I remember vividly the moment when my professor at the university shook my hand and congratulated me after the verbal defense, or discussione, of my master’s thesis: “You’re a doctor now!”
I was all dressed up, wearing high heels for the third (and last) time in my life. As I stood outside the ancient Paduan building in which I graduated, I thought not of the bright professional future ahead of me, but rather the gratifying sense of freedom and relief I felt.
“I’m done with all this studio matto e disperatissimo (or “crazy and desperate studying,” as Giacomo Leopardi loved to say)! I don’t need to pursue grades anymore. I’m free to go!”
My mum, who at the time was convinced I was about to become a powerful ambassador or, at the very least, an official adviser to the United Nations, wasn’t exactly thrilled when I delicately communicated to her that I was leaving Italy.
It was 2008 when I left — 8 years, 5 countries and 12 houses later, I owe it to myself to stop for a moment, look back and reflect on my experiences. After all, living abroad isn’t just a matter of discovering the world and yourself, it’s also a way to understand what you really miss about your home country.
And yes, as a writer madly in love with everything related to words and the pure joy of ars oratoria (or “the art of speaking”), I owe all my feelings of nostalgia to the mesmerizing and fascinating melody of my mother tongue. I have friends who come from all over the world, and while I speak to them primarily in English (with the gestures that make us Italians famous, of course), I still have the habit of translating beloved Italian expressions that I consider perfectly suited to specific situations. Don’t be surprised, then, if most of my sentences begin with, “You know what? In Italy we say [insert Italian phrase here].” I can’t help it! È più forte di me! (“It’s stronger than me!”)
Here’s a list of my 11 favorite expressions:
1. Stare con le mani in mano
Lit. translation: To be with your hands in your hand/hold your hands with your own hand.
English equivalent: To sit on your hands.
If you are at least a little bit familiar with Italian body language, you will immediately understand why this expression has a negative connotation for us: do you realize how frustrating it is for Italians to stay still without frantically gesticulating to express ourselves?
This phrase could address someone who’s doing nothing while everyone else is working.
“Non stare lì con le mani in mano, aiutami con questa valigia!”
“Don’t just stand there! Help me with my luggage!”
You can also use this expression to highlight people’s poor manners if they were supposed to bring something (a gift or some food, for example) but didn’t, but came holding their own hands instead of holding something nice.
“Che maleducato! È arrivato alla festa di compleanno con le mani in mano.”
“How rude! He came to the birthday party holding his own hands.”
2. Non ci piove
Lit. translation: It doesn’t rain on it.
English equivalent: No doubt about it!
The weather is one of our favorite topics for small talk and our mood tends to drop when the sun isn’t shining: take those two things, put them together, and you’ll probably understand why we have so many idioms related to weather.
Ending a discussion with non ci piove means you’re very confident of your closing line and that what you’re saying is so conclusive that it can’t possible be up for further discussion.
“L’Italia è il paese più bello del mondo, su questo non ci piove!”
“Italy is the most beautiful country in the world, there’s no doubt about it!”
3. Piove sul bagnato
Lit. translation: It rains on wet ground.
English equivalent: When it rains, it pours.
On the topic of rain and weather, here’s another phrase that I often use to describe a situation — one usually unfair or paradoxical — that will never change. For example, when someone who’s already insanely rich wins the lottery, or someone who’s very unlucky receives bad news.
“Ho perso il lavoro, la mia fidanzata mi ha mollato, adesso mi hanno anche rubato il portafogli… piove sul bagnato!”
“I got fired, my girlfriend broke up with me, and now I’ve lost my wallet… when it rains, it pours!” (lit. it rains on a wet ground)
4. Acqua in bocca!
Lit. translation: (Keep the) water in your mouth!
English equivalent: Keep it to yourself.
Let’s stay in this humid micro-climate for a little while longer and talk about another sentence related to water. In Italy, we love gossiping — non ci piove! We are also very careful not to reveal the source of the leak, however: nobody wants to be blamed for talking about other people’s business. Every time we want to say something we shouldn’t reveal, we always make sure our gossip-partner isn’t going to blow our cover. Acqua in bocca (keep the water in your mouth) is what we usually say as a warning.
“È un segreto, acqua in bocca!”
“It’s a secret, keep it to yourself!”
5. Non sei capace di tenerti un cece in bocca.
Lit. translation: You’re not able to keep a chickpea in your mouth.
English equivalent: You can’t keep your mouth shut.
This is what happens when someone is not able to… keep the water in his mouth! Was it really that difficult to swallow a tiny chickpea? Why did you let it out?!?
“Non dirgli niente, non si sa tenere un cece in bocca!”
“Don’t tell him anything, he’s not able to keep his mouth shut”
6. Pietro torna indietro
Lit. translation: Its name is Pietro and it has to come back.
English equivalent: Its name is Jack and it has to come back!
I’m very possessive of my books, and I could become your worst nightmare if you decide to borrow one from me. Don’t be surprised if, right before giving away one of my paper-based offspring, I warn you with a, “You remember his name, right? Pietro! Very good.”
This trick works in Italian because of the rhyme Pietro-indietro. If I had to translate it in English (and I’ll do it… “non ci piove!”), I would probably say, “Its name is Jack and it has to come back!”
“Mi presti questo libro?”
“Sì, ma c’è scritto Pietro sulla copertina!”
“Can you lend me this book?”
“Yes, but Pietro’s written on the cover!”
7. Non avere peli sulla lingua
Lit. translation: To have no hair on your tongue.
English equivalent: To make no bones about something.
This idiom isn’t used to describe someone who’s particularly attentive to oral hygiene. No, nothing to do with that. People without hair on their tongue are not afraid to be too honest, even if they run the risk of offending someone; there are no filters between brain and tongue.
Similarly, we also say non le manda a dire (literally: “he doesn’t send someone else to say things on his behalf”).
“Non rimanerci male, non è cattivo… semplicemente non ha peli sulla lingua.”
“Don’t be disappointed, he’s not a bad person… he just makes no bones about this kind of thing.”
8. Chiodo scaccia chiodo
Lit. translation: A nail drives out another nail.
English equivalent: You’ll get over it.
If you ever break up with someone and ask for advice from an Italian mamma or nonna (and believe me, Italian mums and grandmas are always the wisest), this is what you get: “Chiodo scaccia chiodo!”
In other words: You’ll forget about this (rusty, nasty, bad) nail, because very soon a new shiny one will replace it! This encouragement is normally used in painful love affairs, but can be leveled at anybody who’s trying to come to terms with something (a job, a friend who’s not calling back, a fight).
“Sei ancora innamorato di lei? Dai, troverai presto qualcun altro… chiodo scaccia chiodo!”
“Are you still in love with her? Don’t worry, you’ll find someone else and get over it!”
9. Avere un diavolo per capello
Lit. translation: To have a demon for each hair (to have as many demons on your head as the number of your hairs).
English equivalent: To be mad as hell.
Is there anything that better describes the look and the mood of someone furious? This person is not simply as angry as a demon, nor does this person simply have one demon sitting on his shoulder. No, nothing like that. To explain this amount of rage, one must involve a horde of nasty demons ready to whisper bad advice and evil things into your ears. How many? As many as you have hairs on your head!
And now, imagine the scene and tell me if you can find a better expression!
“Lasciami stare…ho un diavolo per capello”
“Leave me alone… I’m seething!”
10. Da che pulpito viene la predica!
Lit. translation: Look from which pulpit this sermon is coming!
English equivalent: Look who’s talking!
Religion, as you probably know, is a big deal in Italy — my grandma still tells me stories about being terrified by Sunday sermons. Why? Back in the day, it was very common for priests to expose their parishioners’ sins during the omelia from the pulpit. They didn’t say names and surnames — the secret of confession was “safe” — but they certainly knew how to make it clear who they were talking about.
This expression carries a truckload of emotional baggage and it’s one of the worst things you can say to describe a hypocritical person. Is that rich and greedy man saying that poverty in the world is a huge problem, and yet does nothing to ease the woes of the poor? Look from which pulpit this sermon is coming!
“Pensi che dovrei mangiare meglio? Senti da che pulpito viene la predica!”
“You think I should eat more healthily?! Look who’s talking!
11. È il mio cavallo di battaglia
Lit. translation: It’s my battle horse.
English equivalent: It’s my forte.
If you hear an Italian talking about horses and battles, don’t be scared. We are not in a Game of Thrones episode. Relax. We’re just bragging a little about our skills.
After all, isn’t the battle horse the fittest, strongest, leanest one, the one you trust to save your life? Then, believe me, having the possibility to see other people’s battle horse is certainly a good thing.
This phrase is used to indicate someone’s forte (another Italian word, yeah!), and can be said in every context. If you’re not into horses, you could also use punta di diamante (“the sharp end of the diamond”).
“Il falsetto è il suo cavallo di battaglia!”
“His falsetto is his forte.”
Illustrations by Elena Lombardi