How many times did you not understand Italian even if you have a very good knowledge of the language? This might have happened because of some weird idiomatic expressions! That’s why, in this article, I’ll teach you 12 of the weirdest Italian idioms, and their explanation (when it’s known).
WHAT IS AN IDIOMATIC EXPRESSION?
The term “idiomatic expression” denotes all those sayings that are often used in everyday language, but, despite being part of native speakers’ background knowledge, they are rarely taught or classified as grammar topics.
Many idiomatic expressions come from real life, in fact, we use certain actions or events (mostly realistic) as an example to talk about other similar actions or events.
Obviously, since we’re talking about idioms used in standard Italian or sometimes in regional Italian, idiomatic expressions are mostly fixed, meaning that they remain the same in every context or situation and we only change their syntax when needed.
Now, to use an idiomatic expression, “bando alle ciance”: ready, set, go!
1. AVERE LA PUZZA SOTTO IL NASO
The expression “avere la puzza sotto il naso” (literally “to have a bad smell under your nose”) means that someone is a bit snob and posh; it’s used for people who think they are better than everybody and who look down on other people, they turn up their nose as if everything disgusts them.
Let’s see an example:
“Ieri ho comprato questo anello al mercato, l’ho pagato 10 euro. Ma non ho intenzione di mostrarlo a Maria. Lei ha sempre le mani piene di anelli costosissimi e di sicuro penserebbe che sono una poveraccia. Anche se in realtà è lei che ha la puzza sotto il naso.”
Translation: “Yesterday I bought this ring at the market, it was 10€. But I won’t show it to Maria. Her fingers are always full of very expensive rings and she’ll definitely think I’m poor. But she’s just a snob.”
2. AVERE IL BRACCINO CORTO
People with “il braccino corto” (literally “with a short arm”) are people who hate spending money, and that are so attached to money; it’s like their arm is too short to reach for their wallet in their pockets to spend money. In Italian, we could use the adjective “tirchio” (cheap/stingy) to sum up this expression. Cheap people are reluctant to spend money and they always find an excuse not to do so.
“Per il regalo di Mattia tutti vogliono mettere 10 euro a testa, ma lui preferirebbe fare 5 euro a testa perché ha il braccino corto, ma 5 euro mi sembrano un po’ pochi onestamente!”
Translation: “For Mattia’s present we all want to chip in 10€ each, but he would rather we spend 5€ each because he’s cheap, but honestly I think 5 each is too little.”
3. AVERE UN DIAVOLO PER CAPELLO
This expression indicates those situations in which someone is extremely upset and nervous, and it’s like they have un diavolo per ogni capello (literally “to have a demon for each hair on your head”): so they have many.
“Oggi è meglio lasciarmi stare, è difficile registrare questo video perché i miei vicini di casa fanno un chiasso tremendo e io ho un diavolo per capello!”
Translation: “Today it’s better to leave me alone, I’m having some trouble recording this video because my neighbours are making a lot of noise and I’m extremely upset”
4. AVERE VOCE IN CAPITOLO
“Avere voce in capitolo” (literally” having a word in the capitolo“) means having the possibility to influence a situation by expressing your opinion. The origin of this idiomatic expression is very interesting: in the past, it was used for the clergy, who had the right to vote in the so-called “capitoli“, a council of clergymen of a particular church. Basically, it was an assembly of religious men organized to make decisions and during them, not everyone was allowed to talk.
“Giada ha provato a convincere i suoi genitori a prenderle un gattino, ma non c’è stato niente da fare. Dopotutto quando bisogna prendere decisioni importanti non ha mai voce in capitolo.”
Translation: “Giada tried to convince her parents to adopt a kitten, but nothing could be done. After all, when it comes to making important decisions, she never has any say in the matter”.
5. ARRAMPICARSI SUGLI SPECCHI
“Arrampicarsi sugli specchi” (literally “to climb on mirrors”) basically means defending what can’t be defended. Essentially, someone who “climbs on mirrors” tries to find reasons and excuses (usually unfounded) to defend their cause or to justify something, unsuccessfully.
“Ogni volta che fa tardi a lavoro, Roberto si arrampica sugli specchi pur di non essere licenziato. Per esempio, oggi ha detto che il cancello di casa sua non si apriva, allora ha dovuto chiamare il tecnico che però ci ha messo tanto ad arrivare, e nel frattempo suo figlio è caduto dalle scale e si è fatto male al ginocchio, quindi poi ha dovuto portarlo in ospedale.”
Translation: “Every time he’s late for work, Roberto is clutching at straws to avoid being fired. For example, today he said that the gate of his house wouldn’t open, so he had to call the technician but it took him a while to arrive, and in the meantime, his son fell down the stairs and he hurt his knee, so then he had to take him to the hospital.”
6. ATTACCARE BOTTONE
“Attaccare bottone” (literally “to sew a button”) means to approach someone and to start talking to them and bore them with a long conversation.
“Sofia preferisce non andare più in discoteca perché tutti non fanno altro che provare ad attaccare bottone con lei.”
Translation: “Sofia would rather not go to a nightclub because everyone always tries to strikes up a conversation with her”.
7. CADERE A FAGIOLO
We say that an unplanned event or a situation “cade” or “casca a fagiolo” (literally “to fall like a bean”) when it happens in a perfect moment, just when it’s needed. This expression probably comes from the saying that beans, when they are ready, they come off the plant very easily and they can be picked effortlessly.
“Per il compleanno ho regalato a Luca un orologio nuovo e cascava proprio a fagiolo, perché il suo si era appena rotto!”
Translation: “For Luca’s birthday, I bought him a new watch and it was perfect timing because his just broke.”
8. CAPIRE ROMA PER TOMA
The idiom “capire Roma per toma” (literally “to understand Rome for Toma”, Toma is a cheese) comes from the region Piedmont and it’s used for those who don’t understand anything and, in general, are slow on the uptake.
“Ho provato a spiegare a mia madre come si aggiunge un nuovo contatto nella rubrica del telefono, ma non c’è stato nulla da fare: se l’è dimenticato dopo due minuti. Ma non è colpa mia, è lei che capisce Roma per toma!”
Translation: “I tried explaining to my mother how to add a new phone number to her phone’s contacts, but it was useless: she forgot it after two minutes. But it’s not my fault, she never understands.”
9. FARE I CONTI SENZA L’OSTE
The expression “fare i conti senza l’oste” (literally “to count money without the innkeeper”) is used to indicate those situations in which someone makes a rushed decision without taking into account other people’s wishes or needs. This idiom’s origin is very interesting: in the past, in taverns and inns, when fixed prices weren’t written on the menu, clients tried to guess the price of their dishes, but they were promptly proven wrong by the innkeeper, who always tried to make more money.
“Quest’anno Marco voleva prenotare una vacanza ai Caraibi contando sul fatto che suo padre gli avrebbe prestato i soldi, ma aveva fatto i conti senza l’oste. Il padre, infatti, gli ha detto che non glieli avrebbe mai prestati e che avrebbe dovuto cercarsi un lavoro.”
Translation: “This year Marco wanted to book a holiday at the Caribbeans thinking his dad would give him the money, but he thought of that on his own, because his father told him he wouldn’t give him the money and that he should find a job instead.”
10. FARE ORECCHIE DA MERCANTE
The expression “fare orecchie da mercante” (literally “to do merchant’s ears”) indicates the behaviour of someone who, in their own interest, pretends they don’t hear or understand what is being said to them. It comes from the stereotype about merchants, which says that they use their smartness and trading ability to manipulate clients however they want, by trying to close a deal in the best and most rewarding way possible for them.
“Giacomo, ogni volta che sua mamma gli dice di sistemare la sua camera, fa sempre orecchie da mercante e continua a giocare alla play.”
Translation: “Every time his mother tells him to tidy his room, Giacomo always pretends he doesn’t hear her and he continues to play with his Play Station”.
11. FARE UN BUCO NELL’ACQUA
“Fare un buco nell’acqua” (literally “to make a hole in the water”) is used for a pointless and useless attempt, an activity that doesn’t produce any result, exactly like making a hole in the water.
“Ho chiesto al mio capo se potesse aumentarmi lo stipendio, spiegandogli che ho lavorato moltissimo nell’ultimo periodo e che ho bisogno di soldi per pagare l’affitto, ma è stato un buco nell’acqua. Non mi ha neanche ascoltato.”
Translation: “I asked my boss to raise my salary, I explained to him that lately, I’ve been working really hard and that I need money to pay rent, but it was useless. He didn’t even listen to me”.
12. SCOPRIRE L’ACQUA CALDA
Someone who “scopre l’acqua calda” (literally “to discover hot water”) thinks they discovered something amazing, but in reality, it’s something a lot of people already know.
“Pensavo di essere stata la prima a scoprire che Giulia si era fidanzata con Claudio, ma quando l’ho scritto nel gruppo delle mie amiche mi hanno detto che avevo scoperto l’acqua calda perché i due stavano già insieme da mesi.”
Translation: “I thought I was the first one to discover that Giulia and Claudio are dating, but when I wrote it in my friends’ group chat they told me it was already well-known because they’ve been dating for 2 months”.
That’s all! As you may have noticed, there are so many sayings in Italian that it wouldn’t be possible to make a complete list of all the idiomatic expressions that exist. This was just a list I thought would be good to teach you and that it certainly gave you a clear idea of how idioms work.
Now, even if you’re a bit tired, please make the last effort and read or watch the lesson on the ALTERNATIVES to the expression “COSA?”: it’s really useful to expand your vocabulary!
If instead, you want to learn more about Italian in real situations and through real-life dialogues, take a look at our course “Italiano in Contesto“: the only course in the world entirely based on the Context Method! You can use the discount code ROCCO for a 55% discount when you sign up, so you’ll only pay 81€
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Let’s see if you’ve mastered the contents of this class. Have a go at completing the exercises!