Ten Quirky Italian Animal-Related Idioms

Italian is full of bizarre idioms and proverbs which can confuse foreigners. If you’re not sure whether to be proud or insulted when compared to a goose, or you want to know why Italians keep talking about fishes when there are none in sight, here is a guide to Italian language Animal-related Idioms.

1. Ubriaco come una scimmia – Drunk as a monkey
Anyone who has spent time dealing with friends after they’ve had a few drinks too many will surely understand this comparison to the mischievous primate.

2. Trattare a pesci in faccia – To treat with fishes in your face
This expression is used when someone has treated you disrespectfully – being slapped in the face with a fish can’t be a pleasant experience. In fact, as you might expect in a country surrounded by water, fish regularly crop up in Italian conversation – buttarsi come un pesce (to throw yourself like a fish), means to throw yourself enthusiastically into an activity, and un pesce grosso (a big fish) is how Italians refer to a big shot.

3. Scambiare Sant’Antonio con il maiale – To confuse Saint Anthony with the pig
If someone says you have confused Saint Anthony with a pig, it means you’ve made a big mistake! As to the origin of the expression, Saint Anthony worked with a pig farmer as a young man and is the Patron Saint of pigs.

4. Oca giuliva – Silly goose
If someone’s not all that bright, you can call them an oca giuliva. Of course they may not realize that they’ve been insulted.

5. Correre dietro alle farfalle – To run behind the butterflies
Running around among a cloud of butterflies might sound like a fairly idyllic scene, but if someone tells you that’s what you’re doing, it’s just a fancy way of saying you’re wasting time or chasing after an unachievable goal.

6. Salvare capra e cavoli – To save goat and cabbage
This refers to an ancient riddle. A man has to cross a river with a wolf, a goat and a cabbage. He can only take one item across at a time and can’t leave either the wolf with the goat, or the goat with the cabbage if they are to survive the trip. If you solve it, you save the goat and the cabbage, so this phrase refers to resolving a situation without having to compromise any aspect.

7. Siamo a cavallo – We’re at the horse
You’d be forgiven for a moment of confusion if an Italian exclaimed this to you with no horse in sight. An approximate translation would be ‘we’ve nearly made it’ or more idiomatically, ‘we’re out of the woods.’ Picture yourself escaping from a tricky situation – now that you’re on the horse, you’ll soon ride to safety.

8. Sei una cicada o una formica?  – Are you a tree cricket or an ant?
While your initial response to this question might be ‘um, neither,’ it’s more to do with your mentality and values. The ant represents hard work and preparation for the future, while the cicada or tree cricket represents lots of activity without much sense of purpose. So which one are you?

9. Chi pecora si fa, il lupo se la mangia – Those who act like sheep get eaten by the wolf
This saying is about standing up for yourself and your opinions, because if you’re too timid, you won’t get very far.

10. Far vedere I sorci Verdi – To make someone see green rats
This idiom has an interesting background. In 1936, a UK Royal Air Force bomber squadron adopted three green rats as its emblem. Mussolini bragged of the ability of Italian pilots to shoot down such rats. Ultimately, the squadron took part in numerous bombing raids on Italy during WWII. After that, ‘I’ll make you see green rats’ became a way to warn someone you were about to crush them with a humiliating defeat.

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