As an expat working in a multinational and multilingual environment, I spend a lot of time marvelling at idioms and expressions, as they define each culture’s view of humanity, the world and life in general. Many an awkward conversation among people of different nationalities stems from attempts at idiom translation. The results range from hilarious to downright embarrassing and the Internet offers plenty of examples of the rudest and juiciest idioms, literally translated into english for your amusement and astonishment. If you are planning on spending time and doing business in Italy, you might find yourself wrestling with the more creative instances of our language and occasionally giving us the honestly puzzled look of someone who has no idea what we are talking about. This is a – by no means comprehensive – list of everyday expressions that you are likely to encounter if you practise your Italian with native speakers for long enough.
1. In bocca al lupo – literally: In the wolf’s mouth
It is used instead of Buona Fortuna (literally: good luck), which you should never use. It may have started out as a theatrical tradition, but it’s now considered to be the appropriate way of wishing someone good luck in just about every situation. There are several theories as to how this expression was born. One attributes it to the courage that is obviously required to put any part of oneself in the mouth of a wolf, thereby making it a wish of bravery and good fortune in overcoming obstacles. This explanation also works best with the customary answer to this expression, which is “Crepi!” (Literally: may [the wolf] die!). Another, altogether sweeter explanation has become popular in recent years, referring to the fact that a female wolf will carry her cubs from place to place in her mouth to keep them from harm, thus making the mouth of a wolf actually a really safe place to be in (if you are a cub). Whichever tale you chose to credit, just don’t ever say Buona Fortuna. Particularly not on an opening night.
2. Morto un Papa, se ne fa un altro– literally: When a Pope dies, a new one is made
Religion features a lot in Italian idioms and this is one of the most popular expressions you will come across. It is used in a variety of contexts, from business to romantic relationships, and it can carry many and diverse overtones. It essentially means that no-one is irreplaceable: even the Pope, which by definition is the only one occupying that particular position at any given time, will eventually die and a new one will take over. Of course, we are now aware that death is not an essential prerequisite for the papal turnover to take place, but that is neither here nor there or, as we would say…
3. Un altro paio di maniche – literally: A different pair of sleeves
The english expressions that more closely match the meaning of this curious Italian idiom are “a horse of a different colour” and “a different kettle of fish”, meaning “something else entirely”. This expression, however may also be used, as we have just seen, to imply that something is “neither here nor there”, that it is inappropriate or unproductive to discuss it in the present situation or that doing so would lead the conversation astray.
4. Avere il pelo sullo stomaco– literally: To have hair on one’s stomach
Yes, I know it sounds icky, but we actually use this one a lot. If someone has hair on their stomach they are tough, tenacious and resilient. The mental image that should occur to you is not that of a fuzzy belly, but of an actual stomach lined with actual fur. If you have hair on your stomach, it means your insides are as tough as your hyde and that you will probably be able to “digest” a thorny situation better than others. This may be intended as a compliment to your fearlessness or as contempt for your lack of morals. Context, as is often the case, is everything.
5. Senza peli sulla lingua– literally: To have no hair on one’s tongue
What is it with Italians and hair? No idea, we apparently find hair very expressive. Someone who has no hair on their tongue is used to speaking their mind freely. Which, arguably, would be a remarkably difficult feat to accomplish with a furry tongue, as anyone who’s ever been hungover knows all too well. As with many Italian expressions, again, context is king: to have no hair on one’s tongue might be a positive thing, associated with being sincere, honest and straightforward. It may, however, also carry negative overtones, meaning that someone is excessively outspoken, to the point of being inappropriate or indiscreet.
6. Acqua in bocca – literally: [hold] Water in [your] mouth
If you try this, you will find that it is extremely difficult to talk, while holding water in your mouth, without spilling it. This is the equivalent of the english expression “Mum’s the word” and it means “to keep quiet about something”. That’s probably why we also say Muto come un pesce (literally: Silent as a fish) where the english expressions would use mice or graves as paragon of silence. Arguably, mice are the noisiest of the lot, as neither fish nor graves are known to be other than entirely silent.
7. Tirare la corda – literally: To pull on the rope
Where you might be “pressing your luck” or “taking things too far”, “trying someone’s patience” or simply “pushing it”, we tend to pull on the rope. When that invisible threshold has been crossed, it is silently agreed that the rope will simply snap and cause one to fall over. This is a pretty self-explanatory and effective metaphor and it is always a source of great surprise for an Italian speaker, when learning other languages, to discover that it is not universally used.
8. Italian expressions that can mean literally everything
Basta! – literally: Enough!
This is an extremely useful word, that you can use to signal that you want something to stop. It may be meant in a nice way, if your host has just served you a third helping of Parmigiana, or in a not-so-nice way, if the kids next door have been listening to loud music all afternoon while you were trying to concentrate on an important report. Or it might be in a neutral way, when you declared yourself too tired to keep on working on said report.
I have had too much to eat: Basta!
Shut up!: Basta!
You are annoying me: Basta!
Keep the racket down or I’ll take away your ball: Basta!
I am too tired, I can’t do any more work today: Basta!
Allora – literally: Then
Not unlike the word “then” in english, “allora” can be used in a variety of situations and take on entirely different meanings depending con the context and the tone in which ti is used.
So, let’s get started…: Allora…
Get a move on!: Allora?!
So what?: Allora?
Are you ready yet?: Allora?
I am furious and I am about to tell you why: Allora.
How did your exam go?: Allora?
Did you enjoy the meal I have lovingly cooked for you?: Allora?
Dai! – literally: Give!
For some unfathomable reason, whenever we mean to encourage someone to do something, we tell them to “give”, which, I grant, may be slightly confusing to the average english-speaker. “Dai”, however, is used in different situations, accompanied by other words such as “su” (literally: up), “forza” (literally: strength) and “Ma” (literally: but or occasionally why as in “why, of course!”).
Come on!: Dai!
You’ve got to be kidding!: Ma dai…
You don’t say…: Ma dai…
You can do this!: Dai! Su! Forza!
Hurry up!: Dai!
Stop it!: Dai!
I can’t believe this!: Ma dai!