Ten bizarre Italian idioms explained
The Local · 17 Nov 2015, 12:20
Published: 17 Nov 2015 12:20 GMT+01:00
- Ten words Italians are so sick of hearing (13 Nov 15)
- Keen Italians face uphill struggle to learn English (03 Nov 15)
- 12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language (02 Nov 15)
Avere le braccine corte | To have short arms
If an Italian acquaintance tells you your arms are short, they're not actually insulting your physique - they just want you to get the next round of drinks. This is how Italians refer to stingy people who are seemingly unable to reach into their pockets to pay for anything.
Photo: Pâl-Kristian Hamre/Flickr
Hai voluto la bicicletta? E adesso pedala! | You wanted the bike? Now ride it!
This has a similar meaning to the English expression, “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it!” The undertones aren’t particularly sympathetic, so save it for moments when you're secretly pleased that someone is getting what they deserved.
Photo: Mario Mancuso/Flickr
Cambiano i suonatori ma la musica è sempre quella | The musicians change, but the music stays the same
Here’s a saying you might hear uttered by a disillusioned Italian, propped up at the bar and grumbling about how things never change. It's often used to berate politicians or authorities who claim to be progressive but don't seem to do anything.
Photo: Marco Antonio Torres/Flickr
Fare le corna a qualcuno | To put the horns on you
If your girlfriend 'puts horns on you', it means she’s having an affair – you can either use the phrase or simply make the horns gesture to imply someone is being cheated on. But where does the expression come from? In Greek mythology, Parsifal, the Queen of Crete, had an adulterous relationship with the Cretan Bull. Her son, the Minotaur, was born with the body of a man and head of a bull – the horns acting as a symbol of his mother’s extra-marital affair. Italian cities which were founded by the Greeks, like Naples, inherited several of their gestures and sayings. Nowadays the gesture can be used as an insult even if you've got no reason to assume someone's partner has been unfaithful. You’ll often see angry Italian footballers make the horns sign at the referee, for example.
Photo: Dean Hochman/Flickr
Piove a catinelle | It rains like washbasins
Just imagine that someone in heaven has turned the taps on full blast – this phrase is just a dramatic way of saying it’s raining heavily. Of course, this is Italy, so it’s also used in weather that those from less summery climates might refer to as a ‘light drizzle’.
Photo: Mike Burns/Flickr
Senza peli sulla lingua | Without hair on their tongue
When you ask a friend to be brutally honest with you, even if you might not like their opinion, you ask them to say it “without hair on their tongue”. The ‘hair’ represents a filter that might stop you being overly blunt.
Photo: Eduardo Gaviña/Flickr
Farsene un baffo | To make a moustache of it
In Italy, if you "make a moustache of something", you don’t really care about or pay attention to it. Basically, you think it’s just as unimportant as a moustache. Of course, the saying might not work for certain Italian men who devote quite a lot of time to grooming their facial hair.
Photo: Ed Clayton/Flickr
Avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca | To have the wine cask full and the wife drunk
This is an Italian equivalent to the English expression "to have your cake and eat it too", used when someone is being greedy or wants to have the best of both worlds.
Capitare a Fagiolo | To happen at the bean
“È capitato a fagiolo!” is what you might say when something happens just in time, at the perfect moment. The saying dates back to a time when beans were an ingredient that even the poorest Italian families could get hold of and preserve, so if something 'happens at the bean’, it happens when you're running out of options - beans are all that's left on the table.
Photo: Jirka Matousek
Prendere lucciole per lanterne | To mistake fireflies for lanterns
This saying is used when someone has misjudged or misunderstood the situation. In English we might tell them rather less poetically that they’ve "got the wrong end of the stick".
By Ellie Bennett and Catherine Edwards