We all love a funny idiom, especially those whose content seems to have nothing to do with the intended meaning. Some good examples in English include kick the bucket (to die), Bob’s your uncle (it’s as simple as that), and a piece of cake (easy)…but what about Italian?
It turns out that it too has a range of chuckle-worthy sayings that will put a smile on the face of any learner of the language. In this article, we take a look at ten of the funniest!
1. Rompere le scatole
Literal translation: to break the boxes
If someone started breaking all the boxes you’d carefully selected for your big house move, you’d be pretty annoyed, right? Well, the idiom rompere le scatole means just that: to be annoying, to annoy someone or to get on someone’s nerves.
Non mi rompere le scatole pure tu! Sono abbastanza arrabbiato di mio.
Don’t you get on my nerves as well! I’m angry enough as it is.
Rompere le scatole is tame enough to be used even with your grandmother but, being Italian, there are of course more vulgar versions such as rompere le palle/coglioni (break the balls) or rompere il cazzo (break the penis). These should be reserved for close friends and relatives of the same age who wouldn’t be offended by vulgar language.
2. Arrampicarsi sugli specchi
Literal translation: to climb the mirrors
Imagine that you are arguing with someone who continuously comes up with impossible excuses or explanations for what they have done. They know they are wrong but simply cannot admit it. To put an end the argument, you could say:
Smettila di arrampicarti sugli specchi!
(Literally: Stop climbing the mirrors!)
In other words, you’re telling the other person that the chance of them winning the argument is as impossible as trying to climb a mirror!
The English equivalents to this idiom are to clutch at straws or to argue that black is white.
3. Pettinare le bambole
Literal translation: to comb the doll’s hair
Pettinare le bambole (combing a doll’s hair) is pretty low on the list of things an adult could do with their free time. This is why this idiom is used a lot when someone wastes time doing useless activities that don’t contribute to an end goal. It is very close in meaning to the English expression to faff around.
Caspita, hai scritto 2000 parole in un’ora! – Certo, mica sto qui a pettinare le bambole!
Wow, you wrote 2000 words in an hour! – Sure, I’m not one to faff around!
4. Avere un diavolo per capello
Literal translation: to have a devil for each hair
As idioms go, this is probably one of the most evocative! A person who has un diavolo per capello – a devil for each strand of hair on his head – is someone who is enraged to the point of losing self control. It is similar to saying that you are as mad as hell or furious in English.
Non voglio parlarne adesso. Ho un diavolo per capello!
I don’t want to talk about it now. I’m absolutely furious!
5. Andar vitello e tornare bue
Literal translation: to go a calf and come back an ox
If you leave as a calf and come back as an ox (andar vitello e tornare bue), you are still the same animal, fully grown or not.
The same can be said about someone who is inherently ignorant: they may go off to school, receive an education, and even find a good job, but that doesn’t mean they instantly become a better person as a result. In fact, they may even come back more ignorant than they were before!
This expression is often used when you have great expectations of someone but end up disappointed.
6. Andare a letto con le galline
Literal translation: to go to bed with the hens
It is well-known in the farming world that chickens go to sleep soon after the sun sets and wake up again at the crack of dawn. So if you are the kind of person who hits the sack before most, someone might say that you go to bed with the hens!
Adesso che sono più vecchio, vado a letto con le galline.
Now that I’m older, I go to bed very early.
7. Avere la faccia come il culo
Literal translation: to have the face like the bum
Before you jump to conclusions, this expression doesn’t imply that someone has a face that resembles a bum, as funny as that would be. Avere la faccia come il culo* actually refers to an outspoken person who isn’t ashamed of the bad deeds they’ve done. It is along the lines of calling someone a shameless or cheeky b*****d in English.
Some tamer alternatives include avere la faccia come il sedere – with sedere being a less rude term for bum – or avere la faccia di bronzo (to have a bronze face).
Ma con quale coraggio si permette di dirmi cosa fare! Ha la faccia come il culo!
How dare he tells me what to do! What a cheek!
*Culo is considered a curse word in Italian, so avoid using it with people you might offend.
8. Conoscere i propri polli
Literal translation: to know one’s own chickens
This saying also originates from the world of farming. To conoscere i propri polli means that you know someone’s character so well that you can easily predict how they will behave in any given situation. It is often used to refer to one’s own children.
Lasciamo i ragazzi giocare in salotto? – Mmm, conosco i miei polli. Se li lasciamo da soli, si metteranno a litigare tra di loro.
Shall we let the kids play in the living room? – Hmm, I know what my kids are like. If we leave them alone, they’ll start fighting amongst themselves.
9. Essere culo e camicia con qualcuno
Literal translation: to be bum and shirt with someone
This Italian idiom has a very close English equivalent which is to be (as) thick as thieves. Once again, you need to be careful about who you use it with as it contains the vulgar term culo. A less vulgar alternative is essere pappa e ciccia con qualcuno (to be mush and flab with someone).
Quei due ragazzi sono culo e camicia: giocano sempre insieme.
The two boys are thick as thieves: they always play together.
10. Essere una barba
Literal translation: to be a beard
I find it very funny that the word for beard (barba) in Italian can also mean bore or drag. It is used in the saying Che barba! (What a bore!) as well as our final idiom, essere una barba (to be a bore). Why beards are boring, I cannot say, but it makes for a very memorable idiom!
Tu riesci veramente ad essere una barba ogni tanto…
You are really a bore sometimes…
Heather Broster is a graduate with honours in linguistics from the University of Western Ontario. She is an aspiring polyglot, proficient in English and Italian, as well as Japanese, Welsh, and French to varying degrees of fluency. Originally from Toronto, Heather has resided in various countries, notably Italy for a period of six years. Her primary focus lies in the fields of language acquisition, education, and bilingual instruction.