How to Say it in Italian: More Idioms

New reader Marlene, who is making the move to Italy soon, has been learning Italian (good for you!). She came across a less idiotic idiom list than my own, which includes many words and phrases I use and hear all the time when speaking Italian – so I thought I’d share them with you, lest you think Italians only go around talking about poppies and stirrups.

Oh, which reminds me – I was watching, or maybe listening to something, the other day – damn, what was it?! – it was British people, maybe it was a Ricky Gervais podcast? Well, anyway, I think they were saying something about being or acting high poppy or something or other.

I just got off the phone with Fi, who’s veddy English and says she’s never heard of it, so maybe I dreamt it!

Read Miss Expatria, for all your hard-hitting and factually reported news.

Anyway, let’s go over the list of idioms that are more commonly used. When you’re becoming fluent in a language, you’ll find these are the “throw-away” phrases that come to you in Italian first, before most other words. At least, I did.

Idiom: Amen
Pronounce: AH-men
Means: This has a couple of meanings. Sometimes it is used in response to something that’s said – the way we would say, Amen, brother or exactly. But most times, it is used by the person who is speaking, to indicate that there’s nothing more to say on the matter. “I told him I was sick of driving him everywhere, and he could walk from now on. Amen.”

Idiom: Che barba and che noia
Pronounce: kay bahr-ba; kay noy-ya
Means: How annoying, how boring. My Gay mafia uses these two together: Che noia che barba che noia! If someone is telling you that they had to sit next to their boring podiatrist uncle for the whole wedding, you’d sympathize by saying, che barba. If you’re driving around the parking lot for an hour trying to find a spot, you’d say, che noia. Both are whiny-ly drawn out – che barbaaaaa, che noiaaaaaa.

Idiom: Che schifo
Pronounce: kay skee-foe (correct); kay-shkey-foe (funnier)
Means: Gross! It can be used as a reaction to anything from fashion faux pas to unidentifiable food in the fridge.

Idiom: Da morire
Pronounce: dah mo-rear-ay (correct); damoREE (in dialect or when talking too fast. Ahem.)
Means: To die for. This is one that I got wrong for a year before the Gay mafia corrected me; I used to say, di morire. Don’t ask me what the difference is, but again the vowels make or break you in Italian. Anyway, anything from a meal to a performance to an outfit is da morire.

Idiom: Davvero
Pronounce: dah-VAIR-row
Means: Really truly? Depending on your inflection, it can be used sarcastically – just like in English. “I got you a puppy.” Davvero?! (clap hands excitedly for prezzies) “I’m dating George Clooney.” Davvero. (give withering look and slowly sip your wine)

If you’re really asking, “Really?” like, if someone called you and told you that someone you just saw yesterday is in the hospital, you’d say, “sul serio?” (sool sair-ee-o) – are you serious?

Idiom: Lascia perdere; lascia stare
Pronounce: lah-shah-PEAR-dair-ay; lah-shah-STAH-ray
Means: Drop it, let it go, leave it alone. Lascia perdere is more about a subject matter; lascia stare is more about an object.

Idiom: Ma va
Pronounce: mah vah
Means: No way; go on; get outta town. Best used when gossiping. I’ve also heard this used when someone is annoyed in an incredulous way by what someone has said, as a way of stopping before finishing it with a “…fa in culo.” But, it’s more often heard in a hair dresser’s: Ma vaaaaaaaaaaa.

Idiom: Meno male
Pronounce: may-no mah-lay
Means: It literally means “less bad,” and is used… God, this one is so hard. I say this all the time, too. And now I’m blanking in English, too, because obviously no one says “less bad.” I guess it could be loosely translated as, “Everything worked out, so there’s no need to worry.” Jesus, that definition sucks. It’s like, if you were rushing to get to the theater on time, and you bust open the doors and find the curtain still hasn’t gone up yet, you’d turn to your date, shrug and say, meno male.

Idiom: Per carità
Pronounce: pair cah-ree-TA
Means: This one is SO AWESOME. It literally means, “for charity.” But people use it like, oh puh-leeze, come on, give me a break here, for chrissakes. “I’m supposed to pay the rent, all the bills, and make you dinner while you sit around watching football? Per carità.”

Idiom: Porca miseria
Pronounce: poor-cah mee-ZAIR-ee-ah
Means: Hahahahahah this one literally means, “misery pig” and has more uses than a Swiss Army knife. Flight canceled? PORCA MISERIA. Customer in front of you is paying in pennies while your gelato melts down your arm? PORCA MISERIA. Break a nail while rushing to an appointment late? PORCA MISERIA. Miss the turn on the highway, and now you have to drive 30 miles to the next one and come 30 miles back, and the exit on the other side of the highway will not put you where you need to be? PORCA MISERIA.

There are several cuss-wordy variations of porca miseria, none of which can be printed in something my mother reads. But man, are they fun to listen to someone say, especially when you’re not involved in their personal version of hell.

So many of these Italian idioms remind me of physical gestures Italians do, many of which are a million times more descriptive than anything that comes out of their mouths. I sense another post coming.


25 thoughts on “How to Say it in Italian: More Idioms

  1. Che barba, how annoying –

    Oh lordy lordy how appropriate. Supermatt41 and I both worked under a Program Manager whose last name was Barba (she married an Italian, hence the name). I’ll let Supermatt41 fill in the blanks on this one.

  2. @ Anita: It literally means “beard”. I believe the implication is that the person is so boring/annoying, you grow a beard from all the time it takes listening to them whinge.

  3. Ahh, Signora Barba e molte barba!
    (I know that makes no sense in italian, but it’s funny on my side of the computer)

    Signora Barba goes back to Italy with her husband for a visit every single year and she couldn’t be less interesting if she wore nothing but beige all the time. You would think exposure to Italy like that would give her a personality. It doesn’t.

    As for “meno male”, could it be a little like the english expresion “It’s not so bad”?

  4. Thanks for adding these idiomi, Miss Expatria! You helped me with my homework — yippee! I translated “che barba” to “what a beard” – glad I know the true meaning now…

  5. Hi there,

    I’m currently living in Italy and found your blog by mistake. Very amusing!Couldn’t meno male be translated as “thank goodness”? It seems to be used in that kind of way.


  6. “High poppy” refers to a cultural phenomenon in the UK (and even in UK-influenced cultures like Australia) in which a talented person who stands out from the crowd will be cut down by derision for being the “high poppy” or “tall poppy”. A person who is being “high poppy” is someone who is calling attention to themselves, usually by excelling. In America, the idiom closest to this would be to say that someone is “too big for their britches”.

    NEED HELP: What is the Italian idiom that most closely matches in meaning “under the table” or “off the books” – referring to someone being paid something without there being a record of it?

  7. This is an awesome list! ha! I’ve been told by my female friends that it’s not nice for women to say: Che schifo. I use it all the time. It’s my favorite saying when something is gross, or out of place.

      • Unfortunately most of my friends are the vecchi neighbour ladies. However, I have one friend my age, and it’s her that told me it’s incorrect, or rather not nice to use that phrase. But I 100% certain that things run backwards in Sardegna. As much as I love it here, there are time I want to shout from the rooftop: che schifo. 😉

  8. Pingback: Barbant – Therapy Tales #231 « Therapy Tales

  9. Re Ricky Gervias comment about poppies. Its the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – English people don’t like you to get ‘above your station’ or appear to do well and be proud about it. Therefore they cut you down, (eg tall poppy syndrome) if they (particularly the British gutter press) think that you are doing too well and don’t appear to be humble about it, or even apologetic for it they will start to criticise you. As in a poppy is a weed which requires cutting down.

  10. I love this! It’ll be useful for me when I write new stories for my Italian space dragons! I came across this when I googled “how to say amen in italian.” Gotta love Google, it helped me find a gem!

  11. Ciao! Grazie, wonderful article with a lot of useful information. It’s so interesting to compare different languages and the expressions they use. Especially Italian… food plays such an immense role there as well. That’s why we thought a food expression guide might be useful? Let us know what you think

  12. meno male like in spanish menos mal , meaning something that could have ended up worse but did not( meno male, che non piove questa mattina

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