How many times a day do we use idiomatic expressions while talking?

It’s very common to use them since they are quite colourful and help us to be better understood. We use them to express a thought, briefly but vividly.

Every language has its own idiomatic expressions according to the characteristics and the habits of each country.

And even if countries, languages and habits are different, people are people all over the world and they probably have the need to express the same thought, no matter the words or the image used to say it!

Let’s compare, for example, usual idiomatic expressions in English and in Italian.

There are some basically identical ones like: “easier said than done (en) = più facile a dirsi che a farsi (it)”, “having butterflies in the stomac (en) = avere le farfalle nello stomaco (it)”or “home sweet home (en) = casa dolce casa (it)”.

Some other times the meaning of some expressions is the same but the words and images used to express it are different as different are the people who say it.

For example the English “to kill a pigeon with one stone” becomes the Italian “prendere due piccioni con una fava” (to catch two pigeons with a broad bean) or “there’s no smoke without a fire” becomes “non c’è fumo senza arrosto” (there’s no smoke without roasted beef).

Going on with these sort of examples we can find “icing the cake” which becomes “mettere la ciliegina sulla torta” (put a glazed cherry on top of the cake) or “as good as gold” is the Italian “buono come il pane” (as good as bread!).

Look at the words fava, arrosto, ciliegina, pane. Reading these idiomatic expressions something is immediately clear: in Italy food is a very important topic and, as such, it comes up quite often in traditional sayings!

The funny thing is that on the contrary, when it’s the English idiomatic expression that refers to food, there’s no trace of it in the equivalent Italian one, like “a tough cookie” which becomes “un osso duro (a tough bone)” where there’s no mention of cookies or biscuits of any sort, and “a piece of cake” turns simply into a glass of water in “bere un bicchier d’acqua”.

Of course there are particular idiomatic expressions that reflect very closely the way of thinking or feeling of an entire country.

These expressions rarely find their own equivalent in other languages or sometimes it’s about a completely opposite image.

For example “first come, first served” puts the accent on the comfort of the first arrived person while the Italian “chi tardi arriva, male alloggia” (last come, badly accommodated) seems to laugh at the person who last arrived.

The English “every cloud has a silver lining” focuses on the bright side of every bad or uncomfortable situation, while the Italian “il rovescio della medaglia”(the downside of the medal) underlines the bad side of a good circumstance. Finally, the English “once bitten, twice shy” seems to remark the feeling of shame in making mistakes while on the opposite the Italian “sbagliando si impara“ (making mistakes, you learn) suggests that every mistake is a good chance to learn something.


Susanna Fiale