How to Say it in Italian: Italian Idioms

Now now class, settle down. Miss Expatria is running late today, but she’s ready for another amusing lesson on the intricacies of the Italian language. Today’s topic: Idioms!

Spit out that gum. NOW.

Your textbook for today is one my my favorites, the enigmatically titled Italian Idioms. This was an extremely useful book once I mastered the basics and realized that, in English, I use idioms – a lot. I’ll be rolling along in Italian and come to a screeching halt when I realize I have no idea how to say a certain idiom in Italian. I tend to be a bit verbose when I reach a point where I don’t know the word I want. You’ve been warned.

I’ll give you some choice idioms that have amused and/or helped me through the years.

English: bigwig
Italian: alto papavero
Literal meaning: high poppy
I first said: un capo con una parrucca grandissima
Literal meaning: a boss with a very large wig
I never remember idioms, so I say: uno VIP (pronounced VEEP)

English: by the way
Italian: fra parentesi
Literal meaning: between parentheses
I first said: vicino la via
Literal meaning: near the street
I never remember idioms, so I say: a proposito

English: my better half
Italian: la mia propria meta
Literal meaning: my exact half
I first said: una meta di me ma meglio
Literal meaning: one half of me but better
I never remember idioms, so I say: il mio boy

English: to rebel
Italian: alzare il capo
Literal meaning: to raise the head
I first said: il fa come James Dean nel film con Sal Mineo
Literal meaning: he does like James Dean in that film with Sal Mineo
I never remember idioms, so I say: molto James Dean

English: to fly off the handle
Italian: perdere la staffa
Literal meaning: to lose the stirrup
I first said: ha volato dalla cosa per la padella
Literal meaning: he flew from the thing for the pan
I never remember idioms, so I say: era incazzato nero

English: self-made man
Italian: venire su dal nulla
Literal translation: to come up from nothing
I first said: lui aveva niente ma adesso ha tutto e ha fatto tutto si stesso
Literal translation: he had nothing but now he has everything and he did everything himself
I never remember idioms, so I say: e’ famoso

English: by the skin of my teeth
Italian: per il rotto della cuffia
Literal translation: for the broken of the headphone (I know, I don’t believe it either)
I first said: della pelle sul miei denti
Literal translation: of the skin on my teeth
I never remember idioms, so I say: giusta-giust

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17 thoughts on “How to Say it in Italian: Italian Idioms

  1. This is a seriously fun post. I love this stuff!

    I’m totally going to use “He flew from the thing for the pan” in daily conversation. In English. I think it rocks.

    Anita Margarita once told me about an older Italian woman who was living in American and couldn’t remember the word for “collander” so she called it “the thing that makes the spaghetti stay and the water go.” How charming is that??

  2. I love it! It reminds me of when I forgot the word trashcan in French, and told a sales person I wanted the thing for when I don’t want the thing.

  3. Love your blog, Miss Expatria! You’re definitely a JetSet friend now. :) I’m going to check-in on your class more often, because my understanding of Italian is virtually non-existent.

  4. good morning! I’m still rolling on the carpet!! :)

    about the headphone thing…hihihi of course you dont belive it! the exact meaning referes to the headcoveres in use in mid 19thc when women and children had those funny white hats with fringes to keep their hair clean. I’m not sure which is the english word for that.,”rotto della cuffia” is the fringe attached to the headcover..so “salvato per il rotto della cuffia” is literally taken from a situation that suggests that someone was falling and was saved by someone else who managed to grab you last moment holding the fringe of your headcover.. hope I made sense..:)) ciao!

  5. I think Leo is talking about a wimple. Yes, that’s how old I am: I know what a wimple is. Shut up.

    You should do something like this for French, too. Although “the thing for when I don’t want the thing” is pretty damn brilliant.

  6. please stop to learn italian. you were so funny.
    i can’t forget that time in romalife with Olga, when she was telling us abouth the tragical death of his friend… hahaha.

    translate this: scavarsi la fossa.

    p.s.: @all the readers: don’t laugh about my english. I know. :)

  7. Si, si, ridi alla mia mortificazione.

    solo per te, smettero’ imparare italiano, maritofroscio mio.

  8. Pingback: How to Say it in Italian: More Idioms « Miss Expatria

  9. Pingback: Six Italian Idioms You Can Learn Today | My Bella Vita

  10. Great post!

    The other day we were trying to work out how to say ‘Hair of the dog’ in Turkish. (In english it is an idiom that means having the same alcoholic drink as the night before to cure a hangover)

    In Turkish it’s something like ‘kopeğin saçı’ – but that can equally mean just ‘dog’s hair’ – which doesn’t quite cut it!

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