When learning a new language you come across a lot of amusing cultural curiosities, and the literal meanings of idioms are certainly one of them. The Italian language is very rich in idioms that can sound funny to English learners when translated literally.
Each idiom carries in its image the history of a rural down-to-earth popular tradition… I'm sure many of them will make you smile!
Let's start our journey across idioms. In this first part we will discover seven expressions. Make sure you remember them; they are indeed very common among both young and elderly people. Even though the origin of each expression might be unclear now for the majority of Italians, they are still like parsley in everyday conversations. Most of them can also be used in different contexts (such as with friends or with colleagues) since they are not fully considered slang.
Prendere un granchio
Translation: To pick up a crab
Finding a crab on the hook instead of a juicy fish is not exactly what a fisherman wishes. And that's where this expression comes from. Nowadays in Italian if you say that someone “caught a crab,” you mean that this person either made a mistake or a very bad decision!
Giulia ha proprio preso un granchio con quell’auto usata! Lo sai che si è già rotta due volte?
Farina del proprio sacco
Translation: Flour from one's own sack
This idiom is related to the traditional farming activity of producing flour by grinding one's own wheat. It means that what you are presenting as made by yourself is actually made by someone else. If I think that “your essay is not flour from your own sack,” I think that you didn't write it yourself!
Il professore mi ha bocciato dicendo che la mia tesina non sembrava del tutto farina del mio sacco.
Gallina vecchia fa buon brodo (Informal use only)
Translation: Old chicken makes good stock
According to experienced cooks, the meat of an old chicken is the best way to obtain a tasty and rich stock. This idiomatic expression means that it's better to trust people with experience and wisdom.
Ascolta la tua cara zia, Pietro: le persone tendono a dimenticarsi che gallina vecchia fa buon brodo!
Attaccare bottone (Informal use only)
Translation: To attach a button
Those who can sew know that sewing buttons can be very boring. This is the origin of this expression, which means “to detain someone with a long, boring conversation.”
Stamattina al mercato ho incontrato Giovanna e come al solito mi ha attaccato un bottone che non finiva più! Scusami se ho fatto tardi.
Tempo di vacche grasse (Informal use only)
Translation: Time of fat cows
What a farmer wishes the most is for his cows to be fat, healthy and prosperous! If you describe your current situation as “a time of fat cows,” you're saying that things are going very well!
- A: Come vanno le cose nella ditta di famiglia, Carlo?
- B: Alla grande! Non potremmo essere più fortunati: abbiamo nuovi clienti e tantissimi ordini!
- A: Tempo di vacche grasse, allora! Sono felice per voi!
Avere le braccine corte (Informal use only)
Translation: To have short arms
Usually shortened to avere il braccino, this very popular idiom has a particularly fun explanation. If someone had short arms, it would be quite difficult for this person to reach his/her trousers pocket in order to take out some cash.
This metaphoric image applies to people who are believed to be stingy and greedy. So if your friend has a short arm, he is very much careful as to where he spends his money!
Siamo andati al ristorante e ho dovuto pagare io per entrambe: non mi aspettavo che Francesca avesse il braccino corto!
Essere largo di manica
Translation: To be of wide sleeve
This idiom means the opposite of the one described right above; in fact a large sleeve would be the perfect place to keep money in order to have it at your fingertips if your intention was to quickly spend a lot. If you “have a large sleeve,” you are a generous and lavish person who doesn't really care how much he spends!
Quel cliente era di manica larga e mi ha lasciato una mancia molto generosa! Ce ne fossero di persone così!
- Crab image by Marcelo César Augusto Romeo (CC BY 2.0)
- Flour sack image by Derek Σωκράτης Finch (CC BY 2.0)
- Chicken image by Andrew (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Buttons image by Tony Hisgett (CC BY 2.0)
- Cows image by Marc Dalmulder (CC BY 2.0)
- Woman on car image by Aral Tasher (public domain)
- Man in suit image by Ermin Celikovic (public domain)