Idiomatic expressions can be difficult for students of any language; they can be confusing, confounding, and simple to mess up, sometimes with funny or embarrassing results. Here are several English expressions that cannot be translated into Italian with the same meaning. The origins are surprising even for some English-language speakers.
Break a leg
When you tell someone in English to break a leg, you are wishing that person good luck. The ironic expression is used mainly in the theater. According to most superstitions, a simple good luck in that context would have the opposite effect. While rich in theories that date back to ancient Greece, the origin is uncertain. One of the most credible refers to the line that divided the stage from behind the scenes, which was known as the leg or leg line. To overcome (break) it meant to be part of the show, performing in front of the audience, and, consequently, to be paid. In Italy, you should avoid saying “good luck” as in buona fortuna; it’s better to say in bocca al lupo “in the mouth of the wolf.” (See the January 3, 2019 post on superstitions.)
Get the wrong end of the stick
Getting the wrong end of the stick means getting a bad deal, or sometimes misunderstanding an action or situation, often with unpleasant consequences. The saying refers to walking sticks, in particular, the end that rests on the ground, which is often dirty and covered with mud. According to some, the expression comes from an object used in Roman times: a stick with a piece of fabric at the end that was once used in public baths instead of toilet paper. Taking it from the wrong side was certainly was not pleasant. The closest Italian expression is prendere fischi per fiaschi, “take whistles for flasks,” which means to exchange one thing for another not necessarily with dire consequences. For example, if you are in Italy and ordered a pizza margherita and the waiter brought you instead a pizza capricciosa, you might say il cameriere ha preso fischi per fiaschi!”
It’s raining cats and dogs
This expression came from the old custom of having dogs and cats rest on the roofs of houses during the cold season. When it rained heavily, the animals found it difficult to stay balanced or anchored to the roof and, as a result, they sometimes feel to the ground scaring those who walked along the sidewalks or roadsides. The most similar expression in Italian is piove a dirotto or piove a catinelle, which simply suggests it’s raining “copiously” or “basins full.”
It’s not my cup of tea
Born in the nineteenth century, this expression is linked to the British tradition of five o’clock tea. At first it was in the positive sense to indicate something really appreciated or suitable. In the twenties in the twentieth century, the denial was added to indicate that something is not for us or does not matter. The most similar Italian expression is non andare a genio as in questa tua idea non mi va a genio, or “this idea of yours doesn’t suit me or doesn’t sit well with me.”
Get your ducks in a row
The expression seems to have originated in the 1970s in shooting ranges, which ducks were used as targets to train people on the use of firearms. Having all the ducks in a row meant being ready to shoot. The most similar Italian expression is fare mente locale, which means to eliminate all other thoughts and to concentrate on a situation or topic. For example, if you are late and can’t find your wallet, you will fare mente locale to try to remember where you last saw it.
Feeling under the weather
This saying is almost always used to indicate a real physical illness, perhaps the beginning of a cold or flu, or when you are really tired; in some cases, it can indicate a mood or general malaise. The expression may have originated on English ships that sailed the ocean; when someone on board fell ill, the contagion often hit many sailors. The ship diaries couldn’t accommodate all the surnames and hence were written in the column dedicated to weather conditions; that is, they were written “under the weather.” The most similar Italian expression is essere giù di corda, literally “to be out of rope,” meaning to be worn out or down in the dumps.
Knock on wood
People who rap their knuckles on a piece of wood are hoping to stave off bad luck. It might be spoken when a person is already experiencing some good fortune and does not want to tempt fate. The origin is linked to popular folklore which included rituals involving spirits of sacred trees. When looking for a bit of luck or a blessing it was necessary to wake up the benign spirits inside the trees by knocking on the trunk. In Italy, the expression is toccare ferro, that is, “to touch iron.”