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10 extraordinarily useful Italian phrases

ITALIAN IS A BEAUTIFUL LANGUAGE. Because of the purity of its vowels, Italian is the first language in which opera singers learn to sing. It’s also an incredibly fun language to speak, full of expressive hand gestures and colorful phrases. Here are a few to get you started.

1. che casino! — what a mess!

kay kazeeno – /ke kazino/

Originally the word for brothel, casino is now used to describe any situation that’s a bit out of control, confusing, or crowded, meaning “what a madhouse!” I heard che casino even before I got to Italy on my last trip: Italians waiting on the security line at the airport were using it to express their frustration. Since many events in Italy are not overly organized, this phrase gets a real workout.

2. magari – I wish!

magaree – /mɑ:gɑ:ri:/

Magari is the word used to express hope. For example, I could have said to the Italians who were eager to board our delayed flight, “Don’t worry, you’ll make your connection.” They would have responded with, “Magari!”

3. che barba! – how boring!

kay barba – /kəbɑ:rbɑ:/

Literally, “what a beard,” che barba means “what a bore.” I’m not sure whether this comes from the idea that it takes a long time to grow a beard, or that whatever’s happening is as boring as watching a beard grow. In any case, if you see someone stroking an imaginary beard, she is making the che barba sign.

Example: Q. How was Italian class today? A. (Silent stroking of chin)

4. non c’entra – that’s irrelevant

non chentra – /non ʧɜ:ntrɑ:/

Entrarci is an extraordinarily useful verb, especially in the negative, when it means “that has nothing to do with it,” or, “this has nothing to do with you” (i.e., mind your own business). It’s also used in the interrogative: Che c’entra? Or che c’entri? (what’s it to you?) If you disagree with the sentiment you simply counter with c’entra! (does so!) or c’entro! (it certainly does concern me!).

Example: È troppo caro. (It’s too expensive.) Che c’entrano I soldi? Pago io! (Forget money. I’m paying!)

5. prendere in giro – to kid or tease

prenderay een jeero – /prɜ:nderei:nʤi:rɔ:/

Prendere in giro (to take in a circle) means to be joking. As in, c’entri, c’entri, ti prendo in giro — of course you have a say in this, I’m just pulling your leg.

6. me ne frega – who cares?

may nay frayga – /menefregɑ:/

Me ne frega is a slightly rude way of saying, “I couldn’t care less.” For example, as a response to “whatever happened to your ex?” me ne frega means, “I don’t know and I don’t care, and I hope I never see him again.”

7. in bocca al lupo – good luck

een bohkaloopoh – /i:nbɔ:kɑ:lu:pɔ:/

Literally, “in the mouth of the wolf,” in bocca al lupo is the Italian version of “break a leg.” The reply is crepi il lupo — “may the wolf die.” It’s used religiously in the theater and opera houses, but can also be said to someone about to take a test or engage in any challenging activity.

8. ogni morte di papa – hardly ever

ohnyee mortay di papa – /ɔ:ŋi:mɔ:rtedi:pɑ:pɑ:/

Literally, “every death of a pope,” ogni morte di papa is the equivalent of the English “once in a blue moon.” It seems so much more colorful to me because it conjures up visions of crowds mobbing St. Peter’s when a new pope is being chosen. How often do I go to Italy? Ogni morte di papa. Not nearly often enough.

9. ricevuto come un cane in chiesa – to be unwelcome

reechayvootoh kohmay oon kahnay een kyayza – /ri:ʧevu:tɔ:kɔ:meu:nkɑ:nei:nkjezɑ:/

Another colorful phrase is ricevuto come un cane in chiesa, which means, “received like a dog in church.” It’s similar to the English “like a whore in church,” but the alliteration in the k sounds of come, cane, and chiesa seem to give it more punch.

Example: What did your parents think of your Italian boyfriend arriving on his Vespa? L’hanno ricevuto come un cane in chiesa.

10. non vedo l’ora – I can’t wait

non vaydoh lohrah – /nɔ:nvedɔ:lɔ:rɑ:/

Literally, “I can’t see the hour,” this is the phrase you use for looking forward to something. As in, non vedo l’ora di tornare in Italia — “I can’t wait to go back to Italy.”

This post was originally published on January 13, 2012.


About The Author

Ellen Rabiner

Ellen Rabiner has been writing about travel since her teenage years on the road as a violist in a youth orchestra. After college her focus shifted to singing, although she did some creative writing as a lawyer. She returned to singing as a soloist at the Metropolitan Opera and is currently traveling and writing from her home in Antalya, Turkey. She blogs at Talking Turkey.

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  • Eleonora

    We don’t use “Che barba!” since probably the 70s. It’s “Che noia”, or the slightly more offensive “Che palle”. Don’t use “Che palle” with people that think you’re polite :D

  • Ellen Rabiner

    LOL.  That’s what I get for being old!  I was just visiting my friend in Rome, and she still says “che barba” (also “che pizza”), but she’s even older than I am.  Thanks for bringing me up to date!

  • Boris

    You’re wrong with “cosa c’entra”, “non c’entra”. It doesn’t come from verb “centrare” but “entrare”. So literary it means “it doesn’t enter, that doesn’t come in” in a particular situation…

    • Ellen Rabiner

      You’re right, of course, Boris. I don’t know how I left off the apostrophe. The verb is entrarci, so non ci entra becomes non centra. Thanks for the correction.

      • Nick Rowlands

        Thanks for pointing that out, Boris. It’s now corrected.

        • Liz

          Then please also correct it here “centri, centri, ti prendo in giro”

    • Paolo De Andreis

      Actually “centra” is “c’entra” where “c” is for “ci” (which in this case stands for “in here”) so when we say “non c’entra” it litterally means that something doesn’t fit with something else.
      As italian I really enjoyed the article.
      “che barba” is somehow outdated, replaced by a somewhat rude “che palle” (“balls”).
      Paolo (Rome)

  • Kickaway

    “Che me ne frega” instead of “me ne frega” ;)

  • Bron

    What a great list! :)

  • Libbie

    What a fun article!  Thanks!! This is a keeper.

  • Ilaria Meliconi

    “che me ne frega” or “me ne frego” which is to be used with much care since it was one of the catchphrases of the fascists….it’s now common to use “non me ne frega niente” or “che mi frega” (the latter more in the south I believe).

  • Daniela

    I’m Italian and I’m a bit offended by this post. The expressions used are purely traditional dialect of a language and not correct. It is also a little how to define Italy as pizza, mafia or mandolin. In short, enough! We are not an exotic people and if you write something about our language (which is the most difficult to learn in the world), do really learning it, as we are obliged to do with English. Forgive my bad English, but I’m so in love with my own language, which does not include some of these 10 sentences.

    • Giuseppe A. D’Angelo

      Scialla Daniela! It’s just a list of catchphrases: how could you be offended by this?

  • Amy

    How fun! Reading this makes me want to learn Italian :-)

  • J.A.

    Good post! Most Italians say “che noia” instead of “che barba” nowadays, and also, typo in the last post: “NON vedo l’ora…” not “no vedo l’ora…”

    • Nick Rowlands

      typo fixed. thanks J.A.

  • Rob van Kan

    Un giro is not a circle but a trip, like the Giro d’Italia is the Italian equivalent of ther Tour the France.  So ‘I am taking you on a trip’ means ‘I’m pulling your leg’.

  • Conveyancing Searches

     Amazing phrases and nice collection  as well.

    very very thanks to the person who got it.

  • Giammarcoc

    There’s another phrase that needs a correction:”E troppo caro. Che c’entra I soldi? Pago io!” should become: “È (notice the accent) troppo caro. Che c’entrano (not “entra”, because it’s plural) i soldi?”

    • Nick Rowlands

      Corrected, thanks!

  • Ananya

    thanks! man.
    its wonderful!

  • Mya Schultz

    Actually Eleonora here in Torino I hear Che Barba every day. The kids love to say it at school about everything! I guess every region is different.
    Daniela, it’s not such a serious post, and it is quite useful to foreigners who come to Italy and hear these expressions every day. You never learn these from your teacher. We also pick up phrases that we hear repeatedly and sometimes use them again without understanding that it could offend, so its good to read these kinds of posts. By the way, Italian is tough, but it is not the most difficult language in the world, these would be Arabic, cantonese, mandarin, japanese and korean.

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