Italian EXPRESSIONS related to ANIMALS used to DESCRIBE People!

Animals are an integral part of life on earth and, whether wild or domestic, they are loved by many people. So, it isn’t strange to know that they are present in many Italian idiomatic expressions, proverbs and common sayings; to be more specific, the Italian language “exploits” the most well-known animal characteristics to describe certain behaviors of human beings and their personalities… and not always in a positive way! Stay with us to discover 16 expressions related to the animal world!


As I already mentioned, in the list below you can find a total of 16 expressions linked to animals that in Italian are used to describe people. For each expression you can find an explanation starting from the animal to which it refers to and a couple of examples of said expression in context.
Are you ready to learn more about it? Let’s start!

1 – “ESSERE UN LUPO SOLITARIO”, i.e., being a lone wolf

If you know what a lupo is, this expression is self-explanatory: a lupo is a wolf and a lupo solitario is a kind of wolf that tends to live not in a pack but to act in an independent way, or that generally spends time into solitude. For this reason, essere un lupo solitario (lit., being a lone wolf) is an expression that indicates a person that prefers to be alone, an introverted person or someone who does things on their own.


Mi definisco un lupo solitario, infatti preferisco stare da solo alla compagnia.
(I call myself a lone wolf, I rather be on my own than being in the company of others.)

Marco è un lupo solitario: la sera non esce mai.
(Marco is a lone wolf: he never goes out at night.)

2 – “STARE DA CANI”, i.e., feeling awful

Nowadays dogs are among the most loved animals and among the most popular pets. But thousands of years ago, before they were domesticated, they were wild animals whose lives were far from what they are now, full of comfort and love; moreover, even with the spread of the adoption of dogs, the problem of stray dogs has certainly not disappeared. In short, there are many dogs that, now as in the past, lead sad lives full of suffering and it is perhaps for this reason that dogs are often used in expressions with negative connotations. In general da cani is a phrase that has the meaning of very bad e.g. fare qualcosa da cani meaning “doing something terribly” – in the case of “stare da cani“, it literally translates as “being/feeling like a dog” and it means being physically and mentally ill, being sad, tired or despondent… in short, feeling awful.


La ragazza di Marco lo ha lasciato… Lui sta da cani.
(Marco’s girlfriend left him… He feels awful.)

Sto da cani: ieri ho lavorato tutto il giorno e ora ho un terribile mal di schiena.
(I feel awful: yesterday I worked all day long and now I have a terrible backache.)

3 – “ESSERE UNA VIPERA”, or “ESSERE UNA SERPE”, i.e., being a snake

The expressions essere una vipera (lit., being a viper) and essere una serpe (lit., being a snake) have very similar meanings and both have a negative connotation. As a matter of fact, their meanings differ just a little: the first one indicates a person -and especially a woman- who is stinging, perfidious and vicious; while the second one is used to talk about an evil, unreliable and sly person. In general, both are used to describe a person that secretly criticizes other people a lot; someone who says nasty things about others, is malicious and betray others’ trust.


Marta è una serpe, sta sempre a giudicare gli altri.
(Marta is a snake, she always judges others.)

Marco è una vipera, parla male anche dei suoi amici.
(Marco is a snake, he badmouths his friends too.)

4 – “ESSERE UN ALLOCCO”, i.e., being a fool

In case you didn’t know allocco means “tawny owl“, a bird of prey with big round eyes. Although it is not a stupid animal at all, its fixed and empty eyes give it a silly and somewhat naïve expression, and for this reason the expression essere un allocco (lit., being/acting like a tawny owl) is used to refer to a stupid person, someone who is not too clever.


Marco è un allocco, si è fatto rubare 100 euro da quel truffatore.
(Marco is a fool, that scammer stole 100 euros from him.)

Stefania e Stefano sono due allocchi, credono a qualsiasi bugia.
(Stefania and Stefano are two fools, they believe in any lie.)

5 – “ESSERE UNA VOLPE”, i.e., being a fox

Unlike tawny howls, foxes are linked to positive qualities: they are known for their ability to adapt to the environment where they live and for the fact that they are hardly caught off-guard – an example? Apparently, they have the good habit of going back over their footsteps, so as to confuse the trails they left to go to their den! So, it won’t surprise you to know that essere una volpe (lit., being a fox) in Italian and in other languages indicates a person who is particularly sly and clever… and sometimes even deceiving.


Nonostante fosse colpevole, non si è fatta scoprire: è proprio una volpe.
(Although she was guilty, she didn’t get caught: she surely is a fox.)

Mauro è una volpe, riesce a ottenere sempre ciò che vuole.
(Mauro is a fox, he is able to get what he wants all the time.)

6 – “ESSERE UN PAVONE”, i.e., being a peacock

What comes to mind if I ask you to describe a pavone… a peacock? I think of a colorful animal that, when needed, shows off its big circular tail – which happens mostly during the mating season, when it tries to attract and court the females. For this reason, the Italian expression essere un pavone refers to a very vain person who loves to attract attention.


Marco è un pavone, si guarda sempre allo specchio.
(Marco is a peacock, he always looks at himself in the mirror.)

Gaia sembra proprio essere un pavone, vuole sempre stare al centro dell’attenzione.
(Gaia really seems to be a peacock, she always wants to be the center of attention.)

7 – “FARE, or ESSERE, L’UCCELLO DEL MALAUGURIO”, i.e., to jinx, or being a jinx

The expression fare/essere l’uccello del malaugurio (lit., being/acting like a bird of ill omen) comes from the belief that the singing of certain birds -like owl and crows- are omens of bad luck. This would explain the origin of such expression, considering that it indicates a person who is particularly pessimistic, someone who always sees the glass half empty and who is always convinced that everything will go in the worst way. For example:

Non fare l’uccello del malaugurio! Sono sicura che andrà tutto bene.
(Don’t jinx it! I’m sure everything will be fine.)

Luca è un uccello del malaugurio, pensa sempre al peggio.
(Luca is a jinx, he always thinks of the worse)

8 – “ESSERE SANO COME UN PESCE”, i.e., being as healthy as a horse, or being fit as a fiddle

The expression essere sano come un pesce -which literally translates as “being as healthy as a fish”- is very peculiar and its origins are very ancient: according to an old popular tale, fish represented the only animal species immune to diseases of all kinds – after all, the water contamination and the subsequent death of fish are particularly modern aspects, much closer to the present day than the olden days. As you might have already guessed, this expression refers to a person who is in perfect health, both physical and mental.

In English, though, similar expressions do not refer to fish, but rather… horses and fiddles!


Le analisi dicono che sei sano come un pesce.
(Your tests show that you’re as healthy as a horse.)

Il bambino è sano come un pesce, non ha nessun tipo di problema.
(The kid is fit as a fiddle, he has no problem whatsoever.)

9 – “ESSERE UN MAIALE, or FARE IL MAIALE”, i.e., being, or acting like a pig

As we have done so far, let’s start from the animal referred to in the expression: un maiale means “a pig” and pigs spend most of their time in the mud to keep cool, relax… and to clean themselves. This habit of theirs of rolling in the mud has led them to being associated to filthiness and to every single thing that provokes a sense of repugnance. So, essere un maiale has a strongly negative meaning, a derogatory sense since it defines a person who is filthy, greedy or repulsive from a sexual point of view.


Quell’uomo è un maiale: ci prova con tutte.
(That man is a pig: he hits on every woman.)

A tavola siediti composto, non fare il maiale.
(Sit properly at the table, don’t act like a pig.)

10 – “FARE IL GRILLO PARLANTE”, i.e., being a know-it-all*

Of all the animals we have seen so far, the grillo parlante is the only one to be imaginary but this will not prevent us from understanding the reason for this expression. Basically, grillo means cricket and it’s an animal whose “singing” is a background music during the nights of the warmest seasons… and it is bothersome for most people. If we talk about the character created by Carlo Collodi at the end of the XIX century -whose name is precisely Talking Cricket in Italian and Jiminy Cricket in English-, he is an embodiment of Pinocchio’s conscience: he often bothers Pinocchio with his advice and he even comes backs as a ghost in order to put the titular character on the right track.
So it is not hard to understand why fare il grillo parlante (lit., acting like the talking cricket) is used to indicate a wise person who gives advice, even when they are not requested, and who tends to always make people think objectively… but also in a pretty insistent way!

*Because this expression boils down to being a smart yet arrogant person, the closest expression in English would be “being a know-it-all/know-all” or “smartass/wiseass” – with the addition of the inability of minding their own business.


Non fare sempre il grillo parlante!
(Don’t be a know-it-all, as always!)

Anna fa sempre il grillo parlante, non sa farsi i fatti suoi.
(Anna is a know-it-all, she doesn’t know how to mind her own business.)

11 – “FARE L’OCA, or ESSERE, UN’OCA”, i.e., acting/being a goose

Fare (or essere) un’oca” is an expression that alludes to some famous characteristics of geese, such as clumsiness, noisiness and stupidity. Because of this, in Italy it is used to describe a person -and especially a woman- who acts in a frivolous or shallow way, or who is not very smart. The only difference between the two verbs (fare vs. essere), and therefore the two expressions, has to do with the duration of such behavior: fare l’oca (acting like a goose) indicates a temporary and limited behavior; while essere un’oca indicates someone’s typical behavior.

*In English, there isn’t an equivalent expression which refers to an animal that has the exact same meaning, that is a phrase that underlines both someone’s stupidity and shallowness. However, there are several adjectives and phrases that have similar meanings and that recall the idea that this expression is a negative way to address women, such as: silly goose (of course!), ditz, bimbo and scatterbrain.


Giulia e le sue amiche sono delle oche, sono sempre al centro commerciale.
(Giulia and her friends are so shallow, they’re always at the shopping mall.)

È proprio un’oca: non capisce niente.
(She’s such a ditz: she doesn’t understand a thing.)

12 – “FARE LA CIVETTA”, i.e., acting in a coquettish way, or flirt

In Italian, civetta means owl (also known as little owl, the owl of Athena, or owl of Minerva) and, a little bit like peacocks, this kind of owl deliberately draws attention to itself though in the case of the owl, it’s a hunting technique. This peculiarity is the reason behind the expression fare la civetta (lit., acting like an owl), which is related to the kind of behavior aimed at attracting attention and curiosity. Just like the previous expression, this one also describes in particular a woman who does everything possible to attract the attention of whoever surrounds her, who tries to charm, win over and seduce everybody.

In Italian this expression is usually followed by the preposition con when the target of this seduction technique is explicit – for example:

Non fare la civetta con lui, è un uomo sposato!
(Don’t flirt with him, he’s a married man!)

Maria fa la civetta con chiunque incontri.
(Maria flirts with everyone she meets.)

13 – “FARE LA GATTA MORTA”, i.e., acting innocent, or playing dumb*

The expression fare la gatta morta (or gattamorta) means… acting like a dead cat! It originates from Aesop‘s fable “The Cat and The Mice” in which a cat pretends to be dead (and harmless!) so to push the mice in the house to come out in the open and let down their guard. So, it’s an expression that describes the way some people act when they pretend to be harmless, sweet, shy and very kind – but the reason why they do it it’s just to deceive and take advantage of others, because they’re actually malicious, aggressive, nosy and disloyal.
Over time, it is used more and more often to indicate a woman who has seductive, slushy and excessively bewitching attitudes, in order to win over and seduce men, and often to get something from them.

*Similarly to many Italian idioms, there isn’t a proper and definite way to translate it – there are some aspects that would get lost in translation. A woman who fa la gatta morta is obnoxiously flirty and confident but doesn’t show it – in this case, acting innocent and playing dumb would work if it wasn’t for the fact that they don’t really convey the same ambiguity and flirtatiousness as the original expression. So, like “fare la civetta”, acting in a coquettish way and flirting would work better.


Loredana è diventata famosa facendo la gatta morta… Fossi in lei, non ne sarei orgogliosa.
(Loredana has become famous by flirting (implicit: with every man she sees) … If I were her, I wouldn’t be too proud.)

Se continui a fare la gatta morta, finirai per avere molte nemiche!
(If you keep flirting (with every man you see), you’ll end up with many enemies!)

14 – “ESSERE COME UNA FORMICA”, i.e., being very hard working*

What does formica mean? Well, it means ant, and being compared to an ant doesn’t really sound like a compliment: ants are tiny invasive animals, right? Well, yes but they are also tireless workers who are able to carry as much as 50 times their body weight; they are also among the longest-lived animals. Moreover, in Jean de La Fontaine’s version of the fable “The Ant and The Grasshopper [or Cicada]” (1669), the author emphasizes the great continuous efforts of ants, which during the winter can survive thanks to the hard work they have done during the rest of the year.

That said, this expression highlights the positive characteristics of this small insect and describes a working person who knows how to manage their savings.

*In English there is no expression referring to this particular characteristic of ants, although there is one that might work just as well: being as busy as a bee because, in general, both of them aim to emphasize the efforts made by hard working people.


Mario è come una formica: ha lavorato sodo tutto l’inverno per andare in vacanza.
(Mario is like an ant: he worked hard all winter long to go on vacation.)

Menomale che sono come una formica, ho messo da parte molti soldi.
(Thank goodness I’m like an ant, and I set some money aside.)

15 – “FARE LO STRUZZO”, i.e., to bury one’s head in the sand

Fare lo struzzo is another Italian expression that is rather popular… but let’s start from the beginning! It means “acting like an ostrich” and what do ostriches do? Well, it is said that ostriches are not particularly brave animals but rather that they bury their heads in the sand so as not to see the danger, but above all hoping not to be seen. Although the reality of the facts is different, and they put their heads in the sand to search for food, in the collective imagination they are still fearful and cowardly animals. Therefore, fare lo struzzo is used to indicate a person who ignores the surrounding problems on purpose – a person who ignores (an) obvious problem(s).


Non fare lo struzzo: sai benissimo che con il tuo comportamento stai causando molti problemi.
(Don’t bury your head in the sand: you know very well that your behavior is causing a lot of problems.)

Marco sta per essere licenziato ma continua a fare lo struzzo.
(Marco is about to get fired but he keeps burying is head in the sand.)

16 – “ESSERE UNO SCIACALLO”, i.e., being a vulture*

We end the list with the sciacallo, a wolf-like animal, solitary and territorial, which feeds on dead animals… a jackal! In addition, Anubis, the Egyptian deity of death, was depicted as a man with the head of a jackal, strengthening the link between jackals and death. Therefore, essere uno sciacallo is equivalent to being a person who takes advantage of or enjoys the misfortunes of others.

*In English, as well as in Italian, it’s far more common to compare this type of people -dishonest, opportunistic and sly- to vultures, although the latter tend to take advantage of someone who is in a very bad situation (and they usually wait for others to be in very bad situations).


Quel giornalista è proprio uno sciacallo: pubblica notizie senza accertarne la fonte, ma solo per alcuni click in più!
(That journalist is such a jackal/vulture: he publishes news without ascertaining the source, but only for a few more clicks!)

Sofia è proprio uno sciacallo: le fa piacere sapere che sono stata bocciata.
(Sofia is such a vulture: she is pleased to hear that I’ve failed an exam.)

That’s all for this article! Did you already know these expressions? Do you have similar ones in your languages? Let me know in the comments! If you want to continue studying the Italian language and you are curious to know more about animals, know that we have an article and a video on the subject of Italian animal sounds, or at least the most famous ones!

And don’t forget to read our book Italiano Colloquiale: Parole ed Espressioni per Tutti i Giorni. It’s really worth it: you will learn dozens and dozens of expressions and words that Italians use every day during their conversations.

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