If you can’t stop thinking about our first instalment of our bizarre Italian expressions, then it means you have “un chiodo fisso in testa”. In the wonderful language of Italy, this expression means to have something stuck in your head. We all know that being able to draw on a wide-ranging vocabulary of colloquial expressions is the best way to fit in with the locals, so are you ready to dive back into the sometimes crazy, always hilarious world of Italy’s most commonly used – and frequently untranslatable – expressions? We certainly are. Let’s go!


1. “Magari

This is perhaps the most complex and versatile word in the entire Italian language. It truly is impossible to identify a hard-and-fast translation for a word that adds nuance and detail to any phrase it is inserted into. Adding a magari in the middle of a phrase, in a neutral voice, means that it is probable that something will happen. Yet when it is said on its own, with a lively, curt tone, it becomes a “let’s hope so!” – an expression with a healthy dose of optimism. Say it with a melancholy air, tailing off towards the end, with your arms wide open (remember that words are just a small part of Italian) and it becomes a “who knows, perhaps one day your dream will come true”. As you can tell, there’s plenty of room for interpretation!

2. “Chiodo scaccia chiodo

Nobody is immune to that Italian charm. And it’s only natural that during your time in Italy, you’ll be struck by Cupid’s arrow. So what happens if your love affair comes to an end, and not of your volition? Not to worry: chiodo scaccia chiodo! Eh? Quite simply, to mend a broken heart, simply act like the Latin lover you are, dry your tears and find yourself a replacement to clear your head and put the disappointment behind you!

3. “Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco

You have to laugh. Italians love using food in their colloquial expressions. And for any self-respecting baker (no Italian dinner would be complete without something sweet), a ciambella – a doughnut – without its hole can never be classed as a success. In day-to-day speech, this expression is used when something, even the simplest of tasks, doesn’t go exactly to plan. As we say in English: “You can’t win them all!”

4. “Conosco i miei polli!”

What were we saying about food? Well here’s another one. An Italian that knows a situation well – not to mention the wider context and the people involved – and is already aware of how something is going to end is not just far-sighted. No. They know their chickens (polli) – they know their stuff. It’s a very traditional saying, one with deep roots in authentic country life.

5.“Gattara” and “gatta morta

Cats are often used in Italian to describe certain types of women. For example, a single woman of a certain age who has left her social and professional life behind to live out a solitary existence and dedicate her time to looking after stray cats is called a “gattara” – a cat lady. Meanwhile, an alluring, bewitching, irresistible women is known as a “gatta morta”, literally a “dead cat” in English. The reason behind the expression is pretty clear – an elegant, persuasive animal plays dead to make it seem like they’ve let their guard down, but is in reality simply waiting to pounce and bare their seductive fangs.