Even if you study Italian you might find yourself scratching your head wondering what in heck they are talking about when hearing unusual or seemingly out of context expressions. As in English, Italians also use a lot of slang, idioms and other odd ways of saying things or conveying emotions. And just as an American might use an odd, nonsensical sounding phrase such as "He has a chip on his shoulder today" or "He got up on the wrong side of the bed". Both mean the person is in a bad mood and neither would be taken literally... unless that person is a newcomer to speaking fluent English.
Now turn this situation around and consider how you will look with blank stares at people in Italy, not knowing what in heck they are talking about, even though you might be interpreting the individual words correctly.
You might hear someone say "Stefano is cornuto." or "Poor Maria has become cornuto" or "Stefano has put cornuto on Maria". Cornuto means horns, or more precisely, horned. But this common idiom means that Stefano is being cheated on by his wife... or Maria is being cheated on by Stefano... or Stefano is cheating on Maria. The person with the horns is the one being cheated upon.
Che Palle: Literal, What Balls
This one is similar as saying "What balls he has" in English, but Italians use Che Palle in other ways too. It can also mean a person is bored when they declare "Che palle!" along with an exhaustive breath. A Person being annoyed might suddenly declare "Che palle!" when they are getting fed up with the person or child bothering them. If something is being repeated or becoming redundant to the point of annoying, like when someone has his car break down for the 3rd time that week, "Che palle" is appropriate. You might hear this a lot... it's like saying "damn!" You might hear a lighter version of this... "Che Pizza!"
Buono Come il Pane: good as bread
This can refer to a person, a thing or a situation.
Brutto Comme la Fame: As Ugly as Hunger
In English we might say something is as ugly as sin, but in Italian one of the ugliest things in their history is hunger itself.
Stomaco da Struzzo: Stomach of an Ostrich
We might say someone who can eat anything without getting sick has got a cast iron stomach, but in Italy he's got the stomach of an ostrich.
Fa un Freddo Cane: It's dog cold
Used to described a bitterly cold night.
Un Coniglio: A rabbit
Use this to describe a coward, someone who always run or hides from confrontation.
Una Volpe: A Fox
A sly, clever person. Someone who can work a way around the rules or easily solves problems.
Tutto fa Brodo: Everything Makes Broth
If someone offers you a hand lifting something heavy, you might say Tutto fa Brodo, every little bit helps
Botte Piccola Fa Vino Buono: A Small Cask Makes Good Wine
A way of paying a compliment to a short person.
Inghiottire il Rospo: Swallow the Toad
We say suffer indignity or embarrassment without complaint, Americans say you Eat Crow, but an Italian will say that you Swallow the Toad.
Un Pollo da Spennare: Chicken Waiting to be Plucked
A stooge, someone who can be taken advantage of, fooled or robbed.
In Bocca al Lupo: Into the Mouth of the Wolf
You say this when you want to wish someone Good luck! This saying finds its roots with hunters.
In Culo Alla Balena: In a Whale's Ass
Crude way of saying Good Luck, perhaps referencing the good fortune of a whaler harpooning a whale.
O Bere o Affogare: Drink or Drown
Similar to the American expression, to sink or swim, either there will be great success or an absolute failure.
Qualcosa Bolle in Pentola: Something's Boiling in the Pot
This means there is something in the works, usually something not pleasant, similar to Trouble is Brewing.
Che Cavolo!: What the Cabbage!
Often just Cavolo! Cavolo literally means Cabbage. Casual, not very offensive, similar to Damn it!, Darn!, Dang!
Buona Notte al Secchio: Good Night to the Bucket
When all is lost and you are going to be in big trouble, but not quite as finite as our Kick the Bucket expression. Refers to when a bucket drops into a well and there's no way to get it back.-- All is Lost.
Un Pezzo Grosso: a Big Piece
Referring to a Big Piece (i.e., a big caliber gun), in Italian this is slang for a Big Shot and used to refer to someone who carries a Big Gun (or piece), but is commonly used for anyone who is a Big Shot... politicians, crime bosses, CEOs, etc. In Sicily (and in the Godfather books) Pezzonovante is used the same way.
Ad ogni morte di Papa: For Every Death of a Pope
We would say Once in a Blue Moon. Italians say this because Popes usually hold their positions until they die, in essence, it describes something that happens rarely--once in a lifetime.
Sogni d'oro: Golden dreams
Used just like Sweet Dreams in English.
Cercare I Peli Nell'Uovo: to Look for Hairs in the Egg
In English, this means to be fussy, overly picky, in other words, a real PITA.
Caduto dalle Nuvole: Fallen from the Clouds
Completely taken by surprise, or pretending to be.
Avere le Braccine Corte: To Have Short Arms
Having short arms means being too cheap to reach into your pocket... short arms mean they can't reach their wallet and rely on others to pay (for dinner, drinks, etc.).
Avere le Mani in Pasta: to Have your Hands in Dough:
In English, you'd say you are spreading yourself too thin.
Un Libro _______ (color): Varied meanings
Un libro giallo (A yellow book) is a detective story or mystery; Un libro rosa (A pink book) is a romance novel; .
Un libro nero (A black book) is a blacklist.
C'è un giudice a Berlino: There's a Judge in Berlin
Used to say that justice will win in the end.
Non Mi Rompere i Maroni: Don’t Break My Chestnuts!
Similar to the U.S. expression, Don't Break My Balls.
Farò le polpette di voi: I'll Make Meatballs out of You!
This is a threat, similar to "I'll make mincemeat out of you!"
C’ho il Dente Avvelenato: I've Got a Poisoned Tooth
This means I've got a Grudge. You would say this when asked to voice your opinion... if you're opinion is tainted or biased strongly, you would warn that I've Got a Poisoned Tooth on this subject.
Dalle Stelle alle Stalle: From the Stars to the [horse] Stalls
To fall from grace. After having great success to lose it all.
Capita a Fagiolo: It Happens at the Bean
It happens at exactly the right moment, as with poor people of the past, when beans were their main meal... as in it happens just when we need it (the bean) most.
Essere al Verde: to Be At the Green
This means someone is broke, out of money. Some say this comes from gambling at casinos--when all your chips are gone, you look down at the bare green felt of the table. Others think it refers to peasants who were so poor they would pick greens and roots from the fields in search of food. Another theory is that it refers to auctioneer candles that were painted green in the bottom half--when the candle reached the green, the flow of money would come to a stop.
Vai a Farti Benedire or Vai a Quel Paese: Go Get Blessed/Go to That Country (or town, can be specific)
Italians have many ways of saying Get Lost! Two milder forms are Vai a Farti Benedire (Go Get Blessed) and Vai a Quel Paese (Go to That Country).
Fari i Salti Mortali: Make a Mortal Jump
This means to Bend Over Backwards for someone... to make an extraordinary effort.
Tra il Dire e il Fare c'è di Mezzo il Mare: There is an Ocean Between Saying and Doing
The English equivalent of There's a Big Difference Between Saying Something and Actually Doing It. Or... There is many a slip between cup and lip. This idiom is a commentary on good intentions and the idea that they often don't always happen the way they are promised.
Peli Sulla Pancia: Hairs on the Belly
Usually used in the negative form: not having hairs on one’s stomach means to be tough, able to stand up to criticism.
Un Cane in Chiesa: A Dog in Church
It is used as "He's as welcome as a dog in church" or simply to refer to An Unwelcome Guest.
Dormo come un ghiroun ghiro: I Sleep Like a Doremouse
In the U..S. we Sleep Like a Log, but in Italy you sleep like a doremouse.
Essere in Un Bel Pasticcio: to Be in a Nice Pie:
This expression is equivalent to being in a pickle.
Alla Come Viene, Viene: How it is, so it is.
Similar to It is what it is, usually referring to something that turned out poorly.
Acqua Passata: The Water Passed
We would say It's Water Under the Bridge about something in the past that shouldn't be a concern any longer.
Mettere il Bastone tra le Ruote: To Put a Stick into the Wheel (as in a wagon wheel)
To bring something to a stop... Put a Monkey Wrench in the Works.
Avere la Botte Piena e la Moglie Ubriaca: To have the wine cask full and the wife drunk
Used just like To Have your Cake and Eat It, Too.
Acqua in Bocca: Water in the Mouth
This is equal to Mum's the word, don't say anything about it!
Dio li Fa, poi li Accoppia: God Makes Them, Then He Mates Them.
Said of any unlikely couple paired together by nature or fate... similar to There's a Match For Everyone.
Tirare il Pacco: To Pull the Pack
When you “Pull the Pack,” it means you didn’t show up to a date or meeting with a friend, you're a disappointment to them. Also, the word Pacco can by itself represent a disappointment, like describing a bad movie you saw as a pacco (or other similar words meaning pack, bundle, package). Che pacco (what a disappointment) or Essere un Pacco (Being a Package) describe something disappointing or boring--common expressions among young people.
Hai voluto la bicicletta? E adesso pedala!: You wanted the bike? Now you’ve got to ride it!
Similar to You've made your bed, now you've got to lie in it. A sarcastic way of saying I Told You So to someone who you've forewarned that their actions would bring about problems.
Braccia Rubate all’Agricoltura: Arms Stolen from Agriculture
When a white collar worker is clearly inept, you say this, inferring they'd be better off working on a farm.
Parlare Fuori dai Denti: To speak outside of one’s teeth
To speak honestly and bluntly.. to speak one's mind boldly.
Non Avere Peli Sulla Lingua: Without Hair on His Tongue
When one friend asks another to be brutally honest about their opinion, they will ask him to say it “without hair on his tongue.”
Attaccare il Cappello: To Hang up One’s Hat
Describes (usually) a man who married a rich woman, and never has to work again.
Piove sul Bagnato: It Rains on the Wet
Too much of a good thing.
Fare Passi do Gigante: To Take Giant Steps
To make progress by Leaps and Bounds, to make progress very quickly.