Italian Word of the Day: Cervello (brain)

The word for brain in Italian in cervello (masculine). It derives from the Latin cerebellum which is the diminutive form of cerebrum (brain).


Cervelli is the simple plural of cervello, whereas the feminine plural cervella indicates the matter of which the brain is made, mostly notably in the expression far saltare le cervella (to blow one’s brains out). (Source: Accademia della Crusca)

Il cervello è un organo molto complesso.

The brain is a very complex organ.

3D illustration of human brain over black background
Il cervello umano = The human brain

In addition to the physical brain, you will also hear cervello used as a synonym for judgement, intellect or common sense in numerous figurative expressions. Here is a taster of just a few you might hear.

fare le cose con / col cervello
to do things wisely

(essere) di gran cervello
(to be) very intelligent

tornare in cervello
to come to one’s senses

(essere) di cervello fino
(to have) a sharp mind

(essere) senza cervello
(to have) no brains / (to be) brainless

agire con poco cervello
to act without thinking

non avere il cervello a posto
to be a little crazy

uscire di cervello
to go crazy

Ma cos’hai combinato? Sei uscito di cervello?

What have you done? Have you gone crazy?

In English, we use the insult birdbrain to comment on a person’s lack of intelligence. Although it is possible to say cervello d’uccellino (literally little bird brain), you’ll find that Italians enjoy spicing up their insults by specifying the type of bird. For example:

  • cervello d’oca = goose brain
  • cervello di gallina = hen brain
  • cervello di fringuello = finch brain

Two other creatures that are considered brainless in Italian are the cricket and ant:

  • cervello di un grillo = cricket brain
  • cervello di formica = ant brain
chicken walking
Hai un cervello di gallina! = You are a birdbrain!

And while we’re on the topic of metaphorical uses for cervello, it’s worth mentioning that it may substitute the word persona (person) when discussing an individual’s nature, judgment, way of thinking or acting. For example, un cervello matto is a crazy person whereas un cervello storto (storto = crooked) is a person who doesn’t follow correct reasoning, or whose brain doesn’t work well.

Marco è proprio un cervello matto.

Marco really is a crazy person.

What’s more, it can also be a nickname for a person of great ability in the field of science, technology or other related fields. It is from this sense of the word that we get the expression fuga dei cervelli (lit: escape of the brains) which is the equivalent of the English expression brain drain..

In English we use the plural brains to describe the strategic mind behind a complex organisation or process, but in Italian, they stick with the singular cervello (e.g. il cervello dell’operazione = the brains behind the operation).

Expressions featuring ‘cervello’

Lambiccarsi il cervello

Literal translation: to distil one’s brain
English meaning: to rack one’s brains

Dare di volta il cervello

Literal translation: to turn the brain upside down
English meaning: to go out of one’s mind

Bersi il cervello

Literal translation: to drink one’s brain
English meaning: to go out of one’s mind

Mandare il cervello in vacanza

Literal translation: to send one’s brain on holiday
English meaning: to say absurd things without thinking

Avere il cervello in fumo

Literal translation: to have one’s brain in smoke
English meaning: to be tired mentally

Lavaggio del cervello

Literal translation: brainwashing
English meaning: brainwashing

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