Not sure what your Italian friends are going on about, even after a frantic search in your dictionary? You’re not alone – Italian has some bizarre sayings that baffle even long-term expats. Here’s our guide to ten of the best.
Avere le braccine corte | To have short arms
If an Italian acquaintance tells you your arms are short, there’s no need to take offence – but it might be a good idea to offer to buy them a drink. This is how Italians refer to stingy people who are seemingly unable to reach into their pockets to pay for anything.
Photo: Pâl-Kristian Hamre/Flickr
Hai voluto la bicicletta? E adesso pedala! | You wanted the bike? Now ride it!
This has a similar meaning to the English expression “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it!” Usually said with a healthy dose of Schadenfreude.
Photo: Mario Mancuso/Flickr
Cambiano i suonatori ma la musica è sempre quella | The musicians change, but the music stays the same
Picture this phrase uttered by a disillusioned Italian, propped up at the bar and grumbling about how things never change. It’s often used to berate politicians or authorities who claim to be progressive but don’t seem to do anything.
Photo: Marco Antonio Torres/Flickr
Fare le corna a qualcuno | To put the horns on you
If your partner ‘puts horns on you’, it means they’re having an affair – you can either use the phrase or simply make the horns gesture to imply someone is being cheated on. As for the origin of the phrase, this one comes from Greek mythology. Pasiphaë, the Queen of Crete, had an adulterous relationship with the Cretan Bull, so when her son, the Minotaur, was born, he had the body of a man and head of a bull; the horns acting as a symbol of his mother’s extra-marital affair. Greek gestures, sayings and vocabulary found their way into the Italian language particularly in cities founded by Greeks, such as Naples.
Nowadays the gesture can be used as an insult even if you’ve got no reason to assume someone’s partner has been unfaithful. Italian footballers often make the horns sign at the referee, for example.
Photo: Dean Hochman/Flickr
Piove a catinelle | It’s raining like washbasins
Picture someone in heaven turning the taps on full blast – this phrase is just a dramatic way of saying it’s raining heavily. Of course, this is Italy, so it’s also used in weather that those of us from less summery climes might refer to as a ‘light drizzle’…
Photo: Mike Burns/Flickr
Senza peli sulla lingua | Without hair on their tongue
When you ask a friend to be brutally honest with you (not that Italians usually need much persuasion) you ask them to say it “without hair on their tongue”. An English equivalent would be “without sugar-coating it”.
Photo: Eduardo Gaviña/Flickr
Farsene un baffo | To make a moustache of it
In Italy, if you “make a moustache of something”, it means you’re not really bothered about it; you treated it as if it were as insignificant as a moustache. Of course, the saying might not work for certain Italian men who devote quite a lot of time to grooming their facial hair.
Photo: Ed Clayton/Flickr
Avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca | To have the wine cask full and the wife drunk
This is a not totally politically correct Italian equivalent to the English expression “to have your cake and eat it too”, used when someone is being greedy or wants to have the best of both worlds.
Capitare a Fagiolo | To happen at the bean
“È capitato a fagiolo!” is what you might say when something happens just in time, at the perfect moment. The saying dates back to a time when beans were an ingredient that even the poorest Italian families could get hold of and preserve, so if something ‘happens at the bean’, it happens when you’re running out of options – beans are all that’s left on the table.
Photo: Jirka Matousek
Prendere lucciole per lanterne | To mistake fireflies for lanterns
This saying is used when someone has misjudged or misunderstood the situation. In English we might tell them rather less poetically that they’ve “got the wrong end of the stick”.
By Ellie Bennett and Catherine Edwards