First of all, what are idioms? Idioms are phrases that have a meaning that differs from their individual parts. Most sentences have a literal meaning, while idioms have a figurative meaning. Idioms are a combination of words that mean something different than the individual words do. Idioms are used by native speakers, so if you want to sound like a native speaker, you should probably learn some Italian idioms and some Italian expressions. Why? In this way, you will be able to impress locals and native speakers the next time you will travel around Italy.
Let’s take as an example the Italian idiom “cogliere la palla al balzo” (literally: take the ball when someone is launching it to you). No, don’t look around because you have no reason to do that. There is no ball to take.
This Italian idiom is used by native speakers when they want to say “cogliere un occasione”, so “to take the opportunity”. This Italian idiom can be translated as “aprovechar la ocasión” in Spanish, while in English would be “to seize the opportunity”.
Okay, we think that you now understood what idioms are! So let’s continue and let’s learn Italian language thanks to some Italian idioms and Italian expressions!
1. Vuotare il sacco (literally: to empty the sack)
In a figurative sense, this Italian idiom means “dire tutto ciò che si sa, confessare”, so “to say everything that you know, to confess something”. Its English meaning would be “to spill the beans”, while in French it would be “cracher le morceau”. This Italian idiom has its origin in the legalese. In fact, it seems that in ancient times all of the documents were inserted in a sack during the process.
2. Non è bello ciò che è bello, è bello ciò che piace. (literally: What is beautiful is not beautiful, what you like is beautiful.)
Okay, I think that since you already know Italian language, you will easily understand this Italian expression by yourself. This Italian idiom is used to say that “la bellezza è soggettiva, quindi ognuno ha i propri gusti”, so “beauty is subjective, so everyone has their own tastes”. This Italian expression wants to say that there is no absolute beauty, beauty is often relative. That’s why it is not possible to judge things or people as beautiful universally: some may like them while others may not. Of course, you can see breathtaking views during your trip to Italy, but it doesn’t mean that the other people that will travel with you will find those views breathtaking just as you do.
3.Parlare chiaro e tondo (literally: to talk straight and circular)
This Italian idiom means “parlare apertamente e senza ambiguità”, so “to speak openly and unambiguously”. When you are speaking “chiaro e tondo”, you are saying something without minced phrases, avoiding allusions, metaphors and subtexts. You are saying things as they are, even if they might sound crude and mean. The word “tondo” (circular) means something perfect in the Aristotelian philosophy. That’s why when you use the Italian expression “parlare chiaro e tondo”, you want to say things just as they are. Its English equivalent is “to speak clearly” while its French equivalent is “parler haut et clair”. You can also say “dire chiaro e tondo”.
4. Mettercela tutta (literally: put it everything)
I must admit that it’s hard to explain this Italian idiom. But “ce la metterò tutta” (literally: I will put everything) to explain it to you.
This Italian expression means “impegnarsi molto, impegnarsi a fondo”, so “to work hard”. Its English equivalents are “to swing for the fences”, “to work hard”, while its German equivalent is “alles daran setzen”.
5. Mettere i bastoni tra le ruote (literally: to put a spoke in somebody wheels)
This Italian idiom means “ostacolare”, so “to hinder”. It means to compete unfairly, because the person that “puts the spoke” on the other person’s wheels has an unfair advantage over him/her. Its English equivalent would be “to mess things up”, “to put a spanner in the works”.
6. Dare corda (literally: to give more rope)
When you “dai corda” at somebody, it means that you are encouraging somebody to do something, so you are giving them attention. This Italian idiom means “dare la possibilità, a chi sta parlando con noi, di dire e fare ciò che vorrebbe”, so “to give those who are talking to us a chance to say and do what they would like to do”. You can both say “dare corda” or “dare retta”. This Italian idiom comes from the rural culture, in which giving rope to animals meant increasing – for those secured by a rope – the level of freedom, the space within which they moved. Its English equivalent might be “to give the kite (some) slack”.
7. Arrampicarsi sugli specchi (literally: to climb on mirrors)
This Italian idiom means “fare tentativi miseri e inutili”, so “to make miserable and futile attempts”. We use this Italian expression very often when we want to say that someone is trying to make a desperate attempt to sort a problem out. I think that you can imagine that climbing on the slippery surface of a mirror is not the best way to save yourself! In English, we would say the same using the idiom “to clutch at straws”.
8. Scoprire l’acqua calda (literally: to discover hot water)
Italian speakers use this Italian idiom really often. But what does it mean? It means “dire, fare qualcosa di ovvio, di banale”, so “to say or to do something obvious, stupid”. You can use it when someone is presenting something obvious as something new or original. You can also say “fare la scoperta dell’acqua calda”. So, if somebody tells you something obvious you can tell him “hai fatto la scoperta dell’acqua calda!”. You can use this Italian idiom if you want to ridicule the person that is speaking. Okay, so let’s see the origins of this Italian idiom.
In nature, you can’t find hot water. Water is generally cold. But when you say “scoperta dell’acqua calda” you are not really referring to the water discovery but you are referring to the fire discovery, since when water was discovered, it was heated on the fire. So, when you are using this Italian idiom, you are referring to the first discovery that the human genre made, that was the fire. When you are using this Italian idiom, you are referring to something obvious, something granted. There is a similar Italian idiom that is “fare la scoperta dell’America”. As you can now understand, its English equivalent is “to reinvent the wheel”.
9. Essere buono come il pane (literally: to be good as bread)
This Italian idiom doesn’t imply that you should try out the other person! It means “essere un persona molto altruista”, so “a person who is very selfless”. A person who is “good as bread” is a really lovely and kind person. You can also say “essere un pezzo di pane”, but I must warn you that we use this Italian idiom only at the third singular person so “è buono come il pane” and not “sei buono come il pane”. This “buono” refers to the inner goodness of a person, so this person is a good listener, is selfless, kind and lovely. Its English equivalent would be “good as gold”.
10. Tutto fa brodo (literally: everything goes in the soup)
No, we are not really referring to our lunch! This Italian idiom means that “tutto serve”, so “everything helps”. But what is a “brodo” (soup)? “Brodo” is a dish made mostly of hot water, but except from boiled water you need to add at least one ingredient, that might be meat, vegetables, legumes or spices. But why do we use this Italian idiom? Well, because if you want to prepare a soup you can put almost any ingredient and it will be fine. So we can say that “tutto fa brodo”, that everything goes well in the broth. That’s why this Italian expression means that every single experience in life is helpful for us in a kind of way, we learn things for every experience. In English, we can say “anything goes”.
11. Avere il pollice verde (literally: to have a green thumb)
This Italian idiom means “essere bravi a coltivare piante e fiori”, so if your thumb is green you are good at growing plants and flowers. But why do we say that? It seems that those who love plants and have a lot to do with them, they easily get their fingers green because of chlorophyll. In English, we would translate this Italian expression as “to have green fingers” while in French we see “avoir la main verte”.
12. Dare tempo al tempo (literally: to give time to time)
This Italian idiom means “aspettare che le cose si sistemino”, so when you “dai tempo al tempo” you just wait for things to make up by themselves. You don’t act to change things, you just wait for them to change. This Italian idiom invites us not to “force times”, both in expectations and in action; it invites us to wait for events to develop according to the time they need. If you don’t wait some time, it’s like you are daring the time and you won’t probably come out on top. It seems that this Italian idiom was a Latin expression. In English, we would say “give it some time”.
I hope that you learnt some new Italian idioms today and that you will be able to use them the next time you will travel around Italy to impress locals and native speakers!
If you want to learn more Italian idioms, I would recommend you to start the Italian courses that VocApp offers. What is VocApp? VocApp is a website and an application that will allow you to learn Italian idioms, Italian expressions and in general to learn the Italian language in an efficient, funny and easy way. That’s why we recommend you to start the Italian idioms course or pick a course for English speakers.