Our Favorite Neapolitan Expressions And How To Use Them

Heading to Naples? Here’s a couple dozen phrases it might be useful to know.
Neapolitan expressions represented by a trattoria in Naples, Italy with produce and meats hung outside.

The Neapolitan dialect is one of the many Italian dialects that can be found throughout the country of Italy. When we refer to the Neapolitan dialect, it’s important that we differentiate it from the Neapolitan language first. The Neapolitan dialect is a regional variant of Italian spoken in the city of Naples and the surrounding area, while the Neapolitan language is an entirely separate language that’s spoken across different regions of Italy and encompasses the dialects that were spoken in the kingdoms of Two Sicilies.

Neapolitan differs from other Italian dialects in a few different ways, but one of the most noticeable is Neapolitan expressions. As with any dialect, the speakers have countless phrases individual to them, and learning them is a great way to get more insight into the region. Here, we’ll look at some of our favorite Neapolitan expressions. But first, it’s worth it to look at the context the Neapolitan dialect exists in.

A Little History Of The Neapolitan Dialect

The first written record of the Neapolitan dialect can be found in the Placiti Cassinesi. The Placiti are four legal testaments that were written between 960 and 963. Neapolitan has an extremely rich written history. The first piece written in prose was a chronicle from the 12th century. Despite its storied history, the dialect has had good and bad fortune depending on who’s been in power. Though there were attempts to make the Neapolitan dialect gradually disappear, it has survived for centuries thanks to its strong literary tradition. The most notable work comes from Giambattista Basile, a writer who lived between the 16th and 17th century.

In the middle of the 15th century, the Aragon royal family attempted to regulate the use of the Neapolitan dialect. More specifically, the family attempted stamp it out of existence. They encouraged using the Tuscan dialect which had emerged as the literary lingua franca equally as dignified as Latin. The decline of the Aragon family led to a Neapolitan dialect renaissance, though Tuscan did end up becoming prevalent in the city and region.

Regardless, thanks to the popular literary works from authors like Eduardo di Filippo and Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan music school, and pop music (from 99 Posse to Almamegretta, from Liberato to Nu Genea), the Neapolitan dialect has survived and thrived, becoming even more popular and widespread. The dialect isn’t just popular in Naples; its popularity has spread throughout all of Italy and abroad. Songs like “O sole mio,” for example, are widely known abroad and represent one of countless shining examples of this beautiful language.

It would be impossible to fit all Neapolitan expressions into one article given its centuries-old history. Instead, we made a list of a few the most famous and notable Neapolitan expressions and added a few fun facts that might not be as well-known outside the region. Jamme jà!

Our Favorite Neapolitan Idioms And Expressions

  • A pisce fetiente  when something is a pisce fetiente, or “to smelly fish,” it means that a situation has turned into a violent fight.
  • A quatt’e bastuneto be “on four walking sticks” means to be fully relaxed. This expression comes from the depiction of four walking sticks shown on Neapolitan cards.
  • Alla sanfrason (or alla sanfasò) — a few Neapolitan expressions have French origins. Alla sanfrason comes from the French expression sans façon, meaning “haphazardly.”
  • Chiachiello this term is used for someone who’s all talk.
  • Chino ‘i vacantarìa literally meaning “full of emptiness,” this expression is used to describe something empty.
  • Dicette ‘o pappecio ‘n faccia ‘a noce: damme ‘o tiempo ca te spertos o. this is one of the most iconic Neapolitan expressions, literally meaning “The worm said to the walnut tree, give me time so I can burrow into you.” It’s a plea to not let go.
  • ‘E stramacchio means “clandestinely” or “under wraps.”
  • Fa ‘o paro e ‘o sparo when someone is doing something “odds and evens” in Neapolitan, it doesn’t mean they’re deciding whether they’ll do something. Instead, they’re weighing the pros and cons of a decision.
  • Gente ‘e miez’ ‘a viapeople on the street live from hand to mouth to get by.
  • Ha da passa’ ‘a nuttata one of the most celebrated Neapolitan expressions was used for the first time by Eduardo de Filippo in the comedy Side Street Story, and essentially means that you have to keep going during the hard times (the nuttata) because better times are ahead.
  • Inta a scurdata Neapolitans say this when something was never forgotten and the time has come to right a wrong.
  • Jamme bell’, jà! this is one of the most well-known Neapolitan expressions outside of Naples, and it literally means “Come on, beautiful, come on!”
  • L’acqua è poca e ‘a papera nun galleggia this expression literally means “there’s so little water not even a duck could float.” Neapolitans use this expression when a situation is really bad.
  • Mmange, ca ru ttuoie mange this literally means “eat because otherwise you’ll eat from your plate.” The meaning isn’t easy to guess from the literal translation, but Neapolitans use this expression for someone who tries to use a situation to their advantage without realizing that they themselves will face the consequences later on.
  • Me dai na voce — literally “give me a voice,” this expressions means “let me know.”
  • Metterse ntridece this curious expression sounds similar to a Sicilian expression, but it has a different meaning.  Someone who “puts themselves in thirteen” is someone who sticks their nose where it doesn’t belong.
  • ‘Nu guaio ‘e notte literally translating to “a pickle in the night,” this expression means a disaster, or a serious predicament that’s practically impossible to solve.
  • ‘O ciuccio ‘e Fechella this Neapolitan expression definitely stands out because of its origin story. L’asino di Fechella, or “Fechella’s donkey,” is an expression used for people who are ill. It seems like a certain Fechella had a particularly sickly donkey that was ill-adapted for carrying things.
  • ‘O guappo ‘e cartone the guappo is an arrogant guy, and when they’re di cartone it means that they’re all bark and no bite.
  • ‘O munaciellothis mythical creature is a type of elf endowed with magical powers that can either be good or bad. You can hear them being talked about when something inexplicable happens in the house.
  • Parlà mazzecato someone who only tells half of the story, whether it’s because of spinelessness or calculation.
  • Rutto pe’ rutto — literally “broken for broken,” it means at this point what’s done is done, what happens happens.
  • Scarte frúscio e piglie primeraif you’re a fan of the musical artist Liberato, you might be familiar with this expression. The literal translation doesn’t quite match up with its current use (because it refers to a card game that’s no longer played), but the expression’s meaning is clear: it’s when you try to avoid a mess and end up in a worse situation.
  • Se so rotte le giarretelle giarratelle are small pitchers, and this phrase refers to them breaking. It means a very solid bond between two people has been broken.
  • Si’ ‘nu babbà Neapolitan expressions are closely linked to local cuisine, and this expression is no exception. When someone says that they’re a babbà, it means that they’re saying they’re darling or a doll.
  • Statte buonothe ultimate sendoff, meaning “fare thee well.”
  • Stann’ cazz’ e cucchiar no, this isn’t a vulgar expression. It literally means “like a bucket for the mortar and the trowel.” The actual meaning refers to two people who understand each other perfectly.
  • Tene’ ‘a neva ‘int’ ‘a saccasomeone who “has snow in their pocket” is someone who’s in a rush. Maybe they’re afraid the snow will melt?
  • Tene’ l’arteteca means “to be rambunctious.” Arteteca is a rheumatic fever that causes spasms and was once common in children.
  • Tène ‘o mmale ‘e ndindò: a isso lle vène e a me no means something to the effect of “you have ridiculitis, but I don’t get sick from it.” But what does male di dindò mean? It’s an expression for someone who’s allergic to hard work, so it’s a malady that afflicts every slacker when there’s work to do.
  • Zittu zitto, ‘nmiezo ‘o mercato someone who does things “hush hush in the middle of the market” thinks they’re acting stealthily but everyone can see them, and therefore they’re drawing attention to themselves.

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

Want to learn more Italian?
Try Babbel