted on their planes. “Sorci” is the Roman dialectal variation of “topi” (mice).
Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro (If one pope dies, another will be elected)
This expression means that no one is irreplaceable, not even the Pope (who is the highest authority of the Catholic church).
Chiusa una porta, si apre un portone (Once a door is closed, a main door will open)
Every lost opportunity or disappointment (represented by the door) represents the starting points for even bigger achievements (represented by the main door, which is bigger).
L’abito non fa il monaco (The dress does not make the monk)
It means you can’t judge someone by their appearances. The English equivalent could be “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
Avere l’argento vivo addosso (To have alive silver all over you)
A person with mercury on themselves is considered fidgety and full of energy, and the expression is usually used when referring to very active kids. Argento vivo, which literally means “alive silver” is an ancient name used for mercury, which is a very fluid and mutable substance.
Prendere un granchio (To catch a crab)
To make a mistake, or to buy something worthless for a big sum. This expression originates from fishermen: while fishing, it can happen that a crab gets hooked by the bait. It will then start to strongly struggle, so that the fisherman would believe that they have caught a big prey, whilst it would be nothing more than a crab.
Acqua in bocca! (Water in the mouth)
An injuction to keep a secret. The English equivalent is “Mum’s the word.”
Sano come un pesce (As healthy as a fish)
It means to be very fit and perfectly healthy. This expression originated in ancient times, when people believed that fish could not fall ill. Because of the natural selection, it is rarer to observe sick fish, and their symptoms might not be as clear as other animals.
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Giulia was born in Italy and currently lives in Scotland. She works as an English and French translator and as a teacher.