Discover the History Behind Some of the Most Popular Italian Sayings

by | 1 May 2024

The best way to find out new facts about Italian culture is by understanding some of the most-loved Italian sayings. Italians are known for their vast repertoire of hand gestures, each flick of the finger and placement of the palm meaning something totally different. Their roster of idioms is just as colorful and varied; learn more about Italy’s history and culture by mastering some of these popular Italian phrases, perfect for your next Insight Vacations adventure.

Our 11-day Italy itinerary shows the best that this gorgeous country has to offer

“Mamma mia!”

A vinyl record cover of ABBA's Mamma Mia

Made famous by Swedish band ABBA, the Italian phrase “mamma mia” can be used to express all manner of emotions: fear, joy, exasperation, stress and sometimes even amusement. Of course, while it literally means “my mother”, in practice it’s closer to the English “oh my god”. “Mamma mia” has been used in Italy for centuries, but according to Merriam Webster, first came to the attention of English speakers in 1860. Since then, it’s been affectionately adopted as the world’s favourite stereotypical Italian idiom.

Read more: Here’s why May is the best time to visit Italy

“Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto”

A group of people cheersing with wine over dinner on a sunny day

Judging by how much “eat well, laugh often, love much” is used in Italy, it’s possible the much-maligned English phrase ‘live, laugh, love’ could have its origins there. This phrase perfectly encapsulates the Italian passion for family, food and feeling: imagine it said around a dining table filled with plates, or by a fiery hearth with a glass of wine.

“La gatta frettolosa ha fatto i gattini ciechi”

Meaning “the hasty cat gave birth to blind kittens”, this proverb might sound visceral, but it’s actually quite harmless: it means that things should be done in their own time, because rushing tasks will mean mistakes are made. This proverb is likely Sicilian in origin, and when said in the Sicilianl dialect goes “a iatta prisciarola fa i iattareddi orbi”. Some say it may have come to Italy from Asia via ancient Greece.

We think you’ll also like: What’s special about Sicilian cuisine? Everything, says Travel Director Mark

“De gustibus non est disputandum”

One of the many interesting facts about Italian culture is that Latin phrases are often used in modern parlance. In this witty quip – roughly translating to “there is no accounting for taste” – the Roman expression is used to say that everyone’s taste is subjective, and therefore ought not be argued with. The irony being that when a person says this phrase, they are implying that they disagree with the person in question.

A view of the Amalfi coast off the top of a balcony

“Veni, vidi, vici”

Here’s another Latin phrase that has worked its way into not only modern Italian, but English as well. The short, sharp brag – meaning “I came, I saw, I conquered” was first said by Julius Caesar in around 47 BC, after he swiftly conquered a tract of land in modern Turkey at the Battle of Zela. “Veni, vidi, vici” is still repeated and paraphrased today, although in modern Italian it would be pronounced “Venni, vidi, vinsi”.

Read more: 10 fascinating things you’ll learn about Italy on our 10-day tour

“Il fine giustifica i mezzi”

Used to explain away a morally-questionable act, this quote from Machiavelli’s Il Principe (originally published in 1532) translates to “the ends justify the means”. Remarkably, the phrase is still a part of the Italian vernacular. It’s been used by journalists, politicians, poets, and even songwriters to suggest that so long as the goal is good, it doesn’t matter how it is achieved.

“A caval donato non si guarda in bocca”

Exactly the same as the English “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, you would say this to someone you felt was being ungrateful, or looking for flaws in something that had been given to them. As in English, the phrase comes from a time when horses were sold at markets, and buyers would check their teeth (i.e. look in their mouth) to evaluate the horse’s health before purchasing. If the horse was a gift, it’d be rude to assess the horse – at least in front of the person giving it to you.
Alice is a travel and history journalist, passionate about food, cultural connection, music and language. She specialises in Greece, and has travelled widely around the mainland and islands. She has written for a number of travel publications, including Lonely Planet, National Geographic Traveller, Atlas Obscura, British Airways' High Life, The Independent, the i and Travel Weekly.