Three Expressions That are Just Better in Italiano

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language knows the struggle, agony and fear that can accompany said language. You know … like my embarrassing boob blunder last week.

New languages are tough.

But if you stick with it long enough, somewhere, without provocation or warning you’ll become the language. You’ll start to speak it more easily, understand it without trying and sometimes … just sometimes … it’ll spew from your native English-language lips like an east Texas oil rig on a landowner’s lucky day. Meaning of course, you can’t stop it … and that you’ll love it.

Normally this happens when I’m talking to an American friend back home who is all-too-quick to remind me that they don’t live the bella vita and that they have no clue what I’m talking about. So, I quickly glide back to safe man’s land and into English.

But over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that all things aren’t easier said than done. In fact, sometimes there really is only one way to say it. So, here are three Italian expressions I love to use that just don’t have an English-language equivalent. (So note to all of my Texas-based amici … learn these expressions, cause I can’t go back now!)

1. Bella/Brutta Figura

Literal Translation: Beautiful / Ugly figure

Actual Translation: To make a good impression / Bad impression

Example: Se noi non andiamo al suo matrimonio, facciamo una brutta figura.

Why it is better in Italian:
Well … here is why.

A few weeks ago my sister ranted to me about a Little League coach from her son’s league. This man is a well-respected member of the community, but let competition rule his decisions over the welfare of one of the players. I was shocked-and I must add, disappointed-by his actions and blurted out.

“I can’t believe he’d risk a brutta figura for that. The game doesn’t even matter. It wasn’t playoffs or anything.”

“Uhm, Cherrye. Brutta figura?”

“Yea, uhm … getting a bad name. Uhm … making people think less of him. Uhm … his reputation.”

You see … Italian is much easier to sum up in two words. Brutta. Figura.

2. Sono Stufa

Translation: I’m tired of …

Example: “Sono stufa di questa professoressa!”

Why it is better in Italian:

Because it is more forceful. Saying “I’m tired of this” doesn’t quite cut it. Sono stufa means I’m so sick and tired of this crap that I’m about to explode … without all of the extra words!

3. Mah!

Literal Translation: Mah?!?


“Non ci posso credere che ha detto di no!”

“Mah. Cosa puoi fare?”

Why it is better in Italian:

Because it sums it all up and you can say it anytime you want … for almost any occasion.

“Should we have steak or chicken?”


“How far is it from your house to the airport?”

Mah …

“Her husband is such shite!”

Mah …

What about you? What are some things you prefer saying in a certain language that just doesn’t quite have the same force in another language?

11 Responses
  1. Nice ones! Yeah, it is hard to translate “brutta figura”. It’s a combination of embarrassing, bad reputation, bad impression.
    I find myself using “boh!” a lot, even to my English-speaking friends.

    There are also certain utterances which say more than a million words. One of my favourites is “Ueuuuueh!” (don’t even know if that makes any sense!!!) It’s a noise people make when someone exaggerates or when they are extremely impressed, usually followed by “addirittura!”. I love it!
    LOL. Is that the same sound they’d make for example if someone says something that might be untrue, they’d follow up with that Urrrrh, sound like … “what are talking about?” Know what I mean? LOL

  2. I just read this post out loud to my 6 month old – I read to him blog posts all the time as part of his literacy learning – and he started giggling when I said “Mah!” We just giggled for 5 minutes repeating this over and over. Even he thinks it’s great!
    Ha! That is funny. I love it.
    Paola’s last blog post..Our newest addition

  3. good ones! I also love “ma dai” and “che casino”!

    I also find “pazienza” and “anzi” slipping into conversation – is there really a good way to express those in English? For pazienza, saying “patience” is just not the same :o) Maybe “don’t worry about it”… but not really. For anzi, it’s way too much of a mouthful to say “just the opposite….”!!
    Ha… all good ones. I also like “piano, piano!”
    MadelineJ’s last blog post..Make Time for the Locals

  4. vanessa

    ha ha I love that grunting noise they make when on the phone. Sort of a cross between ehhhhhhh and uhhhhhhhhh, which just means, yes, i am listening, oh really,hmmmm, continue, etc etc.

    Also have noticed S picking up lots of little expressions from daycare, like evviva (which she chants E-vie-VA!) when she is happy about something. This is the direct opposite to ma dai/ DAI! when she wants something she can’t have.

    I remember when i was just learning italian (he he still am!) i used lots of those fillers to sound like i knew more and give me time to think what to say next. ha ha ha. Communque, quindi, dunque and of course allora!

    And the other thing is i still can’t believe they actually use Mamma Mia! as an expression here; it still makes me laugh every single time I hear it. Cannot stand Boh and Mah though. Verbal equivalents of a shrug which annoy me so much.
    Ha. Funny about “boh” and “mah.” They are growing on me, but I definitely get what you mean.

  5. right on Cherrye! I agree 100%… I still plug an Italian word or phrase here and there…completely forgetting that the other person has no idea what I’m talking about. I just can’t find the equivalent sometimes.
    Thanks, Joe. Glad to know I’m not alone in that!

  6. Sarah

    I just love all these expressions. I understand completely about saying something in Italian (Sicilian) spontaneously and the other person not knowing a thing as to what I said. BUT I DON’T CARE. Allora is one of my favorites as someone else said and I also enjoy, “Mah! Chi fai?” I could go on and on but won’t this time. You’ll hear from me again. 🙂
    Thanks for the comment (and the understanding!) My family is slowing picking up on some of my Italianisms.

  7. My favorites which are both interchangeable are the drawn out:

    Ohhhhhhhhh or Aayyyyyyyyyy if the pinched fingers are being waved back in forth it usually means “what are you doing? or what are you thinking”

  8. Ganpiero

    My Napolitano roommate always answered the phone with ‘Weeeeeeeeeee’ and ended with an endless ciao-(break)-ciaociaociaociaociao-ciao. Oh, and ‘ma CHE cazzo fai’ was often heard too.

    They don’t teach you that stuff in Italian class.

    Shortly before I left, said roommate told me that I spoke Italian quite well, but that it would take me at least 10 years to fully master it with all its subtleties. Amen.

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