What Italians really mean: Italian proverbs and idiomatic expressions explained

Unless you’re a native speaker, it’s easy to get confused by some Italian expressions. Here are a few useful and interesting expressions that I’ve encountered in Italy.

There are Italian expressions with very familiar English equivalents…

142H“Chi dorme non piglia pesci”

  • Direct translation: Who sleeps doesn’t catch fish
  • What it means: The early bird catches the worm

“Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano”

  • Direct translation: Who goes slowly, goes safely and far
  • What it means: Slow and steady wins the race

“Non si può avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca”

  • Direct translation: You can’t have the barrel full and your wife drunk
  • What it means: You can’t have you cake and eat it too

And the few expressions that are confusing when translated…

“Acqua in bocca”

  • Direct translation: Water in the mouth
  • What it means: Keep quiet, keep it a secret!

“Non vedo l’ora”

  • Direct translation: I can’t see the hour
  • What it means: I can’t wait!

One thing is clear–Italians are loyal to the pope, even in their phraseology. Here are two widely used expressions that refer to the head of the Catholic Church.

“Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro”

  • Direct translation: One pope dies, another will be made
  • What it means: There are lots of fish in the sea or Life goes on

“Ogni morte di papa”

  • Direct translation: Every death of the pope
  • What it means: Once in a blue moon

And finally there are expressions that are chiefly Italian, like this one that describes Italians’ view on marriage.

“Moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi”

  • Direct translation: Wives and oxen of your own land
  • What it means: Marry a woman from your own neighborhood

Written by OSIA National Office Intern, Carol Cummings. Cummings is a senior at American University, majoring in print journalism, with a minor in Italian.

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