Italians are famous for talking with their hands, but they have a knack for using words in very clever ways as well. From colloquial expressions to age-old proverbs, Italian have ways of saying things that brilliantly reflect both a collective sense of humour and the particulars of its long, rich cultural heritage.
To follow are some of our favourite funny ways of saying things in Italian, along with their literal translations and English equivalents, where they exist.
ITALIAN SAYINGS, PROVERBS, AND IDIOMS TO HOWL OVER
Avere le braccia corte. To have short arms.
This saying is used to describe someone who’s cheap. Basically, their arms are too short to reach in their pockets for money.
Hai voluto la bici? E adesso pedala! You wanted the bike. Now pedal!
When “I told you so!” is the intended message, this is the appropriate modo di dire in Italian. The closest English expression would be “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it!”
Non avere peli sulla lingua. Don’t have hair on your tongue.
This is what you say in Italian when you want someone to tell it to ya straight. “Don’t mince words” or “Tell it like it is” would be the equivalents here.
Volere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca. Wanting the barrel full and the wife drunk.
The literal translation might not quite render the idea at first, but when you realize that it means the same as “To want your cake and eat it, too” the chuckles are soon to follow.
O mangia questa minestra o saltar questa finestra! Either eat this soup or jump out the window!
This expression might be a bit mystifying at first glance. Considering the pride that goes along with Italy’s culinary culture, it makes sense that they’d put “Take it or leave it!” this way.
Chi dorme non piglia pesce. Whoever sleeps does not catch fish.
In the Italian proverb, there are fish. In the English proverb, worms. Regardless of the creature involved, it’s pretty easy to see that this proverb translates as “The early bird gets the worm.”
Acqua passata non macina più. Water passed does not grind anymore.
In this proverbial saying, water is used in the same idiomatic way as in “It’s water under the bridge.” In the Italian version, the water that’s passed can no longer turn the waterwheel that powers the grindstone in the mill; that's why it does not grind anymore. What’s done is done.
Chi va al mulino si infarina. Who goes to the mill gets flour on themselves.
The mill appears again in this proverb, reflecting its important role in Italy’s past. This proverb really has no equivalent in North America. Maybe the closest thing is “If you go looking for trouble, you’ll find it.” The intention is simply that our actions have consequences.
Non c’è rosa senza spine. There is no rose without thorns.
We conclude with proverbial universality. The Italian equivalent of “Every rose has its thorn” delivers a message we all can relate to, regardless of culture: Even the most beautiful things in life can have their prickly aspects.
We hope these samples of Italian sayings were good for a few laughs! The clever ways in which one can express oneself in Italian is a bottomless well. Every region, province, and village has their own special ways of putting things. To fully appreciate them, you have to come visit!
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