Ten wonderfully quirky Italian animal-related idioms

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Photo: Darling Starlings/Flickr
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Italian is full of bizarre idioms and proverbs which can confuse foreigners.

If you’re not sure whether to be proud or insulted when compared to a goose, or you want to know why Italians keep talking about fishes when there are none in sight, you need The Local’s guide to animal-themed idioms:

Ubriaco come una scimmia | Drunk as a monkey

Photo: Jonathan Leung/Flickr

Anyone who has spent time dealing with friends after they’ve had a few drinks too many will surely understand this comparison to the mischievous primates.

Trattare a pesci in faccia | To treat with fishes in your face

Photo: 昶廷-/Flickr

This expression is used when someone has treated you disrespectfully – being slapped in the face with a fish can’t be a pleasant experience, after all.

In fact, as you might expect in a country surrounded by water, fish regularly crop up in Italian conversation: ‘buttarsi come un pesce’ (‘to throw yourself like a fish’) means to throw yourself enthusiastically into an activity, and ‘un pesce grosso’ (‘a big fish’) is how Italians refer to a ‘big shot’.

Scambiare Sant’Antonio con il maiale | To confuse Saint Anthony with the pig

Photo: le vent le cri/Flickr

If someone tells you you’ve confused Saint Anthony with a pig, it means you’ve made a big mistake – pigs can’t be saints, silly.

As for where the expression originates from, several legends say that the saint worked as a swineherder, so maybe people kept mixing him up with his herd.

Oca giuliva | Merry goose

Photo: Darling Starlings/Flickr

If someone’s not all that bright, you can call them an “oca giuliva”. If they’re a real merry goose, they might not even realize you’ve just insulted them.

Correre dietro alle farfalle | To run behind the butterflies

Photo: Lee Ruk/Flickr

Running around among a cloud of butterflies might sound like a fairly idyllic scene, but if someone tells you that’s what you’re doing, it’s just a fancy way of saying you’re wasting time or chasing after an unachievable goal.

Salvare capra e cavoli | To save goat and cabbage

Photo: Spider.Dog/Flickr

Have you heard the riddle where a man has to cross a river with a wolf, a goat and a cabbage (there are several alternate versions)? He can only take one item across at a time and can’t leave either the wolf with the goat or the goat with the cabbage if they are to survive the trip.

If you solve it, you save the goat and the cabbage, so this phrase refers to resolving a situation without having to compromise any aspect.

Siamo a cavallo | We’re at the horse

Photo: firelizard5/Flickr

You’d be forgiven for a moment of confusion if an Italian exclaimed this to you with no horses in sight. An approximate translation would be ‘we’ve nearly made it’ or more idiomatically ‘we’re out of the woods’.

Picture yourself escaping from a tricky situation – now that you’re on the horse, you’ll soon ride to safety.

Sei una cicada o una formica? | Are you a tree cricket or an ant?

Photo: Sancho McCann/Flickr

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While your initial response to this question might be ‘um, neither’, it’s more to do with your mentality and values. The ant represents hard work and preparation for the future, while the cicada or tree cricket represents lots of activity without much sense of purpose. So which one are you?

Chi pecora si fa, il lupo se la mangia | Those who act like sheep get eaten by the wolf

Photo: James Bowe/Flickr

Here’s a proverb with a clear meaning – it’s telling you not to dress in woolly clothing and stand in a field, bleating. Well, not quite. It’s more about standing up for yourself and your opinions, because if you’re too timid, you won’t get very far.

Far vedere I sorci Verdi | to make someone see green rats

Photo: Jean-Jacques Boujot/Flickr

This idiom has an interesting background. In 1936, a Royal Air Force squadron adopted three green rats as its emblem. Mussolini bragged of the ability of Italian pilots, and the squadron took part in numerous bombing raids throughout the Second World War.

After that, ‘I’ll make you see green rats’ became a way to warn someone you were about to crush them with a humiliating defeat.

By Catherine Edwards and Ellie Bennett

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