Viva L’Italia: Italian Idioms and Expressions

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Italian is a colourful language, as all the Latin languages are, and like every other language it has its own proverbs, expressions and idioms. Below are a few common Italian phrases to learn, so you can convince people you’re a real Italian.

Non si puo avere la botte piena è la moglie ubriaca

Literally translating to you cannot have a full bottle and a drunken wife”, this phrase is the Italian equivalent of the English “you can’t have your cake and eat it”. In other words, you can’t have things both ways or you can’t get everything you want. Perhaps this shows which two things are considered most important in Italy – wine and a happy wife. Although maybe we should give them a bit more credit!

Tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare

This phrase literally means “between saying and doing is the ocean”, though it doesn’t rhyme in the English translation, which ruins it. The actual meaning is somewhere between “it’s easier said than done” and “there is many a slip between cup and lip”; in other words, there is plenty of room for mistakes when trying to achieve a goal. It may also imply that while someone’s intentions are good, the actual doing is another matter.

Buono come il pane

“As good as bread”, this expression is a bit like the English “as good as gold”, but applies more to someone’s personality and good nature than to how they behaved on a certain occasion, as the English phrase might. Bread is important to Italian life; it’s a simple and necessary food, both humbling and seen as a connection to God.

In bocca al lupo!

Meaning “into the mouth of the wolf”, in bocca al lupo is an informal way to say “good luck”. The reply to this message of good will is crepi il lupo, “may the wolf die”, or just crepi (die). Similar to the English expression “break a leg”, the origins of the phrase are unclear, but it may have originally been a hunting expression. The phrase is sometimes used by performers in operatic circles.

Ad ogni morte di Papa

“Every time a pope dies”; like the English “once in a blue moon” this idiom denotes something that doesn’t happen often. The connection to the Pope is obvious, since Italy is largely Catholic and of course the country has the Vatican City ensconced within.

Botte piccola fa vino vuono

This is one of our favourites, as it appears to be equivalent to the phrase “good things come in small packages”. The literal translation is “a small cask makes good wine” and, far from an insult, it’s really a compliment towards a short person. Whether a small cask really makes good wine, we don’t know.

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