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The top ten Italian words that just don’t translate into English

You may not be able to translate these Italian words, but you'll be glad you know what they mean.

The top ten Italian words that just don't translate into English
Some italian words can leave English speakers scratching their heads. Photo: Depositphotos

Every language contains certain words or phrases that can’t be comfortably translated, and Italian is no exception.

READ ALSO: 10 of the most common Italian translation fails

You’ll come across some of them in everyday speech, while others are a bit more unusual. Here are just ten of our favourite ‘untranslatable’ Italian words.


This tricky word has many different meanings that don’t always directly translate. Typically, it’s translated as “even if”, “maybe” or “probably” in a sentence.

As an exclamation, magari is an expression of a strong desire. For example, if someone asks if you’d like a free trip to Italy, you could say ‘magari!’.

Although there’s no exact equivalent in English, in this context it means: “If only!”


The next time you feel the need for a nap after indulging in a hearty Italian lunch, blame abbiocco, the drowsiness that follows eating a big meal.

Less dramatic than “food coma”, it’s a gentle word that evokes lazing around in the shade on a sunny afternoon.


Speaking of lazing around, that may be a close translation for this beautiful verb.

Coming from the word meriggio (noon), it means to rest at noon in a shady spot. Perhaps the most famous use of this word can be found in ‘Meriggiare pallido e assorto’, a poem by the 20th-century poet Eugenio Montale.


You could translate the preposition addosso as “upon” or “on top of”, but this little word is packed with so much meaning that nothing in the English language can quite do it justice.


You may have heard the phrase ‘Non me ne frega‘ uttered in Italy, meaning “I don’t give a damn!”

Italian also has menefreghismo, a noun based on the verb fregare, which used to describe this way of thinking.


As a pejorative, qualunque can be translated as “whatever”, to indicate indifference. The noun qualunquismo means an attitude of distrust, scepticism and apathy, or “whateverism”.


This word is not simply a word, but a very Italian way of communicating. Sottointeso is made up of the Italian words sotto (under) and inteso (intended), and you could say this word is used to talk about the meaning beneath a message.

In Italy, it’s common (and even desirable) to use a manner of speaking or writing in which you cloak your message in layers of meaning – or in hundreds of unnecessary words. As we don’t have an exact word for this concept in English, the Italian word is occasionally borrowed to describe it.


Do you suffer from the winter blues? This word is for you.

It’s not always found in the Italian dictionary, and spellings vary – but in some parts of Italy you’ll hear meteopatico being used in conversational Italian to describe a person who wants to hide under the bedcovers until spring.


One of those untranslatable words that is uniquely Italian, and also fun to say.  Essentially, sprezzatura is the art of doing something extremely well without showing that it took any effort.


The word to describe the aperitivo (a pre-dinner drink with snacks) that’s so abundant it replaces dinner itself.

A concept that’s especially popular among students, apericena buffets are in increasingly popular option for a cheap, casual dinner and a drink or two. And it’s definitely not the same thing as happy hour.

We couldn’t list every untranslatable Italian word, but there are plenty more curious words and phrases to discover here. Please leave a comment below to let us know about your favourites.

Member comments

  1. Enjoyed this article a lot and just discovered by two new favourite words – abbiocco and meriggiare:)

  2. Love this! May I add magari = I wish; meriggiare = such a lovely word: Montale’s poem is one of my favourites; adosso = too near; meteopatico = weather sensitive; I never use sprezzatura – will do so from now on! Apericena (horrible word) for when you know you should be offering a supper, but can’t be bothered, so you put everything in fridge on the table with a couple of candles. Fun article. Thanks

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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.

REVEALED: The Italian versions of 11 famous English sayings

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 summer 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 everything you want 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.