Sunset over Catania, Sicily from Ognina

Common Italian Idioms (aka Italy…Revealed!)


Remember the saying, “You are what you eat?” I’d argue that it’s not just what you eat, but you are also what you speak. Think about it – language is not just words and grammar, but a reflection of culture. Trying to learn, understand, and use a language knowing nothing about a culture results in laughable misunderstandings and downright awkward situations. Lucky for all of the language learners out there, one of the best ways to learn a culture is by examining the language. And some of the best pieces of language that reflect pieces of a culture are proverbs. It’s no different for Italian – so this blog is going to examine some common Italian proverbs that provide us with insights into Italy and its people.

THE LAND: Chi dorme non piglia pesci.

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Much of Italy is located on the coast, such as this sun-kissed beach in Catania.

This proverb literally means, “One who sleeps does not catch the fish,” and corresponds to the English, “The early bird catches the worm.”The significant impact that the sea has had on the lives of those living on the boot-shaped peninsula is highlighted in the phrase, as well as the fact that of the most enduring professions in Italy’s history is that of a fisherman (with the sea on three sides, how could it not be?). Another Italian proverb referencing the sea is the counterpart to the English “Easier said than done:” Tra il dire e il fare c´è di mezzo il mare, literally“Between saying and doing there is half a sea.”

THE ANIMALS: Non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco.

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Cats, or “gatti” are well-liked in Italy

Stroll down the streets in Rome and you will see countless street vendors with cat calendars; head to Largo Argentina and you’ll witness Rome’s very own stray cat sanctuary, complete with 200 volunteers who look after Italy’s beloved animal. The country’s response to “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” reflects its affinity for felines, as it literally means, “Don’t say cat if you don’t have it in the bag”.  Another cat proverb La gatta frettolosa fa i gattini ciechi , or “the hurried female cat makes blind kittens,” is equivalent to the English “Haste makes waste.”

THE FOOD: Se non è zuppa è pan bagnato.

“If it’s not soup, it’s soggy bread.” Any guesses on which English proverb matches up to this one? It’s not too hard if you know anything about Italian soup – especially those such ribolitta, which makes use of leftovers by mixing them in a soup and then pouring it onto stale bread. This proverb’s English amico is “Six of one, half dozen of the other.” Call it soup or call it soggy bread – or call it six or call it half dozen – it’s the same thing. An additional glimpse into an ingredient prominent in Italian dishes is: Quando la pera è matura, casca da sé (when the pear is ripe it falls by itself – aka “All things happen in good time” in English).

GETTING AROUND: Hai voluto la bicicletta? Allora, pedala!

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Italians love all of their “bikes!”

Italy’s ancient history has cultivated a largely pedestrian culture within cities, which adapted well to first the bicycle and then the motorino. Italians perched atop both modes of transportation zip through towns and cities, and the prominence of these vehicles in the lives of residents is apparent in this proverb, meaning “You wanted a bike? Now pedal!” – comparable to English’s “As you’ve made your bed, so you must lie on it.”

Which proverb resonated the most with you? Do you know any others to share?

About the Author: Martina

An Italian American who is proud of my heritage, I love all things Italy and can't get enough of learning about and sharing the food, culture, history and people - especially the food and wine! I have lived and researched in multiple Italian cities and traveled up and down the Boot, but my heart belongs to Rome and I am fairly certain that I was meant to have been born Roman. At Select Italy I work as the Food and Wine Specialist. Follow me on Twitter @MartiZuc



2 thoughts on “Common Italian Idioms (aka Italy…Revealed!)

  1. Italy is my favourite overseas country to visit – love their food, the countryside, the people, the villages….what a great Post this is, really made me smile, loved the direct translations, excellent!

    • Thanks, Cynthia! We love all aspects of Italy too – and especially how they are shown in the language and sayings. Another one of our favorites “in bocca al lupo” which literally means “in the mouth of the wolf,” but is used to wish someone good luck. The proper response to this? “Crepi il lupo!” which means “may the wolf die!” Perhaps it has something to do with the Italian history of wolves…just think of Rome’s founders, who were raised by the animal!

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