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REVEALED: The Italian versions of 11 famous English sayings

From full barrels and drunk wives to catching fish, the Italian language has its own unique way of expressing the sentiments behind some of the most popular English sayings.

Angler casting his rod at dawn
If an Italian says that 'those who sleep don't catch any fish', what's he really saying? Photo by Chaideer MAHYUDDIN / AFP

Though lots of popular English sayings are largely similar (or even identical) to their Italian equivalents, that’s not always the case. 

In fact, some Italian translations of famous English idioms can leave language learners perplexed.

Here are a few of our favourite examples.

Non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco

We all sometimes get ahead of ourselves and start making plans based on something that’s not happened yet (and in some cases may not be likely to happen). 

While the English ‘don’t count your chickens before they hatch’ is as good a self-reminder as you’ll find, you may also add the Italian version to your repertoire: ‘non dire gatto se non ce l’hai nel sacco’, which literally means ‘don’t say cat if you haven’t got it in a bag’.

READ ALSO: ‘Anglicismi’: The English words borrowed into Italian – and what they mean

Why anyone would want to get a cat into a bag eludes us, but here’s an iconic clip of Giovanni Trapattoni using the expression when manager of the Republic of Ireland’s football team:

In alto mare

If, with just one week to go till the start of your holidays, you still have no idea what you’re going to do or where you’re going to go, you could definitely say that your holiday plans are ‘in alto mare’.

While literally translatable as ‘on the high seas’, the idiom is the equivalent to the English ‘up in the air’. Same issues, different natural elements.

Due gocce d’acqua

While an English speaker may describe two people that are closely similar either in appearance or character as ‘two peas in a pod’, an Italian would scrap the grocery reference and describe them as ‘two drops of water’. 

Vuotare il sacco

If you’re organising a surprise birthday party for a friend of yours, you may ask all guests to be extra careful and ensure they don’t ‘spill the beans’. 

READ ALSO: Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller

But if you’re throwing the party in Italy, you’ll have to ask them not to ‘empty the bag’, or ‘vuotare il sacco‘, with the sacco figuratively protecting the big secret from indiscreet ears.

Prendere due piccioni con una fava

The Italian ‘prendere due piccioni con fava’ is actually very similar to the English ‘kill two birds with one stone’, except that the former specifies the type of bird – two pigeons – and uses a different hunting technique: a trap using a fava bean as bait. 

An Italian hunting masterclass, clearly.

Pigeons in Milan's Piazza Duomo

Catching ‘two pigeons with one fava bean’ will save you a lot of time in your Italian daily life. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Ogni morte di papa

The death of a pope is not something that happens very often. Actually, you might even say that it happens ‘once in a blue moon’.

Chi dorme non piglia pesci 

Here’s one of Italian dads’ favourite sayings as they try to impress upon their children that much more is achieved by early, decisive action than by idleness. 

READ ALSO: ‘I’m not Onassis’: Seven things Italian dads say and what they mean

‘Those who sleep don’t catch any fish’ is the Italian equivalent of the well-known ‘early bird gets the worm’.

Per il rotto della cuffia

If someone made three mistakes in their Italian driving licence theory quiz, you may say they passed by the ‘skin of their teeth’ as only three errors are allowed.

But an Italian might say that they passed the exam ‘per il rotto della cuffia’, literally meaning ‘thanks to the rupture of the helmet’.

A knight on horseback

Popular Italian expression ‘per il rotto della cuffia’ stems from a mediaeval game known as Saracen Joust. Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP

The saying stems from an old medieval game, the Saracen Joust, where a knight on horseback would have to hit a target with a swinging arm. If the arm hit the rider’s helmet and broke it but did not unseat him, the rider would have gotten away ‘per il rotto della cuffia’. 

Come il giorno e la notte

When two things are nothing alike, you might say they’re like ‘chalk and cheese’, but an Italian will surely say they’re ‘come il giorno e la notte’, that is to say ‘like day and night’.

La botte piena e la moglie ubriaca

Sometimes, you just can’t have two things at the same time and you must choose between one or the other. 

So, you ‘can’t have your cake and eat it too’ in pretty much the same way Italians might say you can’t have ‘a full barrel and a drunk wife’. 

Non sputare nel piatto dove mangi

In Italian, someone who ‘spits into the plate they eat from’ is ungrateful or behaves badly towards the people they receive help from, much like someone who ‘bites the hand that feeds them’ does.

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The essential vocabulary you’ll need for autumn in Italy

If you're spending the autumn months in Italy, there are some key words and phrases you'll want to add to your repertoire.

The essential vocabulary you'll need for autumn in Italy


Autumn is arguably one of the best times to visit Italy. 

And that’s not simply because it’s when the summer heat wanes and the most popular attractions become less crowded, but also because landscapes get a breathtaking new look as the foglie (leaves) turn dark red, orange and yellow.

Fa fresco!

One of the best ways to strike up a conversation with an Italian, whether that be a neighbour, a colleague or simply a fellow queuer at the local pasticceria (pastry shop), is to comment on the weather. 

And for this time of the year, fa fresco (‘it’s chilly’) is the phrase you’ll likely need the most.

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

But if you’re looking to use the expression like a true local, make sure you say it with a look of surprise and slight apprehension painted across your face, almost as if you’d never seen temperatures drop in autumn before. 

Colpo d’aria

The autumn months in Italy have many delights, but this time of year also brings its own particular dangers, at least according to Italians.

In fact, you may find yourself being warned about the colpo d’aria, the dreaded ‘blast’ of cold air which Italians invariably identify as the main cause of all sorts of physical maladies experienced in autumn, from a stiff neck to a back sprain to an upset stomach.

As temperatures start to drop, people in Italy wrap up warm to avoid the so-called ‘colpo d’aria’. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

And if you pay heed to Italian grandmas’ lore, failing to wrap up warm as soon as temperatures drop below 20C, leaving the house with capelli bagnati (wet hair) and opening a window while sweaty are all common ways to fall victim to the infamous colpo.

Cambio armadio

The summer-to-autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy, as people around the country scramble around the house for entire weekends to see to the lofty task. 

Out go shorts, short-sleeved shirts and tees, flip-flops and sandals; in come felpe (sweatshirts), maglioni (jumpers), pantaloni lunghi (long trousers) and giacche a vento (windbreakers). 

READ ALSO: Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

The maglia della salute (literally ‘health shirt’), a wool-blend or lace-trimmed vest largely considered as the most tried-and-tested defence against the colpo d’aria, also makes a reappearance. 


Autumn is the time of the year where people around the country collectively rediscover the pleasures of the scampagnata (literally ‘countryside wandering’), a weekend trip out of town that’s far more than just a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Most locals see scampagnate as a golden opportunity to explore nearby rural areas and discover lesser-known sites in the company of family or friends, but also as a chance – or perhaps an excuse – to feast on local specialties in traditional taverns and trattorias. 

Italy, countryside

Trips to the countryside, or ‘scampagnate’, are one of Italians’ favourite weekend activities in the autumn months. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP


While October and November are the rainiest time of year for most Italian regions, this doesn’t mean that the country lies in a permanent state of gloom and darkness for the entire autumn season. 

In fact, spells of sunny weather and generally warm temperatures are so frequent in October that there’s even a name for them: ottobrate

And, of course, an ottobrata is just about the perfect time to go on a scampagnata.


The autumn months are the best time of the year to attend a sagra, a type of harvest festival or fair centred around one particular food or drink item local to the town hosting it.

red chili peppers at food stand

Autumn is the best time of the year to attend one of Italy’s countless local food festivals, or ‘sagre’. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

Sagre around the country don’t follow a precise format: they could last for several weeks or one day, and might consist of anything from raucous celebrations with music and dancing to more relaxed tasting experiences amid food stalls and wooden benches.

But what all events have in common is the focus on fresh local produce, and the assurance that you won’t leave unsated.

Zucche, funghi and castagne

Italian cuisine is very much rooted in fresh seasonal produce, which means that as seasons change, some dishes and recipes are temporarily put to one side, while some others make a welcome reappearance. 

Zucche (pumpkins), funghi (mushrooms) and castagne (chestnuts) are all staples of Italians’ diet as well as restaurant menus in autumn as they are used in a variety of dishes, from main courses (pumpkin risotto, mushroom tagliatelle) to sides (polenta and mushrooms, roasted pumpkin) to desserts (chestnut flour cake, pumpkin pie).