In this lesson we will address the famous “set or idiomatic phrases”: some love them, others hate them, but everyone knows them! The set phrases are those fixed phrases that never change and that we hear so much that are almost trivial. But it is essential to know them in order to have a natural and fluent conversation!
20 Italian Set Phrases You Should Learn
1 – Signore e signori (Ladies and gentlemen)
I think this phrase is probably present in your languages, too. It is quite common and it’s used when starting a speech aimed at a mixed audience, composed of both men and women.
“Signore e signori buonasera! Benvenuti al nostro spettacolo! Tra poco i nostri professionisti vi delizieranno con le loro acrobazie!”
2 – Piantare/Chiudere baracca e burattini (To give it all up)
This phrase, which can be found with both the verb “piantare” and “chiudere”, means “to abandon everything and not want to know anything about it anymore”. In general it refers not only to the sudden interruption of a job undertaken, but also to the abandonment of the home, the family or the partner, or being fired.
“Hai sentito l’ultima? Dopo il tradimento di sua moglie, Mario ha piantato baracca e burattini e se n’è andato a vivere a Los Angeles! Neanche sua madre sa il suo nuovo indirizzo: vuole cominciare una nuova vita!”
You’re certainly wondering what “puppets” (burattini) have to do with the idea of leaving it all. It would seem that the origin of this expression comes from the ‘800, in particular from the province of Mantua. Here, in a small town, as an old anecdote tells, the inhabitants, offended by a joke by a puppeteer, they took his shack and his puppets (baracca e burattini) and threw them into the river.
3 – Auguri e figli maschi
This is obviously an old expression, it is nothing more than a sexist wish, result of a past culture, different from that of today. In fact,in the past, it was a great gift for a family to have a male child, because he would have been the only one who could carry on the family’s surname and he could also be a sound workforce, for example in the fields. Women, on the other hand, could not contribute concretely to the well-being of the family, as they could only get married or become nuns. Today, we no longer use this phrase as a real, heart-felt wish, but rather in a sarcastic and ironic sense, especially to respond to someone who oversells something and therefore we want to silence them already.
A: “Guarda che bella la casa nuova che ho comprato! È super tecnologica e full optional! Ha anche una vasca idromassaggio con vista sulla città!”
B: “Ah sì? Bene, auguri e figli maschi!”
4 – Cento di questi giorni (Many happy returns of this day)
On the contrary, this is a real wish, more respectful than the previous one! It is indeed a phrase that we say to someone on a particularly happy day for them, so it is as if we were wishing that this day of joy could happen over and over again, 100 times in the future. For example, if we say it on someone’s birthday, it indicates that we hope that they will live another 100 years.
“Qualche candelina in più sulla torta non può fare altro che illuminare di più il tuo viso! Tanti auguri per il tuo compleanno! Cento di questi giorni!”
5 – Tutto fa brodo (Every little bit helps)
This phrase means pretty much that anything is fine, that everything can come in handy and that it’s not the best time to be fussy, maybe because you are going through a difficult time. But why the broth? Because to prepare a broth practically any food is fine!
A: “Cosa devo portare alla grigliata di questo sabato?”
B: “È indifferente! Tanto tutto fa brodo!”
6 – Quando ci vuole, ci vuole! (Sometimes you’ve just got to!)
It means that when something is necessary, even if it is unpleasant, it must be done and that’s it. For example:
“Ho dovuto punire mio figlio per aver rubato 50€ dal mio portafoglio: quando ci vuole, ci vuole!”
7 – Qui casca l’asino! (There’s the rub!)
This is a very funny phrase that refers to the fact that the poor donkey (at least here in Italy) is associated with ignorance! The phrase means that, as soon as you started talking, difficulties begin, that a path until now smooth and straight begins to show some hurdles, due to a lack of knowledge or adequate experience, and therefore you risk falling, just as a donkey would do if it encountered a hole or any obstacle in its path!
“Oggi vi interrogo sul passato remoto dei verbi italiani! Eh eh… Qui casca l’asino!”
8 – Oggi come oggi (As things stand at present)
The meaning of this sentence can be easily understood: it is used to indicate the current situation, our times.
“So che ti piacerebbe che ti portassi in vacanza alle Maldive, ma oggi come oggi non posso prometterti nulla perché forse sarò licenziato tra due mesi!”
9 -…e chi più ne ha più ne metta! (…and so on and so forth!)
It is often used as a synonym for “etc. etc.”, “the list goes on”, “you name it”, to shorten a list of facts or objects and to highlight the idea that they are many and different.
10 – Patti chiari, amicizia lunga (Honesty makes for long friendships)
This sentence is very important to make agreements, pacts precisely. It is said when you want to impose your conditions for an agreement clear from the outset, so as to avoid problems in the future (and thus maintain a long-lasting friendship).
A: “Mamma, posso andare ad una festa questa sera?”
B: “Va bene, ma devi tornare entro mezzanotte! Altrimenti non ci potrai andare mai più! Patti chiari e amicizia lunga!”
11 – Senza se e senza ma! (No ifs ands or buts!)
It is used to indicate that something must be done as it is imposed on us, without being able to protest or request special conditions, that is, without being able to say “If…” or “But…”, which instead emphasize precisely conditions that we want to place (if) or limitations (but).
“Devi rispettare le mie decisioni, senza se e senza ma!”
12 – Non si sa mai/ Non si può mai sapere (You never know)
These two sentences literally mean that no one can ever know what will happen in the future and for this reason we must not exclude any eventuality and be cautious.
R: “Allora, se dobbiamo stare via sabato e domenica, porto almeno 5 paia di mutande…”
G: “Non sarà un po’ esagerato?”
R: “No, no, non si può mai sapere! Potrebbero servire!”
13 – E’ tutto un magna magna!
This phrase comes from the verb “magnare”, which is the most colloquial form to “mangiare (to eat)”, and literally means “everyone wants to eat/have their part”. It is used when we want to refer to a situation where everyone steals or wants to exploit the situation to earn something out of it.
“Mia nonna non va più a votare perché dice che in Parlamento è tutto un magna magna.”
14 – La matematica non è un’opinione (Mathematics is a science, not an art)
This sentence is used to make it clear that the numbers demonstrate unequivocally, certainly and transparently, what we are advocating.
“Se guadagni 400€ al mese sono 4800€ all’anno. La matematica non è un’opinione!”
15 – L’eccezione che conferma la regola (The exception that proves the rule)
This phrase is used when a circumstance occurs in opposition to a generally accepted rule. If there is something that is considered to be an exception, it means that a rule exists, the exception strengthens the rule and confirms its existence.
“Tutte le persone del segno del Capricorno che conosco sono testarde, tranne te! Sei l’eccezione che conferma la regola!”
16 – A dirla tutta (Truth to be told)
This phrase is used to introduce what we are going to say, when we want to emphasize that we are going to reveal something that no one yet knows.With the same meaning we also have the variants “to tell the truth”, “honestly”, “to be honest” and so on.
G: “Marco e Stefania hanno litigato per colpa della gelosia di lei!”
R: “A dirla tutta, hanno litigato perché lui l’ha tradita alla festa… L’ho visto con i miei stessi occhi!”
17 – A ogni morte di Papa (Once in a blue moon)
This phrase means “rarely.” It refers to the fact that the death of a Pope is an event that generally occurs several years apart, one from the other, therefore not so frequently.
“Francesca è così impegnata con il nuovo lavoro che ormai esce con noi solo a ogni morte di Papa!”
18 – Botta e risposta (Give and take/Tit for tat)
“Botta e risposta” refers to two people who exchange questions and answers or jokes quickly, without pauses or hesitations.
“Ho preso il massimo all’esame ma non poteva andare diversamente: io e il professore abbiamo avuto un bel botta e risposta sull’argomento e alla fine lui era veramente impressionato.”
19 – Chi c’è c’è (e chi non c’è non c’è) (Whether you’re there/here or not)
This phrase is used when we have to do something in a group and we are tired of waiting for the absentees, so we want to start without them.
A: “Ma dove sono finiti gli altri?”
B: “Non lo so e non mi importa! Li ho chiamati tante volte e non mi hanno mai risposto! Basta! Cominciamo a mangiare: chi c’è c’è, chi non c’è non c’è. Se arriveranno, mangeranno la pasta fredda!”
20 – Per l’amor di Dio! (For the love od God!/For God’s sake!)
This phrase, which has a clear religious origin, is used when we want to express a request to someone (i.e. we ask them by begging them to do – or not to do – what we are telling them) or to express opposition and impatience.
A: “Per l’amor di Dio, tesoro, non cominciare a fumare, altrimenti non smetterai più!”
B: “Mamma, per l’amor di Dio! Lasciami in pace e fammi vivere la mia vita!”
Now that you know the 20 most popular Italian set phrases, why not try to do our test to find out your level of Italian? We’re curious to know how you’re doing with our lessons!
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