Idioms are like a language within a language. And for every country and language, idioms reflect historical roots, cultural habits, idiosyncrasies and beliefs. And they are fun to ponder.
There are a few Italian idioms that have similar or equivalent expressions in English. For example, una su un milione, or one in a million, means a rarity or low percentage chance in both languages; Fare due più due, or put two and two together, means to understand something based on information available. Grazie mille, literally a thousand thanks, is expressed as “thanks a million” in English. Due lati della stessa Medaglia (two sides of the same medal) becomes “two sides of the same coin” in English, but both indicate that even though two things seem different, they are the same.
There are many Italian idioms that use the numbers 2, 3 and 4; some even use numbers interchangeably, probably depending on where the idiom is spoken in the country. For example, you can say fare due passi or fare quattro passi, as in Dopo cena, Laura è andata a fare due/quattro passi per auitare a digerire meglio, which means that after dinner, Laura went for a stroll to help digest better. This expression is similar to the commonly used expression, fare una passeggiata, which means to take a walk, often without a destination.
A friend might say to you, Quando hai tempo, prendiamo un caffè e facciamo due chiacchiere (When you have time, let’s have coffee and a little chat). Fare/scambiare due o quattro chiacchiere means to chat or talk informally. However, if you know someone is a gossip (chiacchierone), you might want to talk privately about a sensitive subject or person (parlare a quatt’occhi) and warn him or her not to spread the information — Gridare/sbandiere/strombazzare ai quattro venti—literally, to spread it to the four winds, which represent the four cardinal points of north, south, east, and west. If he or she gossips anyway, then you can tell her off –dirne quattro a lei/lui, but you might first want to count to ten (contare fino a dieci).
Many Italian idioms feature numbers that relate to working hard or efficiently. Giovanna si è fatta in quattro per finire i compiti in tempo or Joanne worked really hard (as if she were four people) in order to finish her homework on time. Chi ha fatto trenta può fare trentuno (literally, he or she who has done 30 can do 31) is an idiom that dates back to 1517 when Pope Leo X created 30 new cardinals and then realized he had left out a very respectable man.In modern applications, Chi ha fatto trenta può fare trentuno means “you have come this far, why give up now?” or “Go the extra mile.”
Sometimes we say in English that if you want something done properly, it’s better to do it yourself. In Italian this becomes chi fa da sé fa per tre, which literally means someone who does work on his own, does it for three people. If someone completes a task “in less than no time,” he or she does it in quattro e quattr’otto. And if someone works really hard, that person can sudare sette camicie (sweat seven shirts).
Here is a puzzling Italian idiom that uses a big number: Essere un pezzo da novanta, which literally means to be a ninety piece (relating to guns and ammunition) but translates as “to be a big shot.” In standard Italian it is actually a compliment and not used with irony. But in The Godfather, it is used pejoratively in a conversation between Don Corleone and his son Michael:
Don Corleone: I worked my whole life…and I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all those big shots. But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something.*
Michael: Another pezzonovante.
In conclusion, the expression dare i numeri, which literally means to give numbers, today means “to go crazy” or “to lose your marbles.” It comes from fortune tellers who used astrology and other means to predict the right lottery numbers to choose, which most often turned out to be false.
- I always thought the line was “peso novanta” meaning a 90-pounder, in other words, a lightweight.