10 Italian Slang Expressions that You Need to Learn if You Want to Sound Like a Native Speaker
Every language student’s dream is to visit a foreign country and pass as a native speaker. Very often, travellers and language enthusiasts spend years memorizing grammar and pronunciation rules in the hope that they will be mistaken for a local when they finally arrive at the airport. However, it’s usually not grammar mistakes or pronunciation errors that give tourists away. If anything, what makes locals aware of your foreignness is the excessive formality of your conversational style.
This happens because, even today, most language schools around the world follow traditional materials that favour accuracy over naturalism. As a result, you may end up speaking like a well-read, perfectly polite robot.
So, how can you avoid this? Easy. By learning slang, i.e., a type of language consisting of informal expressions such as “Have a crush” or “You bet”, whose usage is not determined by the meaning of every individual word. They are expressions that have come to mean something in a specific culture over time and that people use on a daily basis to create a sense of familiarity and mutual understanding.
Before a classical dancer goes onto the stage for her crowning performance, for example, you might tell her to break a leg. Now, of course, in order to appreciate your good intentions, this dancer will need to know what this phrase means for English speakers. Otherwise, she might not talk to you ever again.
With Italian, it is the same thing. If you really want to sound like a native speaker, you will need to incorporate an arsenal of Italian slang expressions that will show a different side of your language skills and will make it easier for people to relate to you. Below, you will find 10 essential Italian slang phrases that you need to learn before you travel.
1. Figurati – No worries!
As you might know, Italians have dinner a bit later than most Canadians, 8 or even 9 pm being a perfectly reasonable time to order your starters. More importantly, they are much more relaxed when it comes to the pace of service, which might make you a bit nervous if you come from a country like the United States, where service excellence is based on speed. So, if you want Italians to like you better, you will need to show them that you can be patient. Saying “Figurati” is a good way of expressing that you’re not in a hurry when the waiter tells you for the third time that your order will be ready in a few minutes.
2. Fare il grande – To behave like you’re a big shot
We all know at least one person who acts that way. Take your Italian friend, for example, who told you for months that she would make you the best Italian pasta you’ve ever tried, but ended up being a just-Okay cook. If you want to impress her with your Italian slang the way she expected to impress you with her cooking skills, you could tell her that she fare il grande, and hope she finds it funny instead of offensive!
3. Avere un chiodo fisso in testa – To be fixated on something
The literal meaning of this phrase is something like having a nail stuck on one’s head. Though it may sound offensive if you don’t use it in the right contexts, this Italian slang phrase can also be used as a compliment for people who have a very clear objective and work hard to achieve success. For example, when being asked to comment on your friend’s daughter’s terrible and endless singing, you can avoid the topic by saying “Well, she does have a nail on her head”. Not offensive at all, right?
4. Veloce come un razzo – Fast as lightning
Whether you are talking about a witty person who always comes up with the funniest remarks or a person who can run really fast, you can say that they are ‘veloce come un razzo.‘
But you could also use it to talk about your other friend, the one that you travelled with, who has already had three Tinder dates since she arrived just two days ago. After all, she seems so proud of herself that she’ll surely find it amusing!
5. Basta, basta – Enough, enough
This is a slang expression that you can use if someone is getting on your nerves. Whether it’s your roommate that keeps inviting friends over, or a seller in the street who won’t leave you alone, you can stand up for yourself and show how weary you truly are by saying Basta, basta while you roll your eyes as hard as you can. Notice that it’s not just basta. It’s basta, basta, which gives the phrase that very Italian, emphatic touch!
6. Mettere paglia al fuoco – To tempt fate
If you believe in karma, fate, and the spiritual side of life, this may be a great Italian expression to write down. Literally meaning “to put a straw in the fire”, it is usually used as a warning not to tempt fate by doing bad things or pushing your luck. For example, if you are on a winning streak at the casino and you’ve made very good money, you might want to thank your good fortune and head back home instead of pushing your luck and risk losing everything.
7. Che palle! – A pain in the… behind!
This expression can be literally translated as “What balls!”, which goes to show that Italian slang, just like English slang, cannot be taken at face value. What this phrase really means is something closer to “What a pain in the neck!”. Well, to be perfectly honest, a more accurate translation would use a different part of the body, which enables us to say that this Italian slang phrase, just like its English equivalent, could be seen as a bit rude by old or very serious people.
8. Un/una guastafeste – A party pooper
Our next Italian slang expression is a concept that English speakers are very familiar with.
The term guastafeste is the combination of two Italian words: the verb guastare, which translates as “to spoil” or “to ruin,” and the word festa, which means “party.” We are talking, naturally, about party poopers, people who are so grumpy or antisocial that they can spoil whatever celebration they have been dragged to.
9. Non fai scumbari – Don’t embarrass me
Do you remember those times when your mother would tell you off in front of your friends? Or when she would ask you if you’d changed your dirty underwear? Well, those are exactly the kind of situations where you could have used the next Italian slang expression. Though it doesn’t have a literal translation in English, this expression means something along the lines of “please, stop embarrassing me”, so it’s one you can definitely use when your Italian friend forces you to accept a drink from the Italian guy who’s been looking at you from across the bar.
10. Tutto pepe – All pepper
Yes, we know, the literal English translation doesn’t tell you much. This phrase, after all, has nothing to do with food culture. Tutto pepe is something that you can say to describe somebody who is easy-going, energetic, and fun to be around. If you wanted to tell a girl how you feel about her, for example, you could say that she’s nice, which is a rather dull choice, or you could say that she is spunky. Something similar happens in Italian. Instead of saying that someone is simpática, you can tell her that she is tutto pepe.
We hope that you have found the Italian slang words above useful. As we see it, learning informal expressions is one of the best ways to understand a language and a culture. For that reason, we invite you to explore our Italian courses taught by native tutors who will be delighted to teach you everything there is to know about the origin and usage of Italian slang expressions. Besides, our lesson plans are completely personalized and up-to-date, which means you’ll be able to speak much sooner than you would with traditional courses. Send us a quick inquiry now and we’ll make sure you get a prompt response!