Idiomatic phrases, also called idioms, differ greatly from proverbs because they do not offer advice but simply help to “describe” a scene or an action, representing it through a figurative analogy that is difficult to translate into other languages, except through an extended translation. Among the Italian idiomatic phrases there are some almost unknown, or in any case related to the regional or provincial tradition, while others are much more common, used without any problem even in everyday life, or in the spoken language.
Idiomatic phrases: curious sayings that maybe you have never heard of!
Idiomatic phrases, also called “idioms”, are sentences with a particular meaning that it is impossible to translate literally into another language (because they would lose their conceptual strength) and that it is therefore necessary to translate using a non-literal translation but, instead, more extensive and explanatory. The Italian idiomatic phrases are endless: the Italian linguistic tradition means that over the years, every little reality has formed its own idiomatic expressions, that are added to the more extensive, curious sayings that are part of the country’s culture.
Idiomatic phrases: the most particular ones
Among all the Italian idiomatic phrases, there are some that appear to be unknown, at least to most of the population. These are ancient Italian sayings that are rooted in history or that can be translations from Latin or Greek. Among these, for example:
- Andare a Canossa: the saying recalls the famous “Humiliation of Canossa”, an historic Italian event. Tracing the event itself, going to Canossa (just as Henry IV did with Pope Gregory visiting him in his residence, in Emilia), means saying sorry, admitting you are wrong
- Rivedersi a Filippi: phrase belonging to the ancient Roman tradition . Brutus, a conspirator of Caesar’s empire, saw in a dream the ghost of Caesar emperor telling him “we will meet again at Filippi”. The next day there was a battle in Filippi and Brutus, following a bad defeat, decided to commit suicide. The sentence therefore represents an idiomatic expression aimed at defining “the showdown” and is used in a threatening tone
- Perdere la Trebisonda: or “lose the compass”, your orientation. Trebizond was an island used as a reference point for navigators of the past, in the absence of tools. To lose sight of it meant to risk losing oneself at sea.
- Alle calende greche (more common): used to indicate a time that “will never come”. The inventor of the sentence was the emperor Augustus, who used it to define the date on which he would pay a debt. “Calenda” was in fact the term used for the first of each month, or day 1. Too bad that the Greek calendar was lacking this day and therefore the payment of the debt would never have happened.
The most common idiomatic expressions
Having removed the most particular idiomatic phrases of the Italian language, let’s now pass to the most common Italian idioms, and therefore also used in everyday spoken language. Among these we must mention:
- Stare con le mani in mano: that is to demonstrate a passive attitude when faced with a problem or a duty, doing nothing to solve it or to help.
- Chiodo schiaccia chiodo: a saying used to console someone facing a difficulty, suggesting that they replace the old with the new. For example, it is widely used at the end of a relationship or a friendship: it is advisable to find a new friend or a new partner to distract yourself from the one you have lost
- Cavallo di battaglia: an expression which indicates “the best of the best”, usually in describing a skill or a characteristic. For example, a singer’s cavallo di battaglia might be the song he sings best or, alternatively, the most successful piece
Making a complete list would be impossible, because the common sayings in Italian are so many.
Italian lesson: the difference between idioms and proverbs
We have just talked about the most famous Italian idiomatic phrases but we have not specified a key concept, which is that of the difference between idioms and proverbs. Idioms have nothing to do with proverbs because, while the latter are pieces of advice which derives from popular “knowledge”, right or wrong, and therefore derive from an experience, idioms are very simple figurative analogies which better clarify a concept or represent a scene (e.g. “take the bull by the horns”, which corresponds to “facing a problem head on”).