Italian Word of the Day: Pelle (skin)

The Italian word for human and animal skin is pelle (feminine, plural: pelli). It comes from the Latin pellis of the same meaning.

cover image with the word “pelle” and its translation written on a notepad next to a cup of cofee

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Most human skin types can be described using the following adjectives:

  • pelle secca = dry skin
  • pelle grassa = oily skin
  • pelle chiara = light skin
  • pelle scura = dark skin
  • pelle luminosa = glowing skin
  • pelle liscia = smooth skin
  • pelle ruvida = rough skin
  • pelle rugosa = wrinkly skin
  • pelle delicata = delicate skin
  • pelle morbida = soft skin
Group of cheerful diverse people in a white room
Il colore della pelle umana varia dal marrone scuro al quasi incolore.
Human skin color ranges from dark brown to almost colourless.

Biancaneve aveva le labbra rosse come una rosa, i capelli neri come l’ebano e la pelle bianca come la neve.

Snow White had lips as red as a rose, hair as black as ebony, and skin as white as snow.

Whereas in English, we have the separate term leather for the material made from tanned animal skin, Italians use either pelle or cuoio. For example, a leather bag would be una borsa in pelle / di cuoio and leather shoes would be scarpe in pelle / di cuoio in Italian.

Note: although the two words are often interchangeable, they don’t mean the exact same thing because the manufacturing process is different. Cuoio is a thicker more resistant type of leather than pelle.

Non indossare la giacca di pelle sotto la pioggia! Così la rovini!

Don’t wear your leather jacket in the rain! You’ll ruin it!

Pelle can also be used for the skin or peel of a fruit or vegetable but the synonym buccia is more common.

Quite often, Italians use pelle figuratively to mean a person’s life. Used in this sense, it is seen in the following expressions:

  • amici per la pelle (lit: friends of the skin) = friends for life, best friends
  • fare la pelle a qualcuno (lit: to skin someone) = to do someone in, to take someone’s life
  • rischiare la pelle (lit: to risk one’s skin) = to risk one’s life
  • giocare sulla pelle di qualcuno (lit: to play on somebody’s skin) = to put someone’s life at risk
  • lasciarci / rimetterci la pelle (lit: to leave / lose one’s skin) = to die (by doing something)
  • salvare la pelle = to save one’s skin / life
  • vendere cara la pelle (lit: to sell one’s skin at a high price) = to fight for one’s life
house on fire
Ogni giorno i vigili del fuoco rischiano la pelle per salvare vite umane. – Firefighters risk their lives for others every day.

Idiomatic expressions featuring ‘pelle’

There are dozens of idiomatic expressions in Italian in which pelle makes an appearance, so we’ve picked a few of the most common to share here!

Essere pelle e ossa

Literal translation: to be skin and bones
English meaning: to be skin and bones

Non stare più nella pelle

Literal translation: to not stay in one’s skin anymore
English meaning: to be beside oneself, to be very excited

Cambiare pelle

Literal translation: to change skin
English meaning: to reinvent oneself

Far accapponare la pelle 

Literal translation: to make one’s skin creep
English meaning: to make one’s skin crawl

Vendere la pelle dell’orso prima di averlo ucciso

Literal translation: to sell the bear’s skin before killing it
English meaning: to count one’s chickens before they hatch

Avere i nervi a fior di pelle

Literal translation: to have nerves on the edge of your skin
English meaning: to be on edge, to be high-strung

Avere la pelle d’oca

Literal translation: to have goose skin
English meaning: to have goosebumps

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