As an Italian in love with the virtuosities of my mother tongue, I’m always delighted when someone shows an interest in learning Dante Alighieri’s language. Every time a friend tells me he or she wants to learn Italian, I start by giving tips and teaching the secret grammar rules I picked up at school, then I try to share the fine art of hand gestures. Finally, when the student is ready, I explain the magic of the unwritten (i.e., all the vernacular Italian expressions that nobody will ever find in a textbook).
Here’s the list of the slangy expressions that I use all the time — swear words not included! — with tips on how to use them and when, as well as when it’s better not to. Don’t forget to be melodious with your voice and to use your hands!
8 Italian Expressions And How To Use Them
Ci fai o ci sei?
Literal Translation: Are you pretending to be like that or are you actually like that?
Meaning: Are you crazy or what?
This question is a way to express utter disbelief with the way in which someone is acting. That’s why you ask, “Are you serious, or you are pretending?”
This saying is often accompanied with a hand gesture. With your index finger, tap gently on your temple.
Literal Translation: Don’t widen/expand yourself.
Meaning: Don’t go too far.
This sentence is used with people who push it with their behaviour. For example, you might complement your colleague for doing a good job and then he starts bragging and claiming that he’ll soon get a promotion. Tell him, “That’s too much, non t’allargare.”
This phrase also has a hand gesture that can go along with it. Put your hands in front of your chest, palms facing your interlocutor. Move them like you’re pushing them away.
Parla come mangi.
Literal Translation: Speak the way you eat.
Meaning: Keep it simple.
When a person speaks in a very complicated way — using metaphors and hyperboles, not getting straight to the point, showing off by dropping lots of adjectives and adverbs — then you might want to tell this person to keep it simple.
“Parla come mangi, don’t be rhetorical, stop confusing me with all these unnecessary words!”
Literal Translation: It doesn’t exist!
Meaning: No way! Forget about it!
When you get a request that is impossible or unacceptable, you don’t even need to look for a valid argument against it: you simply say that the request… doesn’t exist! It doesn’t exist, therefore you don´’t know anything about it.
“You want me to work during the weekend? Non esiste!“
Want to add a hand gesture to this Italian expression? With your palms facing your interlocutor, move your hands apart, horizontally, in a very determined way.
Non cercare di intortarmi.
Literal Translation: Don’t try to cake me up.
Meaning: Don’t try to cheat me/confuse me/set me up.
I’m not sure about the reason why Italians involved cake (torta) to admonish people for trying to cheat them. Is it because we Italians love food and we don’t want anyone messing with it? Probably. The only certain thing is that this sentence is not at all sweet.
“What? Do you really believe him? I think ti ha intortato (he caked you up)!”
Chissenefrega. (Chi se ne frega.)
I don’t care/Who cares?/Who gives a damn
Careful with this expression: you can certainly use it with friends, but it’s quite colloquial and could come across as rude. It communicates that you actually couldn’t care less about something, so don’t use it lightly. This phrase is probably one of the most commonly used in Italy.
To add a hand gesture, put one or two fingers under your chin and brush them in a forwards motion, gently touching your skin.
Dopo facciamo i conti.
Literal Translation: We are going to cash up later.
Meaning: We’ll settle this later.
This is a sentence that every Italian mother uses with their son at least once in her life. It’s a friendly warning that says, “If you behave like this now, don’t think that I will forget. You’ll deal with the consequences later.”
“Clean your room or dopo facciamo i conti!“
This expression can also be used in a friendly way. For example, when a friend invites you to dinner and insists on paying, but you resist, and there is this back-and-forth about it, the person who “wins” the fight might say dopo facciamo i conti. This means that you can talk money another time, and it’s a friendly way to say that the topic is not up for discussion anymore.
“I owe you 15 euros for the dinner you paid for!”
“Ah, dopo facciamo i conti, don’t worry!”
Meaning: If only (that were true)!
This simple exclamation is very expressive and can be used when you really hope that something is going to happen . In the context of a full sentence, magari can be used to mean “maybe,” but it’s most powerful as a one-word exclamation. I find it particularly poetic because it comes from the Greek word μακάριος (makarios) which means “blessed.”
Ah, you bought a new car. Did you win the lottery?
Illustrations by Eleonora Antonioni.