What becomes of hasty cats? And why should you beware of giving anyone your finger?
We've done our best to render these very Italian proverbs into English, but sometimes one country's wisdom just doesn't translate.
A ogni uccello il suo nido è bello.
In English, the nearest meaning of this phrase is: “There's no place like home” – Dorothy's mantra in The Wizard of Oz. The literal translation from the Italian, however, is rather more poetic: “To every bird, his own nest is beautiful”.
Acqua passata non macina più.
“It's water under the bridge” you might say, to indicate that something’s firmly in the past. The Italian version is a bit more complicated: “Water that's flowed past the mill grinds no more” – in other words, it no longer does a thing.
O mangiar questa minestra o saltar questa finestra.
This is the Italian way of saying “Take it or leave it”. Literally, it's: “Either eat this soup or jump out of this window”, a threat that anyone who's been served dinner by an Italian nonna might be able to imagine hearing.
Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco.
“Not all doughnuts come out with a hole,” a stoic Italian might tell you: i.e., things don't always turn out as planned.
La gatta frettolosa ha fatto i gattini ciechi.
Literally: “The hasty cat gave birth to blind kittens”. Perhaps not the nicest way of saying that things done too quickly tend to turn out badly. An English equivalent might be “Haste makes waste”.
Tanto va la gatta al lardo che ci lascia lo zampino.
What is it about Italians and cats? This particular expression translates literally as: “The cat goes so often to the bacon that she leaves her paw (print)”. In other words, if you keep on doing the same bad thing over and over again, you’ll get caught.
Neanche il cane muove la coda per niente.
Not to worry, dogs get a look-in too. “Not even a dog wags its tail for nothing”, Italians say, or as we'd put it: “There's no such thing as a free lunch”.
Chi va al mulino si infarina.
There's no exact English equivalent for this phrase, but it expresses the idea that you can't expect to get involved in risky business without getting your hands dirty: “Those who go to the mill get covered in flour”.
(Update! A reader tells us there's a similar expression in Scotland: “If you fly with the crows you'll get shot with the crows”.)
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A chi dai il dito si prende anche il braccio.
“Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile” is a familiar expression used for a person who’s been given something, then tries to get a whole lot more. In Italy, this kind of thing is viewed rather more personally: “Give them a finger and they'll take an arm.”
La mamma dei cretini è sempre incinta.
“The mother of fools is always pregnant”, Italians say when they think someone's a prize idiot. It's the same idea behind the English expression “There's one born every minute”, though while we tend to reserve that saying for dupes, the Italian equivalent applies to stupidity of all stripes.
Can you think of any more Italian words of wisdom? Let us know.
This is an updated version of an article first published in 2014.