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Culture-specific idioms: the Italians and their love of food

March 13, 2017

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Culture-specific idioms: the Italians and their love of food

March 13, 2017


We grow up surrounded by language, and subconsciously learn to use those little sayings known as idioms, where the meaning cannot be deduced from the individual words. These sayings in English have surrounded me my whole life, and have been used without a bat of an eyelid (excuse the pun!) yet despite being a modern languages postgraduate, I have not until now actually considered their importance when trying to get to grips with a foreign language, or the difficulties they pose in translation. Italy is a country famous for its fresh simple cuisine, and for having a beautiful romantic language, so it’s not surprising that their love of food has been absorbed into the language, and in specific into their espressioni idiomatiche (idiomatic expressions).


All Italian foreign language textbooks include the most common examples of idioms, such as ‘In bocca al lupo!’ (Into the mouth of the wolf!) which is an informal way to say ‘Good luck’, however you will struggle to find a true representation of their place in spoken Italian- and in English too! EFL (English as a Foreign Language) textbooks will nearly always show ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ as an example idiom, when how many times have you actually heard native English speakers use this expression?- not very often, I’m sure. When learning a language, fluency is the ultimate goal for most, yet I believe this can only truly be achieved by being surrounded by natives, and absorbing the culture. It is important to remember that what you can learn from textbooks is very different from what you can hear in the real world. Don’t worry, before long you will certainly be hearing some of my 5 favourite 'foodie' idioms coming up in this blog article, and begin to absorb them yourself. By learning the most common expressions and using them in conversation, you will show your fluency, sound like a native, and be competent in most everyday situations.

  1. I remember one time telling an Italian friend about how much I loved Italy, even the crazy drivers with road rage- and after a sigh she said ‘ma tu hai le fette di salame sugli occhi!’ (But you have slices of salami over your eyes!). I was baffled, but then realised that she meant I was seeing everything as perfect- I had ‘rose-coloured glasses’ so to speak- the Italian’s love for cured meats is definitely shown in this idiom- and despite my being a vegetarian, think it actually sounds rather quirky!

  2. Now, we all know that the Italians love their wine, but did you know that it comes into one of their most loved idioms? If someone is trying to make something sound like something it is not, you might hear an Italian say ‘dire pane al pane e vino al vino’ (Call bread bread and wine wine). In English we would probably just say ‘tell it how it is’ or ‘call a spade a spade’, yet I love how the Italians express themselves more colourfully.

  3. Another favourite of mine, and very culture specific given that Italy is one of Europe’s biggest olive oil producers is ‘È andato tutto liscio come l’olio’ 
(Literally: it went as smooth as oil). 
What it really means is that all went very smoothly, without any problems- like your learning of Italian 'foodie' idioms, vero? (right?)

  4. Whilst living in Italy during my year abroad, a good Italian friend one day remarked on how tanned I was, whilst adding ‘mentre io sono bianco come una mozzarella!’ (while I am as white as a mozzarella!’). I couldn’t stop laughing, but once recovered from hysterics, I thought about how lovely this expression is, and how it just wouldn’t be heard in England. We would probably say ‘as white as a sheet/ghost’ – yet this evokes being scared. How do you think this idiom could be translated into English?

  5. One idiom, most likely heard accompanied by a sigh after a wonderful long Italian cena (meal), after a holiday or class is ‘siamo alla frutta’ (literally: we’ve come to the fruit). It can be translated as ‘we’ve come to the end’ or to use the equivalent idiom in English- ‘the party’s over’. It is well known that Italians are famous for their long meals lasting well into the evening surrounded with friends, family and wonderful conversation, yet when the fruit bowl is passed around after dessert, everyone knows the evening is ending- hence the birth of this idiom.


Have you been to Italy and heard any of these food-centered expressions, or perhaps any new ones? Idioms are wonderful, and certainly make me as a translator excited, yet as I have found, can pose problems when it comes to translating them. Above all, it is important not to read idioms in a literal sense, and when translating them, to use the country’s own version, and not just a direct translation of the source text as they are mostly culture-specific.


Alla prossima! (until next time!)

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