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Huh? What Do These Italian Idioms Even Mean?

The difference between knowing a language and speaking it as a native speaker is being able to master the idioms.

Idioms “sex up” speech; they make it colorful and picturesque, funny and whacky. In Italy, seemingly-wacky idioms rule casual conversation, so we’re helping you break them down. For instance, Italians like to say: “Talk as you eat”—meaning to speak in the same, natural way as when you gorge on food; a.k.a. speak with your stomach rather than your brain. Learning the meaning of all of these hilarious phrases (and when and how to properly use them), can take ages, so we’re picking a few popular ones to help guide you through Italian conversations.

These idioms are favorites and, if used right, are sure to give you the appearance of a local. Just make sure you’re picking the right one at the right moment. Context is key.

Avere un Cesto di Lumache in Testa, or to “Wear a Basket of Snails on Your Head”

In short, this is very offensive. It means your partner is betraying you. Snails have antenna-like eyes resembling little horns (called “corna” in Italian) and a man with a pair of symbolic “corna” in Italy is called a “cornuto,” or a cuckold. So if you’re walking around with a figurative batch of snails, that means you have many “horns,” that your woman has betrayed you more than once, and you have earned the title of cuckold to the nth degree.

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A Tavola Anche un Prete Ha Preso Moglie, or “While Feasting Even a Priest Got Married”

This figure of speech is a sublimation of Italian food and the power of drinking and eating. Italians love to indulge in lavish meals, they spend hours at the table drinking and gorging on delicious four-course meals. Feasting is the supreme social act. Joyful eating and toasting makes everyone happy, allowing even the impossible to become possible: like a (Catholic) priest taking up a wife. 

In Bocco al Lupo/In Culo Alla Balena, or “May You Go Inside the Mouth of a Wolf or The Ass of a Whale”

Believe it or not, these are ways to wish someone good luck. Linked to the unlikely chance of both awful events happening—a wolf would bite your head off, or you’d need to first get inside the body of a whale (unless you’re Pinocchio). Paradoxically, Italians use them very often before an exam, a doctor’s visit, or a job interview. The two standard replies aimed at chasing away jinxes are, crepi (“may the wolf die”) and speriamo che non scureggi (“let’s hope the whale doesn’t fart because, if it does, you’ll be floating adrift in the middle of the ocean”).

Gallina Vecchia Fa Buon Brodo, or “Old Hen Makes a Good Broth”

According to farmer tradition, an old hen no longer able to hatch eggs is killed to make the Sunday broth with handmade tortellini or ravioli. So, it’s meant to be a compliment for mature ladies no longer in their years of splendor. Age and looks don’t mean a great deal if a woman lacks wisdom, intelligence, sex appeal, or other impressionable qualities, just like an old hen is allegedly tastier than a baby one for it has lived longer.

Avere la Moglie Ubriaca e la Botte Piena, or “To Have a Drunken Wife and a Full (Wine) Barrel”

In life, you can rarely have it all. You can’t have a happy, carefree wife who’s not a pain in the neck and indulges your every whim because she’s drunk and also touts a cellar full of wine. The gulped-down and now-gone wine is what made your wife tipsy and amiable.

Fare Venire Il Latte Alle Ginocchia, or “To Make One’s Knees Milky”

It’s a very polite expression used to say that something or someone is so boring and tedious; it’s like milking cows. Farmers, usually seated on a low stool in a stable, milk a cow very slowly, until they fill the container to the rim—which is placed right where their bent knees are and at the height of the animal’s teats. A good American equivalent would be “like watching paint dry.”

Dalla Padella Alla Brace/Dalle Stelle Elle Stalle, or “From the Frying Pan Right Onto the Embers/From Stars to Stables”

When things just go from bad to worse in the blink of an eye, it’s startling; all of a sudden you find yourself being burnt at the stake like alleged witches were in the middle ages. If the fall is nastier and less gradual, bringing you from a situation of almost heavenly bliss to doom in hell, it’s like going from the stars (the sky) to the stable (a stinky, dirty earthly place full of animal feces). For example, imagine winning the lottery, gambling with that newly-acquired money, and then losing it all the day after.

Fare Cilecca, or “When a Gun Fails to Fire”

This is typically said every time a symbolic target is missed, but Italians, particularly those with a dirty mind, love to use it whenever a man’s sexual anxiety gets in the way of his performance in bed. Teenagers often exploit the phrase, using it to making fun of each other.

Andare in Brodo di Giuggiole, or “Turn Into Jujube Broth”

This strange, bucolic idiom used to express infinite joy and pleasure is associated with the soothing effects of yummy jujube fruit. It’s a small, reddish round berry with a seed that grows on flowering trees and is very sweet and tasty. In ancient medicine, jujubes were used as stress-killers and to fight insomnia, so if someone melts into a jujube broth, that’s like reaching Nirvana. Often, just the sight of the person one has a crush on, or is very fond of, is enough to trigger such a response.

Moglie e Buoi Dei Paesi Tuoi, or “Pick a Wife and a Cow From Your Own Land”

It’s best to marry someone that comes from your same village and shares similar beliefs, traditions, and language, rather than go searching for a faraway exotic beauty with little in common. In the olden days, women were used as tradeable goods (given they came with a dowry), just like cows and herds, so it was best to stick with what was “familiar.” A farmer knew his cows well, their behavior, and how much milk they’d yield each year. The same goes for a local beauty: a man was sure to find one well-bred, according to village customs, who would not end up being a total negative surprise or a hassle. He knew what to expect, what he was signing up for when he wedded her. Today, it’s used as, “marry a woman from your own country, possibly of the same town.”

Prendere Lucciole per Lanterne, or “Take Fireflies for Lanterns”

This expression is used when you’ve got it all wrong. You’ve totally misunderstood something or got it the other way round, you’ve fallen prey to deception. Fireflies glow with an internal flickering light which is used as a signal, either to lure breeding mates or to convey that they’re in danger. During hot summer nights, when it’s completely dark and there are many in the air, it looks as if tiny lanterns have been lit in the sky. So, beware of appearances.

Ciò che non Ammazza Ingrassa, or “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Fatter”

Something that isn’t bad for you is automatically good. It nourishes the soul, makes you grow-up, feeds your experience and wisdom. It fattens up your life, making it meatier and more savory.