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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Popes, chickens and reheated soup: 15 everyday Italian idioms you need to know

Ever been baffled by an odd Italian turn of phrase? Here's an explanation of some of the best (and most useful) Italian idioms around.

Popes, chickens and reheated soup: 15 everyday Italian idioms you need to know
Do you know your chickens when it comes to understanding Italian idioms? Photo: Unsplash/Brooke Cagle

Just like English, the Italian language has plenty of non-literal phrases that can sound strange to language learners hearing them for the first time.

You’re far more likely to hear this kind of phrase during conversation than in a language class. But when chatting to an Italian, unexpected talk about wolves, hairy tongues, and drowning can be confusing – and a bit alarming – if you’ve never come across such expressions before.

But learning a few of these phrases will no doubt help you better understand what’s happening around you – plus, dropping an idiom (correctly) into conversation is sure to impress. So here are just 15 curious – but everyday – idiomatic phrases which really are used in conversation.

QUIZ: How well do you know your Italian proverbs?

Affogare in un bicchier d’acqua

English translation: To drown in a glass of water.

This phrase is used to describe someone being overwhelmed by minor problems. Instead of making a mountain out of a molehill, or being a drama queen, they’re drowning in a glass of water.

Ogni morte di papa

English translation: Every death of a pope

New popes don’t come around very often, which is why this phrase is used when talking about rare occurrences. It’s the Italian equivalent of saying something happens “once in a blue moon”.

In bocca al lupo

English translation: Into the wolf’s mouth

Why say “good luck” when you can use this phrase instead? In fact, in Italy, simply saying good luck or buona fortuna is sometimes considered to be unlucky.

It’s not too different from the English “break a leg”. If someone says this phrase to you, the correct response is “crepi il lupo” (may the wolf die). Thanking them is also considered to reverse any good fortune.

Ad for where the phrase comes from, the most popular theory seems to be that it has something to do with Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, who were suckled by a she-wolf.

When might you wish someone ‘into the wolf’s mouth’ in Italian? Photo: Carsten Rehder/DPA/AFP

Avere le braccine corte

English translation: To have short arms

This phrase is used to describe that person who never pays for coffees at the bar. We might call them “tight-fisted” or say they have “deep pockets” in English. Either way, the person you’re describing seems to have trouble reaching for their cash. 

Brutto come la fame

English translation: Ugly as hunger

What could possibly be uglier than the feeling of hunger? To Italians, nothing. To be used wherever the English might say something is as “ugly as sin”.

Buono come il pane

English translation: Good as bread

A bit like describing someone as “salt of the earth”. While it sounds a bit like the English “as good as gold”, the Italian phrase can be used for anyone, not just well-behaved children. it’s used to praise an all-round good character, and seems to imply kindness, generosity, and humility.

Forget gold. Are you as good as bread? Photo: Rebecca Siegel/Flickr

Hai voluto la bicicletta? E adesso pedala!

English translation: You wanted the bike? Now ride it!

When the consequences of someone’s actions catch up with them, here’s a sarcastic phrase used to say “I told you so”. A bit like the English “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

Vai a quel paese

English translation: Go to that town

If someone says this to you, they’re probably not giving you directions. A bit like telling someone to “get lost” in English, it’s impolite without being terribly offensive.

Fare le corna a qualcuno

English translation: To have the horns put on you

This is a slightly tricky one, but it’s also very commonly used. To “put the horns on” someone means to curse them or insult them in some way, or possibly to cheat on them.. And of course, the phrase has its own hand gesture – a fist with the forefinger and little finger outstretched – an offensive signal seemingly used most often by angry drivers.

Piantala!

English translation: Plant it!

Used to tell someone to stop doing something, usually when they’re being irritating and you’ve had enough of asking nicely. English equivalents include “quit it” or “knock it off”.

Sputi il rospo

English translation: Spit out the toad

Not the same as “having a frog in your throat” in English, this phrase refers to finally telling the truth or revealing a secret. Just as we might tell someone to “spit it out” or “spill the beans” in English.

Conosco i miei polli

English translation: I know my chickens

When someone feels they know what they’re talking about, they might tell you they know their chickens – whatever the actual subject of conversation may be. A lot like “knowing your onions” in English.

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Non avere peli sulla lingua

English translation: Without hair on his tongue

Italians aren’t generally known for hiding their real feelings, but if you ever feel like someone’s holding back and you want them to be brutally honest, you could use this phrase. If you don’t want them to sugarcoat the truth, you’d ask them to speak ‘without hair on their tongue’.

Tirare il pacco

English translation: To throw the package

One to use on your flaky friend or a date who fails to show up, in Italian, they’ve thrown the package. It’s unclear where this one comes from, though it conjures the image of an unreliable postman tossing a parcel over the hedge. 

Minestra riscaldata

English translation: Reheated soup

Another food-related one, this is used when you want to “reheat” a relationship. A bit like rekindling a flame in English, although as well as for romantic relationships, the Italian version can be used for any sort of relationship that’s fizzled out, including friendships and even business partnerships.

Photo: Unsplash/Henrique Felix

Do you have a favourite everyday Italian idiom which isn’t listed here? Let us know.

See all of The Local’s italian language articles here.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day: ‘Spaghettata’

If you like your spaghetti, you'll love the 'spaghettata'.

Italian word of the day: 'Spaghettata'

You may have twirled and chomped your way through enough spaghetti to be ranked up there with the best of them – but if you’ve never lived in Italy, you’ve probably never experienced the spaghettata (‘spag-ett-TAH-tah’).

Garfield Spaghetti GIF - Garfield Spaghetti Pasta GIFs

Is it a party? Is it a meal? The best way we can describe it is as a fun, relaxed spaghetti feast eaten at home with friends.

Informal and often impromptu, a spaghettata typically lasts for several hours involves copious amounts of wine..

Ci ha invitati a casa sua per una spaghettata.
She’s invited us to her place for a spaghettata.

Whereas a traditional Italian meal would have pasta as a first course (primo), followed by a meat or fish secondo, the spaghettata is a meal unto itself.

Pasta is all that’s on the menu, and if you’re coming back for seconds or thirds, pasta is what you’ll get.

party spaghetti GIF by Isola dei Famosi

Because of its humble, cobbled-together nature, a typical spaghettata can be made with the kind of basic ingredients you might find in any Italian kitchen, such as garlic, olive oil and chilli flakes.

If you have Italian friends who are keen to show off their culinary skills, it can be a little more involved and they might want to show off a local or family recipe. In these cases, it can become more like a dinner party – but with multiple helpings of pasta, instead of multiple courses.

You can also expect to see regional or city-based variations on the spaghetti dishes involved. In Bari, for example, you might be invited to someone’s house so they can show off their recipe for spaghetti allassassina: lightly scorched, toasted spaghetti with tomato sauce.

One of the best things about the spaghettata, though, is the lack of rules; the meal’s improvisational origins mean really anything goes, provided you can source it at the last minute or dig it out of your pantry to feed a hungry crowd.

A meal also doesn’t need to be put on at any particular time of day to be a spaghettata: it might be a lunchtime affair, or it might happen on those long, lazy summer evenings and nights – in which case it becomes a spaghettata di mezzanotte (‘midnight spaghettata‘).

Facciamo una bella spaghettata di mezzanotte!
Let’s have a nice late night spaghettata!

While you’d normally have your spaghettata in the company of others, it can occasionally be used to describe a dish you whip up for yourself at the last minute – particularly if you come home after a night out and suddenly realise you’re a bit peckish.

Oddly enough, spaghettata di gelato (‘ice cream spaghettata’) is what Italians call the German dish spaghettieis.

That isn’t a meal consisting entirely of gelato (if only…), but a dessert deliberately designed to look like a plate of pasta, with vanilla ice cream ‘spaghetti’ and red or green ‘sauces’ made of things like berries or pistachio.

Celebration Will GIF

You might think that given how alert Italians often are to the desecration of their culinary traditions, this would have sparked some discontent – but the dish appears to be quite popular in Italy, with numerous Italian websites offering recipes for the dessert (often simply known as spaghetti di gelato).

Maybe it’s that no one can resist a little novelty ice cream – or maybe the laid back associations of the spaghettata simply encourage everyone to be a bit more scialla.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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