When you learn Italian, it feels like there's so much to do, right?
You have to wrap your head around tricky grammar like the subjunctive and the Italian past tenses. As well as wrap your tongue around Italian sounds and pronunciation!
But what is it that really helps you blend in with native speakers when you talk to them?
- …mastery of the finer points of Italian grammar?
- …having read Dante's Inferno directly in Italian?
- …perfect Italian pronunciation?
How about none of the above?
The quickest and easiest way to speak more native-like Italian and sound like an Italian is to use Italian slang phrases.
With a few expressions under your belt, be they slang, idioms or dialect, you can quickly sound less like a textbook and more like an Italian.
Plus you won't have to bug your Italian friends to ask them to explain expressions to you!
With that in mind, I've put together a big list of 30 need-to-know Italian slang expressions and idioms to help you fit in with the natives.
As you'll see, some of these phrases are specific to particular regions. And some of them are idioms, rather than slang. Don't worry, I'll explain all that first, and then we'll get to the list so you can start learning and using these phrases.
By the way, do you want to go beyond Italian slang phrases and learn Italian with confidence and fluency?
Yep. I thought so.
The best way to do so is by working through a comprehensive and well designed course.
My top recommendation for beginners is Italian Uncovered, my in-depth online Italian course for beginners that teaches you through the power of story.
Or if you're already at an intermediate level, I suggest Conversations, which will teach you lots of colloquial Italian phrases – exactly the kind of thing you'll hear and use in real conversations with real people.
Anyway, back to Italian slang…
Why Italian Dialects Matter When It Comes To Slang
Compared to other parts of Europe, Italy is a relatively new country. The Italian peninsula consisted of several different states with changing borders until it was unified as the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
With unification came the need for a common language. The Modern Italian that we know and love today most reflects the language that was spoken in the Toscana (Tuscany) region of Italy.
It was considered the “most beautiful” dialect because it was the one used by the beloved writer Dante, of Divine Comedy fame.
From that point forward, italiano nazionale (standard “national” Italian) was used in schools and businesses. Today it's truly the common language.
The regional dialetti (dialects), however, remain. They're mixed with standard Italian in homes throughout Italy.
A few of the biggest Italian dialects include:
- Veneto (spoken in Venice and throughout the Veneto region)
- Romanesco (spoken around Rome)
- Napolitano (spoken around Rome)
- and Siciliana (spoken in Sicily)
If you visit Italy, you’ll find that it isn’t just your nonna who speaks dialetto. Dialects also influence the vast majority of Italian slang!
You'll see that in a second in the list of Italian slang phrases. I've pointed out which ones are particular to specific regions.
What Are Idioms Anyway?
As you study Italian do you ever feel like you’ll be hitting the books until you kick the bucket?
Idioms are phrases like “hit the books” and “kick the bucket” that don’t literally mean what we mean when we say them. When you use an idiom and you think about the actual meaning of what you’re saying, it can be pretty funny.
Italian has idioms as well. And they’re usually not direct translations of our English idioms.
Brushing up on Italian idioms is a great way to make sure you’ll fit right in with the natives.
Why Learn Italian Idioms & Slang?
When you’ve been studying Italian in a classroom setting, idioms and slang can be one of the biggest obstacles when transitioning into real life conversation. Real life Italian speakers talk casually sometimes, just like speakers of any language.
If you take the time to read up on some Italian idioms and slang before you take a trip to Italy, you’ll feel more comfortable with your new Italian friends because there will be one less barrier between you!
You’ll also sound more like a native speaker and less like a foreigner!
So, with that in mind, let's get straight to my list of the thirty most commonly used Italian idiomatic and slang phrases.
Top 30: Italian Slang And Idioms
1. Mettere paglia al fuoco
This phrase literally means, “to put a straw in the fire.” Colloquially it means, “to tempt fate.”
2. Essere del gato
This phrase literally means, “to be of the cat.” Colloquially it means, “to get in trouble.”
3. A fagiolo
Literally, “to the bean.” It means to take something very precisely.
You’re most likely to hear this in Northern Italy. It’s a dialectic shortening of andiamo (let’s go).
5. Facimme ‘na cosa ‘e juòrne
This one is Napolitano. It translates to, “let’s do this by daylight.” It means, “hurry up!” The implication is that if you don’t hurry, it’ll be dark before you get where you’re going!
If you’re in Sicily and you hear someone call you bedda, you might just blush! This is the dialectic pronunciation of bella (beautiful).
This is a conjugated form of the verb dare (to give). But you’ll hear it all the time and it means something different. If someone says, “dai,” they mean “come on!”
8. Meno male
This directly translates to “less bad,” but it means, “Thank goodness!”
9. Che figata
This directly translates to, “what a big fig!” It means, “how cool!”
10. In boca al lupo
Literally, “in the mouth of the wolf.” This is a somewhat superstitious way to tell someone good luck. It’s sort of like the English phrase, “break a leg.”
This shortening of crepi il lupo (may the wolf die) is the proper response to in boca al lupo.
Boh means simply, “I don’t know.”
13. Libro giallo
This directly translates as “yellow book,” but it refers to mystery novels.
Literally “to lemon,” (not a verb other than in this slang form), this means “to make out”.
15. Sono alla frutta
You might use this one as you’re finishing up an essay. Literally “I’m in the fruit.” This means “I’m almost finished.”
16. Avere le mani nella pasta
This literally means “to have one’s hands in the pasta.” It’s a phrase you’d use to describe someone who is all up in everyone else’s business.
This means, “no worries!”
18. Mi fa cagare
This is an expression of disgust or distain that can be used in any number of situations. It directly translates to, “That makes me poop.”
19. Bon / Va bon
In the Veneto region, you might hear someone say this instead of bene or va bene.
Like ‘ndom in the North, this means andiamo (let’s go) in Sicily.
This is the Sicilian dialect word for “cool” (hipness, not temperature) that has become part of the regular vernacular.
22. Nuotare nell’oro
This means literally, “to be swimming in gold.” If you’re doing this, you have a lot of money.
23. Alzare il gomito
This literally means, “to raise the elbow.” It means “to take a drink.”
This is a word used in Tuscany to mean someone is a jerk.
25. Essere nelle nuvole
Literally, “to be in the clouds.” This means, “to daydream.”
This comes from the verb sapere (to know) and is a name for a know-it-all.
27. Sei scemo
This means, “you’re shrinking,” but it’s something you can say to tell someone they’re being mean.
28. Fare il grande
Literally, “to do the big.” If you’re doing this, you’re acting like you’re a big deal.
29. Avere un chiodo fisso in testa
Literally, “to have a nail fixed to one’s head.” This means you are obsessed with something.
30. Tirare un bidone
Literally, “to throw a trash can,” this is the phrase for standing someone up on a date.
You've reached the end of this list of Italian slang and idioms. But, if you've enjoyed it, then you'll probably also enjoy my post on 82 basic Italian phrases to survive your first conversations with a native speaker.
Time To Try Out Your Italian Slang In Conversation
So, you've got your list of Italian slang phrases. All that remains now is for you to get out there and start noticing and using them in real life.
By learning these Italian slang phrases, you’ll have more meaningful conversations with your Italian friends. With less confusion on your part as you finally have a better idea of what's going on when your friends speak to each other!
You'll also be able to better enjoy Italian cinema as Italian movies often contain plenty of slang, idioms and dialect. Plus, other types of native content, like Italian podcasts, will also be more accessible, thanks to these informal expressions.
When you speak, you'll sound more like a native, and less like a textbook. Just imagine what a boost to your fluency and confidence in Italian speaking that would be?
So, let's turn this dream into a reality. Pick a few expressions, and test them out on an Italian friend, speaking partner or teacher the next time you meet.
I'm sure they'll be impressed by the new, more native-sounding you!
Or better still, grab a copy of Conversations and learn more authentic conversational Italian to prepare yourself to chat with native speakers.
Over to you. Which new Italian slang phrases have you learned thanks to this post? And do you know some other expressions that deserve to be on this list? Let me know below in the comments.