40 Italian Slang Words & Phrases You Need to Know

Italian is a language that is rich with colorful metaphors, similar to the Irish dialect of the English language. And like the Irish, Italian metaphors invoke a broad spectrum of imagery and emotive impact, many of which have historical, and even mythological significance. There are, however, several different regional dialects spoken throughout Italy. That means businesses looking to translate website content into Italian would need to get specific about regions, and take local dialects into account. In any case, the following list of Italian slang terms should give a pretty good feel for how the language flows.  

Italian Slang Words and Phrases:

  1. Prendere Fischi per Fiaschi — “To take a whistle for a Chianti bottle.” It may be more precisely defined as “To mistake a whistle for a straw-covered bottle,” which is what a ‘fiasco’ is, the classic basket-bottomed bottle traditionally used to store Chianti. The word is here used in the accusative case ‘fiaschi,’ implying the preposition ‘for.’ This phrase is a very colloquial slang expression used to describe the confused mental state of not understanding a lesson or concept.
  2. Mettere il carro davanti ai buoi — Directly translates to, “putting the carriage before the oxen.” Same as the phrase, ‘putting the cart before the horse,’ it’s a metaphor for misordering events.
  3. A fagiolo — Translated directly into, “to the bean.” A metaphor for precision, or perfection similar to the American phrase, “to the letter.”
  4. Chi troppo vuole nulla stringe — Directly translates into, “He who too much wants, nothing tightens.” A metaphor for the paradoxical nature of greed that means something along the lines of, “He who wants too much, gets nothing.”
  5. Cogliere in castagna — Directly translates into “to pick in chestnut.” It’s used to express the same thing as “to catch someone red-handed.”
  6. Avere un chiodo fisso in testa — Directly translated this phrase means to have a nail fixed in one’s head. The phrase is used as a metaphor for being fixated or obsessed with something that makes it difficult to concentrate on other things.
  7. Cogliere/prendere la pallo al balzo — Directly translates into, “to take the ball at the bounce.” It’s a colloquial idiom that references snatching opportunity.
  8. Avere le mani in pasta — Translates directly into, “to have hands in dough.” This one is a metaphor for being well connected socially, to be capable of pulling strings to get things done.
  9. Solo quattro gatti — ”Four cats.” A metaphor that loosely references obscure cat behavior but is used to describe a social setting in which there are just a few people.
  10. Essere del gatto — Directly translates into, “to be of the cat,” used as a metaphor to describe being in trouble.
  11. Come Dio comanda — Translates directly into, “like God commands,” used to express, “the way things are supposed to be.”
  12. Avere la coda di paglia — Describes a person who has committed some kind of a transgression that they don’t want uncovered. However, it differs in tone from similar American phrases such as “shifty-eyed,” in that a light-hearted or friendly sort of bashfulness is implied.
  13. Avere le batterie scariche — “To have a run-down battery.” Used exactly the same way this phrase would be used by English speakers. Similar to “out of gas.”
  14. Come il cacio sui maccheroni — “As cheese is on macaroni.” A metaphor for a perfect pairing or match, in other words, “just what the doctor ordered.” In the well-known American film Forrest Gump, the main character repeats a similar phrase, “like peas and carrots.”
  15. Amore a prima vista — “Love at first sight.” Self explanatory.
  16. Spettegolare — Intransitive verb, meaning “to gossip.”
  17. Essere pane per i propri denti — Directly translates into, “to be bread for one’s teeth.” Used to describe things that are challenging, or require some effort.
  18. Far ridere i polli — Directly translates into, “to make the chicken laugh.” An expression that connotes ridiculousness.
  19. Campa cavallo che l’erba cresce — Translates directly into, “lives horse that the grass grows,” presumably meaning something along the lines of “a horse only lives if the grass grows.” A metaphor for taking action to preserve one’s interests, i.e. “Nothing is accomplished by waiting.”
  20. Se non é zuppa é pan bagnato — “If it’s not soup, it’s wet bread.” Similar to the Irish slang phrase, “six o’ one, half dozen o’ the other,” this is a common Tuscan expression that describes when two things are virtually the same. The metaphor references the common Tuscan practice of using hardened bread in soups.
  21. Darsi all’ippica — Directly translates to, “to give oneself to the horse races.” It’s a metaphor for giving up.
  22. Una ciliegia tira l’altra — Directly translates into “One cherry throws the other.” A metaphor that references the difficulty of restraint when partaking of good things.
  23. Botte da orbi — Translated directly into, “barrels from blinds.” A metaphor for a big fight with flying fists, similar to the American phrase, “a knock-down-drag-out.”
  24. Essere uno stinco di santo — Directly translates into, “to be the shinbone of a saint.” However shinbones came to be associated with angelic properties is anybody’s guess, but this is a metaphor for being good enough be compared to an angel.
  25. Fare un tiro mancino — Translated directly into, “to do a lefty throw,” which is a metaphor for doing something tricky, harmful, or unpleasant.
  26. Il diavolo fa le pentole ma non i coperchi — “The devil makes the pots but not the lids.” This is a well-known Italian proverb that instructs would-be evil doers how when one conspires to do something dishonest, or evil, schemes are hatched, lies are told, people are manipulated, but traces of evidence always remain to foil the plot. It’s used in a sense that combines common English phrases, “what comes around goes around,” and “there’s no such thing as the perfect crime.”
  27. Essere uccel di bosco — Directly translates into, “to be bird of the woods.” It’s a metaphor for disappearing.
  28. Non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco — Translated directly to, “don’t say cat if you don’t have it in the bag.” A similar expression to “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”
  29. Pancia mia fatti capanna — Directly translates to an imperative command directed at one’s own body, “my tummy make yourself as a hut.” Stated in preparation for a big meal.
  30. Da cosa nasce cosa — Directly translates to, “from thing is born thing.” Not intended as “like begets like,” but rather similar to the American phrase, “one thing leads to another,” a metaphor that expresses cause-and-effect relationships.
  31. Dare un colpo di spugna — Unusual structure for a Romance language phrase given that it begins with verb, “dare,” (to give). This translates directly to “to give a hit of sponge.” A metaphor similar to the American phrase, “wipe the slate clean.”
  32. Non sapere che pesci prendere — Translates directly into, “to not know what fish to take.” A metaphor for indecisiveness, i.e. to not know what to do.
  33. Piove sul bagnato — Directly translates to, “it rains on the wet.” An expression equivalent to, “when it rains it pours.”
  34. Gli ha piu’ garbo un ciuco a bere a boccia — Translates directly into, “there has more grace a donkey to drink at a bottle.” This is a Florentine slang expression that indicates an ill mannered person, i.e. “A donkey drinking from a bottle has better manners.”
  35. Farre lo stoccafisso — Translates directly into, “to do the air-dried cod.” This one comes off like some kind of fad dance craze, but it’s actually a metaphor for a stiff, or rigid attitude, or disposition, i.e. stuffiness.
  36. La goccia che has fatto traboccare il vaso — Directly translates into, “the drop that made the vase overflow.” In other words, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
  37. Spavoneggiearsi — Directly translates into a verb that means, “to peacock oneself.” It’s a metaphor that refers to showing off.
  38. Mangiare cadaveri — Directly translates into, “eating dead bodies,” and is an expression for having bad breath.
  39. Cotto a puntino — Directly translates to, “cooked to the little dot.” A metaphor for perfect cooking, a meal cooked to perfection.
  40. Tanto va la gatta al lardo che ci lascia lo zampino — Another phrase about the inevitable evidence of evil deeds, this one translates into, “so much the cat goes to the lard that it leaves there the little paw.” Stated a different way, someone who repeats the same misdeeds will eventually leave incriminating evidence behind.

See how Smartling’s language and translation services can help your business localize its global content.

Take a look at, our market penetration guide and take notice of how often we stress the importance of website localization for businesses looking to gain a foothold in new, and emerging markets. One of our main points on the subject of localization is the fact that a website, mobile app, or software package should look, feel, sound, and generally operate as if it were made by locals for locals. Properly used words, and idiomatic phrases common to a discreet culture can induce a very positive effect. Remember, slang doesn’t necessarily mean profanity.

The fact is that, good localization is much more than just basic translation. The surest way to fail at setting localization is to paint every vernacular in a single language with the same brush. Language is radically democratic. Our Global Fluency Platform was born from that understanding, which is why it’s such a valuable asset to international business.

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Now that you’re well versed in Italian slang, be sure to check out our other slang terms from around the world: