10 Centenary Expressions Still Alive and Used in Italy: Discover Their Journey Through Time!

A very common question I often get from my students is “Why do they say that?” regarding a specific expression. The Italian language is characterised by many expressions with a different meaning from their literal one and they can seem strange or incomprehensible to people who don’t know their use. In this video I have selected 10 apparently odd expressions and I’m going to tell you for each one “why do we say that” and the story behind it. Are you ready to discover them together?


In this article you will find the history and the explanation of 10 frequently used Italian idioms.

1. Rendere pan per focaccia

To reciprocate an offense or wrong suffered; to take revenge on someone, often with greater malice.

So, it’s similar to “occhio per occhio, dente per dente”, but worse because the revenge has a higher intensity than the offence.

This expression dates back to the Middle Ages, but it has gained a negative meaning only with the passing of time.

Originally it was actually very positive: it comes from good neighbourly custom of exchanging bread and focaccia.

When the housewives didn’t have enough flour, they would ask for some to their neighbours and, afterwards, they would repay them by offering them some focaccia. In exchange for this gift the neighbours made bread and offered some of it to them and so on in an endless circle of generosity and good manners: in short, some bread to return the favour of some focaccia.

2. Che pizza!

Yes, alright, pizza is great, and no one is questioning that, but this way of saying has a meaning, which is quite the opposite of being positive. It’s an exclamation, used to say that something or someone is boring or annoying.

For example, if someone tells you: “Che pizza che sei!” It means that that person doesn’t like your attitude. Or when someone asks us to do something that we don’t really want to do, we could say: “Che pizza!”

But why something so loved like pizza is associated with something boring and annoying?

The meaning of this expression comes from the boredom, the annoyance and impatience that arise when a person is waiting with great anticipation for the pizza leavening process, which usually takes several hours.

3. Prendere due piccioni con una fava

This is one of the most famous Italian sayings, still widely used today and known by many foreigners.

It indicates that two goals have been reached with a single move: in other words, two positive results are achieved with a single action.

Its origin comes from a hunting technique used in the past by hunters, which consisted in using a fava bean as a bait to catch more than one wild pigeon in a single shot.

4. Per filo e per segno

This expression literally means “very accurately”, “thoroughly”, “taking care of the details”. It is used when an action is performed with great precision, or a concept is explained with particular accuracy.

The origins of this expression can be traced back to the work of lumberjacks and painters of the past. They had to “battere la corda” to work, which means holding on the surfaces a thread soaked in paint and then suddenly letting it go. By doing so, they would create a track that would function as a trace for perfect, flawless white-washing and sawing.

5. L’abito non fa il monaco

Appearance doesn’t always match with truth, so one should always be cautious in judging others by their look.

It derives from an ancient Latin saying: cucullus non facit monchum, literally “the hood doesn’t make the monk”.

In the past traveling monks often received a warm welcome and were very respected because of their habit. However, precisely because of this type of clothing, many people were deceived and fooled by frauds who dressed up like monks to take advantage of the benefits that this habit would give them.

So, basically, wearing a habit is not enough to be considered a monk.

6. Non avere voce in capitolo

When someone doesn’t have any authority in making an important decision, is irrelevant or doesn’t have the right or chance to express an opinion.

Where does this expression come from? No, a book chapter doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Its meaning derives from the Chapter, which was the assembly of clergymen that made important decisions and gathered once a day. The monks who weren’t admitted to it didn’t have a voice in the Chapter, so they didn’t count anything in decision-making.

7. Dormire sugli allori

It denotes those who remain completely inactive and passive after achieving a goal, doing nothing other than enjoying their achievement.

In the past laurel was associated to victories and achievements.

For the ancient Greeks laurel was a plant sacred to Apollo and was used to award particularly valiant athletes, poets or commanders.

Moreover, the ancient Romans also used it to honour soldiers.

8. A occhio e croce

This expression indicates a not very accurate measurement, so it means “about”, “more or less”, “approximately”.

Its origin lies in ancient tailoring: ancient weavers, in fact, risked that what they had woven up that moment would come unravelled.

In these cases, they had to pick up the lost threads “a occhio”, so imprecisely, and put them back crosswise in the pull, that is “a croce”, as they were before the threading.

All of this process was done “a occhio”, so without any rule or measurement, relying only on their sight and ability to recreate the cross: in short, a not very accurate work.

9. Arrivare di soppiatto

It indicates that someone reaches a place silently and secretly, without anyone noticing.

Its meaning comes from the word “piatto”, which in this case doesn’t stand for “dish”, but “flat”, flat on the ground, which is the way one should walk not to be noticed.

Apparently, it’s a typical cat behaviour when hunting: they get closer silently and slowly, squishing their bodies towards the ground to be less visible.

10. Prendere a pesci in faccia / Trattare a pesci in faccia

Treating someone very poorly, humiliating a person.

It derives from the environment of fishmongers, who literally threw fishes in the faces of people they couldn’t stand or despised, to play a bad joke on them.

These are some of the most famous Italian expressions, but there are many more. We often don’t even realise we are using them because they are tied to the very culture of the country.

That’s why each language has its own “personal” idioms that are literally untranslatable into another language.

Now that you know these expressions, you can discover more, learning the expressions with CHIEDERE.

By the way, did you know that Italians use an average of 33 swear words a day? You probably won’t want to use them, but it might be a good idea for you to learn to recognize them. That’s why we recommend you to read our book Parolacce… e come evitarle!

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