Archive | Idioms (i modi di dire)

‘Hai una bella figura’ or ‘hai fatto una bella figura’, which one is the right Italian expression?

Frequently, and especially during our Conversation Classes, the expression ‘bella figura’ crops up when we are talking about how someone looks so as to pay a compliment. This is probably because you have the word figure in English which, among many other meanings, refers to ‘the shape of the human body and especially a woman’s body that is attractive’ (Oxford Dictionary). Therefore, it sounds fantastic to our ears when someone is telling us that we have a great figure.

Unfortunately, the exact translation does not have  the same meaning in Italian. In fact, to compliment someone on their appearance we use other expressions, such as ‘sei in gran forma’ (you are in great shape) or ‘hai un bel fisico’ (you have a beautiful figure) or ‘hai un bell’aspetto’ (you have a beautiful look); this last one also refers to things, such as plates, for example: questo piatto di spaghetti ha proprio un bell’aspetto (this plate of spaghetti looks very good).

The word combination ‘bella figura’ is used in the expression ‘fare una bella figura’ which means ‘to give a good impression’. In fact, everyone would be happy to hear: ‘Hai fatto una bella figura ieri durante il tuo colloquio di lavoro’ (you gave a good impression yesterday during your job interview). The opposite of ‘fare una bella figura’ is ‘fare una brutta figura’, which has the corresponding English expression ‘to make a poor figure’.

Allora (so), what do you say to an Italian friend if you want to pay them a compliment? I would be more careful if you are talking to women. Women can tell each other: ‘Hai un bel fisico’ and this is a great compliment, but it might sound cheeky if it is from a male friend who is not very close. To anyone, you can say: ‘Sei proprio in forma!’ and ‘farai sempre una bella figura’ (you will always make a good impression)!



Mi mangio la pizza, mi guardo un film… mistakes or what?

Many of my students stumble over this particular use of the reflexive form which is not academic or formal but, nonetheless, sounds truly Italian.

In Italian we use some verbs which are called ‘Riflessivi’ or ‘Reflexive’ such as, lavarsi (to wash oneself), pettinarsi (to comb oneself), radersi (to shave oneself) and so on. The majority of them are somehow involved with the care of one’s body, for example: mi lavo i denti (I wash my teeth), mi lavo le mani/i capelli (I wash my hands/hair), mi faccio la doccia (I take a shower), mi faccio il bagno (I take a bath). In all these cases the performed action falls on the subject and the listener cannot misunderstand. For example, if I say: ‘Mi lavo le mani’ everyone will understand that I am washing my own hands and no one else’s; but if I say: ‘Lavo le mani’ an Italian listener would be waiting for the name of the person whose hands I am going to wash, for example: ‘Lavo le mani di/a Kevin’.


Sometimes, other verbs can be used in this way, even though they do not become really reflexive, but emphasize that the action greatly pleases or displeases the subject. For example, if I say to you: ‘Questa sera mi mangio una pizza’ or ‘Questa sera mi guardo un film’ or ‘Questa sera mi leggo un libro’, I am already anticipating the pleasure of doing these things. It is almost as if I am going to treat myself. While if I say: ‘Stasera mangio la pizza’ it could mean that I do not have anything to eat and I will have a pizza as a backup or that of the options available, this is the ‘best of a bad lot’.


The trick does not work for all verbs, though. For example, reading the following sentence: il gatto si mangiò  il topo (the cat ate the mouse) we can draw the conclusion that he really enjoyed his meal, but we cannot say ‘Il cane si morse il gatto’ as it would not make much sense, besides the fact that he might have bitten himself when he was trying to bite the cat!


To know more about ‘Il cane che morse il gatto che si mangiò il topo’, you can google ‘Alla fiera dell’est’, a great song by the singer-songwriter Angelo Branduardi who also won a price for it in 1978.


Do not say Buona Fortuna, for goodness’ sake!

If you want a piece of advice, do not ever say ‘Buona fortuna’ to an Italian person, unless you don’t like him or her very much!

Buona fortuna means good luck, but, in Italy, it is strongly believed that if someone tells you buona fortuna before a test or any other occasion, he or she doesn’t really want the best for you!

What we usually say to a person who is going to sit for a test or a job interview or is feeling unwell is ‘In bocca al lupo’, which literally means ‘In the wolf’s mouth’. To complete the good luck ritual, the person, who has been told that, has to answer ‘Crepi il lupo’ which means ‘die the wolf’. The short version of the answer is ‘Crepi’, the lupo is implied.

I don’t know where this good luck ritual comes from, but you can try it and see if it works.

In the meantime, you can take a look on Wikipedia, they might know what it means and In Bocca Al Lupo with that!


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