10 Common Italian Idioms You Definitely Want to Learn

If you want to sound like an Italian and know more about their culture, you should learn expressions like fare i conti senza l’oste or trovare il pelo nell’uovo. Let’s take a look at the most common Italian idioms: words and expressions that have a different meaning compared to their literal translations.

common italian idioms

1. Fare i conti senza l’oste

Literal translation: To do the math without the host

This idiom is used by Italians when someone makes a rash decision, which does not take into account the wishes of others or the possibility that the decision might be refused.

Stai facendo i conti senza l’oste. Aspetta di sapere il parere di Giulia.

You’re making a quick decision! Wait to hear Giulia’s opinion.

2. Piangere sul latte versato

Literal translation: To cry over spilt milk

Imagine that you decided to have lunch in a restaurant and you then discover there was another one offering the same dish at a lower price. Italians would say è inutile piangere sul latte versato in this kind of situation. With this idiom, they mean that there is no point in complaining about something after the fact. What is done is done and there is no way you can change it. This idiom exists in both Italian and English.

È inutile piangere sul latte versato. Ormai non puoi cambiare il corso degli eventi.

There’s no point in crying over spilt milk. At this point you cannot change the course of events.

3. Cercare il pelo nell’uovo

Literal translation: to look for the hair in the egg

Here we have a rather critical idiom which refers to someone who is so fussy and pedantic that they become difficult to deal with. The meaning is similar to the English “nitpicking” or “splitting hairs”.

Stai cercando il pelo nell’uovo!

You’re nitpicking!

4. Avere un diavolo per capello

Literal translation: to have a devil instead of hair

This Italian idiom wisely mixes biblical beliefs and literature. The devil is a negative entity. So, if you have the devil on your head, it means that you are extremely angry or nervous.

Oggi hai un diavolo per capello… calmati per cortesia!

Today you are in a foul mood… calm down, please!

5. Gettare la spugna

Literal translation: to throw the sponge

Italians use this idiom to express the sadness felt when you have to give up in the face of something too big or complicated, especially after multiple attempts.

Ho provato tante volte ma alla fine ho gettato la spugna.

I tried many time but in the end I gave up.

6. Fare l’avvocato del diavolo

Literal translation: to be the devil’s advocate

This idiom refers to a person who expresses a contentious opinion so as to provoke debate, or test the strength of the opposing arguments. It exists in both Italian and English.

O sei molto ingenuo, o stai facendo l’avvocato del diavolo.

Either you’re really naive, or you’re playing the devil’s advocate.

7. Lavarsene le mani

Literal translation: to wash your hands of it

This Italian idiom is used to say that you refuse to accept responsibility for something in which you were previously involved. Its origin goes back to a gesture of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who took part in the trial against Jesus of Nazareth. According to the Bible, the man took some water and washed his hands in front of the crowd saying: “I am not responsible for this blood.”

Te ne stai lavando le mani, ma dovresti occuparti tu di questo problema.

You’re washing your hands of the problem, but you should be the one to take care of it.

8. Stare con le mani in mano

Literal translation: to stand with your hands in your hands

An intrinsic part of the Italian culture is body language and this idiom embodies it all. It is used to refer to people who are not working while everyone around them is busy.

Non stare lì con le mani in mano, aiutami con questa valigia!

Don’t just stand there twiddling your thumbs, help me with this suitcase!

9. Non avere peli sulla lingua

Literal translation: to not have hairs on your tongue

Do you have a friend or a relative who tells things as they are, without filters between their brain and mouth or any regard for your feelings? Then, you would use this Italian idiom to describe them.

Paolo non ha peli sulla lingua.

Paolo says things as they are / doesn’t mince words.

10. Avere un chiodo fisso

Literal translation: to have a fixed nail

Has it ever found yourself obsessed with a certain idea or thought? In this case, Italians would say that the thing you are always thinking about is your chiodo fisso.

Diventare una cuoca è sempre stato il mio chiodo fisso.

Becoming a cook has always been my obsession.

Which is your favourite Italian idiom out of this bunch? Let us know in the comment section below!

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