12 Italian Expressions That Other Languages Wish They Had

Water, priests, demons and nails: a list of the most colorful expressions in the Italian language.
Young people in Italy hanging out on a wall Italian expressions

The Italian language is brimming with idiomatic expressions. Some have Biblical roots, while others have literary origins. Most Italian expressions have popular origins that tell us a little bit about our history. These expressions are the main reason why I fell in love with the Italian language, and why I talk about them so often. Allow me to explain.

In 2008, my professor gave me a firm handshake and declared that I was officially a “Master’s in Political Science.” But the only thing I managed to feel was an incredible sense of liberation after all those years of studying like a chicken with my head cut off. Unfortunately, I wasn’t exactly optimistic about my future in the field of diplomacy. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

I only had one thing in mind: packing my bags and leaving. I’d had enough of books and essays; I wanted to travel the world and figure out what to do with my post-graduate life while I was on the road.

Eight years, five countries and twelve homes later, here I am. If I take a moment to think about my experiences, I realize that living abroad has not only helped me challenge myself and find myself, but it’s also been a way, albeit painfully, to come to terms with what I miss most about Italy.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and therefore I love everything to do with words, but I’d say that my nostalgia stems from the charming and familiar cadence of my mother tongue. I have friends from around the world. We mostly speak English together (while I punctuate my sentences with wild gesticulations, of course), but a lot of times I find myself myself at a loss when I try to find the equivalent of a few typically Italian expressions that are perfect for describing specific concepts. Truthfully, some Italian expressions can also be translated literally. But many can’t.

So, without further ado, here’s a list of Italian idiomatic expressions that I use (and love) the most.

12 Italian Expressions That Are The Envy Of The Rest Of The World

Stare con le mani in mano

“Having your hands in hand”

This isn’t exactly a common situation. In Italy, we use hand gestures like crazy, and we often carry on entire conversations by weaving hand signals into our sentences. We use hand gestures like the Germans, who famously create seemingly endless compound words to express enigmatic and complicated concepts.

Now that we’ve established Italians’ love for body language, let’s examine this expression a bit. Certainly it’s a little easier to understand the negative connotation now. After all, telling an Italian that they have their “hands in hand” is like picking someone apart and raking them over the coals.

This expression is used in situations where one person isn’t working, while everyone around them is doing their part. For example, one might say, “Don’t just sit there with your hands in hand, help me with this suitcase!”

illustration of woman waiting with luggage and hotel porter having too many hands Italian expressions
Illustrations by Elena Lombardi

Non ci piove

“It doesn’t rain here”

Like most expressions that involve weather and disasters, this expression has folk origins. It also perfectly describes the inevitable certainty of what is being expressed. It’s similar to the English expression, “Make no bones about it.”

If “it doesn’t rain here,” it means that there’s no room for doubt or ambiguity.

Mandare a quel paese

“Send it to that country”

An entirely separate article could be dedicated to idiomatic insults in the Italian language. When said jokingly, these idioms can be funny. Just like in every language, these expressions often have murky origins that make them even more fascinating. In Italian, for example, when someone has irritated or shortchanged someone, we “send them to that country”…but which country? Nobody knows exactly, but plenty of people have been exiled there.

Piove sul bagnato

“When it rains, it pours”

Along with the expression, “Those with teeth don’t have bread, and those with bread don’t have teeth,” this expression epitomizes my indignation when something truly unfair happens to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
If, for example, a billionaire wins the lottery, or someone who’s just been dumped by their fiance loses their wallet, that’s an example of the expression “When it rains, it pours,” and it’s just not fair!

Acqua in bocca!

“Water in your mouth”

I’d like to conclude the “water trilogy” with a turn of phrase that has a hilarious origin.

According to legend, a devout woman who was particularly gossipy asked her priest for help in confession.

“What do I have to do to quit talking behind peoples’ backs and stop committing this sin?” she asked. The wise priest suggested that she drink a miraculous elixir that, when she spoke, would stop her desire to gossip and reveal other peoples’ secrets. “Take a few drops and hold them in your mouth, and you’ll see how miraculous it is,” the priest said.

How? You might be wondering why holding a liquid in one’s closed mouth is necessary for avoiding speaking. Nobody really knows; what matters is that the priest’s solution worked!

Pietro torna indietro

“Peter’s going back”

At face value, this phrase, which rhymes in Italian, makes absolutely no sense. But it’s precisely for that reason that I absolutely love this turn of phrase. Who is Pietro? And where did he go? Nobody knows. What we do know is that he’ll come back. Can we trust him? I think so.

That’s why we call him whenever we loan somebody something: Peter always comes back, and we know that it doesn’t rain here. Using this phrase is so commonplace that a lot of times, the speaker only has to imply it to get their point across.

“Will you loan me this book?”
“Yeah, you know his name, right?”
“Ok, got it.”

illustration of woman labeling all her things with the name pietro

Non sei capace di tenerti un cece in bocca

“Someone who can’t hold a chickpea in their mouth”

This expression is used for old gossipy ladies who don’t listen to their priests and don’t keep water or anything else in their mouths. In other words, it’s another way to say that someone has a big mouth!

Chiodo scaccia chiodo

“One nail drives out another”

Some think that finding inner strength is the best way to to overcome the drama of the past (a bad breakup, a layoff, etc.) and move forward. That’s a wonderful sentiment, but in reality, but how many of us actually follow through with it, and how many of us just substitute it for something else that’s beautiful and thrilling?

One nail drives out the other! The old, rusty nail that was causing so much pain has to be replaced by a shiny new nail. To hammer the point home, the solution is in your hands!

illustration of woman holding shiny new nail with a valentine surrounded by old rusty nails Italian expressions

Non avere peli sulla lingua

“Not having hair on your tongue”

Do you have a friend with no filter who always tells it like it is without any regard for anyone’s feelings? Of course, we can all agree that maybe they could show a bit more tact when they communicate things, but what do you prefer? Someone who smiles while talking behind your back, or someone who tells you the ugly truth to your face? I have no doubt that you’d prefer the latter. In fact, I always take it as a compliment when someone tells me I don’t have hair on my tongue.

Avere un diavolo per capello

“Having the devil for hair”

Is there a better expression to describe an angry person? It’s not just a matter of being angry to the point of being possessed by a demon (and then calling the exorcist), or having negative and malicious thoughts about someone, as if they had the devil whisper in their ear. No. It’s much worse. It’s when a fiend disturbs your mind so much that it feels like it multiplies into 1,000 fiends that bounce around on your head and pull your hair like crazy.

illustration of angry man with devils for hair

Da che pulpito viene la predica!

“From the pulpit comes the sermon!”

My grandma always told me that back in the day, when pulpits were used in church (they aren’t as common anymore), the priest would speak anathemas from the pulpit and humiliate the parishioners. Naturally, the secret was safe, but as they say, the person with a straw tail, the guilty person, always feels like they’re being questioned.

Now, “preaching from the pulpit” is a way to describe someone who does everything they can to give someone advice in situations where they’re presumably not in a position to do so. If the person who talks isn’t exactly without sin, their preaching becomes hypocritical, and the position of superiority, the pulpit, becomes less credible.

illustration of woman on a horse singing karaoke Italian expressions

È il mio cavallo di battaglia

“It’s my battle horse”

This expression has no relation to medieval duals with knights galloping toward the enemy. The poor horse in question is just a metaphor for “the best that one has.”

What’s my battle horse? It’s without a doubt my impression of the fight between Antonio Zequila and Antonio Pappalardo in the famous episode of “Domenica In” a few years ago. What’s yours? Everyone has their own.

This article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.

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