We finally come to the end of our journey through Italian idioms, this time in style with Part 3 of this engaging series. Dulcis in fundo:* this part is the longest and the richest of the three and, like the two previous parts, contains idioms that are all extremely common.
Now it may seem hard to believe, but I actually made a concerted effort to select only a few of the many idioms Italians use on a daily basis. Indeed, we use so many idiomatic expressions that this list could have been endless! For those students who are interested in going deeper into this topic, it’s possible to find reliable idiom dictionaries online (ask me if you would like some advice). However, if there is a big enough demand, another sequel to this series just might appear soon!
I sincerely hope that I have entertained you throughout this series, while also helping to make Italian less difficult for you.
Now, enjoy your reading!
*This is an idiom too, but it’s in Latin! It’s still fairly common in everyday Italian. It literally means “the dessert comes at the end (of the meal),” and it’s used to say “to save the best for last.”
Come il cacio sui maccheroni (Informal use only)
Translation: Like cheese on maccheroni.
I’m sure all of you have tried Italian style pasta in an Italian restaurant. I’m also sure that you cannot deny that parmigiano cheese is absolutely lovely on every kind of pasta!! That’s where this popular expression comes from: if two things are like cheese on pasta, it means they match. If something is like cheese on pasta, it’s exactly what you were waiting for.
Questa notizia è come il cacio sui maccheroni in questo momento!
Non vedere l'ora
Translation: To not see the hour.
Even though the literal meaning is a bit odd, this expression is so common in everyday language that it is not even perceived as an idiom by Italian speakers. When “I don’t see the hour,” it means that I’m looking forward to something that is about the happen in the near future!
Non vedo l’ora che la mia amica Sara arrivi! Sono anni che non ci vediamo e ho così tante cose da raccontarle!
Fai ballare l'occhio (Informal use only)
Translation: To make your eyes dance.
Move them fast, from side to side and up and down! Your pupils won’t stop “dancing” until you find what you are looking for!
Mamma, non riesco a trovare il mio dizionario di francese! Dov’è?
Fai ballare l’occhio! L’ho visto in camera tua, sono sicura che è ancora lì.
Togliere le parole di bocca
Translation: To take the words right out of one’s mouth.
This curious idiom implies that words simply come out of our mouths in the form of speech bubbles (just like in a comic book) and that anybody could steal those words and make them their own. If you “took the words right out of my mouth,” you’ve just said exactly what I was about to say myself!
Stavo proprio per dirlo io, Maria! Mi hai tolto le parole di bocca!
Rendere pan per focaccia (Informal use only)
Translation: To give bread for focaccia.
This idiom has a very long tradition, with its first appearance going back to a Roman writer. In case you don’t know what it is, focaccia is a very common variety of bread made with olive oil. To give bread to somebody who gave you focaccia means “to treat a person the same as he/she treated you.” Originally used to describe both revenge and a favour, it is nowadays used mainly to talk about getting even.
Le ho reso pan per focaccia! Laura non mi ha invitata alla sua festa e io non l’ho invitata alla mia!
Far venire il latte alle ginocchia (Informal use only)
Translation: To make the milk reach the knees.
The origin of this expression comes from milking cows. Usually, the farmer would sit on a stool with a bucket between his legs next to the cow. He would go on milking until the milk level in the bucket reached his knees. It was a very slow process and a good deal of patience was required. Nowadays, this idiom refers to something incredibly boring and tedious that makes you lose your patience.
Le lezioni di quel professore mi fanno venire il latte alle ginocchia! Sono noiosissime… e lui parla così lentamente!
Mandare all’aria/in fumo
Translation: To send something to the air/to the smoke.
Long ago, when people decided to get rid of something, it was very common to light a big fire and burn it until nothing was left but ashes. It was as if what we burned vanished into the air with the smoke. Therefore, if you “have sent something to the air or to the smoke,” you have destroyed it. This expression is mainly used when talking about plans, projects, or money.
Questo inconveniente ha mandato all’aria tutti i nostri piani.
Tutti quei soldi andati in fumo! Ha fatto proprio un pessimo investimento.
Seminare zizzania (Informal use only)
Translation: To sow zizzania.
The key to this idiom is zizzania. So, what is it? Zizzania is a generic name for any sort of invasive plant that spreads very fast and is harmful to wheat plantations. If a farmer sows zizzania in one field, he’s deliberately ruining the harvest. Thus, if you “sow zizzania” you intend to harm somebody, while if you “sow zizzania” among a group of people, you want them to argue.
A Claudia piace seminare zizzania tra le persone! Ha sempre qualche fastidioso pettegolezzo da raccontare.
In bocca al lupo!
Translation: In the mouth of the wolf!
This is a way of wishing someone good luck. We usually say this to a person who is about to deal with something difficult or risky (taking an exam, moving abroad, starting a business, etc.). When we tell a friend “to end up in the mouth of the wolf,” we are actually wishing him/her the opposite. We want him to avoid any sort of bad luck.
However, the best is yet to come: this idiom also requires a very specific reply! As if it were a very short theatre dialog, the other person must reply by saying: Crepi! This means “it might die!”
Domani mattina parto per l’Australia. Ho trovato lavoro a Sydney e starò via un anno.
In bocca al lupo per tutto, allora!
Prendere qualcuno in castagna (Informal use only)
Translation: To catch somebody in a chestnut.
Unfortunately, the origin of this idiom is one of the most obscure ones. However, this didn’t prevent me from adding it to the list. It’s very common indeed, and it would be a pity not to learn it. If you “catch somebody in a chestnut,” you have caught this person doing something very bad or illegal.
Il ladro è stato preso in castagna dalla polizia: stava scappando con la refurtiva (the stolen goods).
Acqua in bocca! (Informal use only)
Translation: Water in the mouth!
Let’s do an experiment: let’s try to speak with our mouths full of water. Well, we would probably spit out the water immediately! That’s exactly what this idioms means. If you tell somebody “to keep water in his/her mouth,” you’re telling this person to not reveal a secret or to not talk about a particular subject matter.
Mi raccomando, acqua in bocca riguardo alla crisi con mio marito. Non voglio che si sappia in giro!
However, please, do not keep water in your mouth and instead try to speak Italian using these idioms as much as you can. You will definitely sound like an expert speaker!
- Pasta by Meal Makeover Moms (CC BY-ND 2.0)
- Stopwatch by Peter (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Owl by Airwolfhound (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Speech Bubble by Sam Howzit (CC BY 2.0)
- Focaccia by jeffreyw (CC BY 2.0)
- Milk by Kim Piper Werker (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Smoke by Eli Duke (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Wheat Field by Aske Holst (CC BY 2.0)
- Wolf by Tambako The Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0)
- Chestnuts by Randi Hausken (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Glass of Water by sakura_chihaya+ (CC BY-ND 2.0)