One of the most enjoyable ways to take your knowledge of a language to the next level is to learn some of its common and fun phrases. In the last language article we looked at 10 Useful Phrases in Italian, where we learned some common everyday phrases that are easy to listen for and helpful to know how to say. But once you’ve got those down, you can dig deeper into Italian culture by learning some of its idioms.
Idioms may be the most entertaining part of any language. In Italian there are many that have close equivalents in English, many with an interesting twist, and even a few that are quite unique unto themselves. With some help from our Italian friend Camilla (of GlobeStyles.com) and her Milanese family, we’ve found some of the most fun idiomatic phrases in Italian that aren’t too difficult to work into a conversation, and we’ve listed and dissected them a bit below.
Have fun with them and let us know in the comments if you have any better explanations or fun Italian phrases of your own!
1. L’erba del vicino è sempre più verde.
“The grass is always greener on the other side.”
A common English idiom, this one has a near-identical equivalent in Italian. In Italian though there is no “other side.” Instead we talk about how l’erba del vicino–the nearby grass, or the neighbor’s grass–is always greener.
2. Come bere un bicchiere d’acqua.
“A piece of cake.”
“Like taking candy from a baby.”
When something is “a piece of cake,” in Italian it’s as easy as “drinking a glass of water.”
Of course in English you can paint a more vivid (and cruel, though some might say funny) picture by saying it’s “like taking candy from a baby.” Though Italians are often very nice, fortunately there’s an identical phrase at our disposal in Italian!
Bonus phrase: Come rubare caramelle da un bambino.
3. Meglio prevenire che curare.
“Better safe than sorry.”
You never know when this phrase will come in handy, so you may as well have it at your disposal. Better safe than sorry!
In Italian, the verb prevenire means “to prevent” or “to anticipate” and curare means “to cure.” The literal translation goes then, “Better to prevent than to cure.” So this idiom has more of a medicinal feel to it in Italian, but it’s applicable to general situations as well.
4. Quando la gatta va al lardo ci lascia lo zampino.
“Curiosity killed the cat.”
While the English version of this phrase has brevity as a strength, the Italian phrase paints a more descriptive picture. In Italian, when the cat goes for the lard, she loses her paw! Poverina 🙁
5. Non puoi avere la moglie ubriaca e la botte piena.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
This is without a doubt my favorite phrase in the whole list! I have to admit, when I was a kid the English phrase didn’t make perfect sense to me. I thought of it chronologically: you have your cake, and then you eat it! Why can’t you do that? Fortunately it wasn’t too long until I came to think of it in the only way in which it makes sense–you can’t have your cake still after you’ve eaten it!
But there’s no mistaking the phrase in Italian, even for a silly little kid. It translates exactly to: “You can’t have a drunken wife and a full barrel of wine.”
It’s either one or the other!
6. Chi va piano va sano e va lontano.
“Slow and steady wins the race.”
This English idiom is a rough equivalent of the Italian version. It’s one I can’t think of without thinking of the Aesop fable The Tortoise and the Hair.
The Italian version is a bit more literal, and translates to: “He who goes slowly goes healthy and far.”
You may recognize the word piano in the phrase from the common Italian phrase piano piano that we covered in 10 Useful Italian Phrases, which is a great way of saying, essentially, “step by step.”
7. Prendere due piccioni con una fava.
“Kill two birds with one stone.”
I didn’t give this much thought before starting to write this list, but in English we have a lot of phrases that make use of “killing” and “dying” (“I’m dying to know,” “I’d kill for a sandwich,” “I’m dead broke”).
While the Italians have their fair share of phrases involving the verb morire, the equivalent of this phrase doesn’t take it to that extreme. Instead it’s a lot cuter of a scene: “Taking two pigeons with one fava bean.”
Why a fava bean? I’m not quite sure. I guess pidgeons have a thing for fava beans. And they were more common in the ancient Mediterranean diet 🙂
8. Non mettere tutte le uova in un solo cesto.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Italians may not eat eggs for breakfast, but they’re still a useful ingredient in all their delicious baked goods! And so they still make a useful appearance in this idiom about hedging your bets. The Italian translation is exactly the same.
9. Tale padre, tale figlio.
“Like father, like son.”
The word tale roughly translates to “such,” so this expression is useful for the cute comparison between parent and child. The ol’ “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” idea. Changing the genders works perfectly well also, so we get Tale madre, tale figlia for “Like mother, like daughter.”
10. -In boca al lupo. -Crepi.
“Good luck” or “Break a leg”
There’s two parts to this classic Italian idiom wishing someone good luck. The first part literally means “In the mouth of the wolf.” But literalness is hardly important with this one, as the actual meaning is along the lines of “good luck.”
However, unlike “good luck,” a simple “thank you” won’t do as a reply for this phrase. When someone says In boca al lupo to you the only appropriate reply is the word Crepi, which essentially lets the person know that you hope the wolf dies!
Bonus: -In culo alla ballena. -Speriamo che non caghi.
If you like the uniqueness of In boca al lupo, here’s a bonus phrase that is less common and more crude, but means the same thing. Like In boca al lupo it has two parts, the wish and the reply. In the first part, you may know the word culo if you’ve spent any time around Spanish speakers or have a familiarity with Latin American rap. It means butt. And ballena means whale. So the translation is literally “In the butt of the whale.”
And for the reply? Speriamo che non caghi translates literally to “We hope it doesn’t poop.”
How’s that for wishing someone good luck? And if you think this manner of speech must be reserved for immature teenagers after a giggle, just know that the first time it was said to me was by an older sweet Italian woman soon after she had finished cooking us a delicious homemade dinner as we were parting ways for good.
I hope you enjoy these 10 fun phrases in Italian! Pull any idiom out of your back pocket as a foreigner and you’re sure to turn a few heads from native speakers, and maybe even elicit a “bravo/a” or two.
Have any thoughts or better explanations for any of these? Or have an Italian idiom of your own that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments section below.