Parola di Dio: 13 common Italian expressions taken from the Bible

Although Italy is officially a work-based secular state, Italian language and culture are scattered with open references to the Judaic and Christian traditions. The Bible itself, having been the one and only source of education for centuries, seems to be a neverending source of idioms and forms of speech. Even without embracing any particular confession, we thought it would be a good idea to collect 13 of the most common idioms taken from the Book of Books.

1. Fare da capro espiatorio (to be a scapegoat).

We tried to start with an easy one since this form of speech is also present in English and in many other Indo-European languages (Benjamin Malaussene, anyone?). The expression comes directly from the Jewish tradition, mentioned in Leviticus 9:15, of sacrificing a goat as a ritual of purification during the Yom Kippur. Passing from the original meaning to the modern one of being a person unfairly blamed for some misfortune doesn’t require too much effort.

2. Essere una manna dal cielo (to be a boon).

Manna (or Mana) was an edible substance that, according to the Bible (Exodus 16:1-36 and Numbers 11:1-9) and the Quran, God provided for the Israelites during their travels in the desert.
This image is so deeply rooted in the Italian language that one could actually use this expression to cheer up when something good (and yet unexpected) happens: è proprio una manna dal cielo!

3. Occhio per occhio, dente per dente (eye for an eye).

This very common expression is a direct reference to the law of retaliation (legge del taglione in Italian), the principle that a person who has injured another person is to be penalized to a similar degree. In a wider sense, this expression is used whenever one is seeking some form of revenge.

4. Seminare zizzania (to drive a wedge, to sow discord).

Credit: Photo by Franco CaldararoThis one comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in which we can find the Parable of the Tares (Parabola della zizzania). Tares is actually darnel, a type of grass\weed that ruins crops, and it is used here as a metaphor for the struggle between the spiritual children of Christ (the good seeds) and the unbelievers (the tares).

5. Vendersi per un piatto di lenticchie (to sell yourself for a mess of pottage).

In the Book of Genesis 25:29-34 we find the two sons of Isaac, Esau and Jacob. The latter, one day, offered his brother the sale of his birthright in exchange for a lentil soup. The expression is often used to describe the action of giving away something of profound value for goods of derisory nature.

6. Restare di sale (to be flabbergasted).

Again in the Book of Genesis 19:1-26 is told the dramatic story of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God for being consumed by vice and idolatry. The expression makes reference to the fate of Lot’s wife, who was told not to look back while escaping from the cities. The woman disobeyed and was turned into a pillar of salt. The idiom is currently use to express disbelief or surprise (“alla notizia, sono rimasto di sale!”).

7. Gigante dai piedi d’argilla (giant with clay feet).

This expression comes from the Book of Daniel in which the prophet tells about the dream of King Nabucodonosor: a giant statue with golden head, silver chest, bronze legs and, as a matter of fact, clay feet. Today this form of speech is a metaphor for something huge (such as a corporation or a party) which does not have steady foundations.

8. Essere il beniamino (to be the favourite).

Beniamino (Benjamin) was Jacob’s last and favourite son. Therefore, in Italian, essere un beniamino means being someone’s pupil: a very good football player can be il beniamino dei tifosi, or a famous actor can be il beniamino del pubblico and so on.

9. Niente di nuovo sotto il Sole (nothing new under the Sun).

One of the most poetic and intense books of the Old Testament, the Book of Qoelet (1:9) is responsible for this sometimes abused quote (nihil sub sole novum in latin), which is used to indicate an unchanging (and unchangeable) situation.

10. Servire due padroni (to be a two-timer).

Although brought to fame by playwright Carlo Goldoni and his Arlecchino, this expression comes from the Gospel of Luke (16:13): “One cannot serve two masters, nor two mistresses”. The meaning is clear: the idiom is used as a reference to a double-crosser, a two-timer.

11. Gettare le perle ai porci (casting pearls before swine).

We find this expression in Matthew 7:6, meaning “to give things of value to those who will not understand or appreciate it”.

12. Muoia Sansone con tutti i Filistei (let Samson die with the Philistines).

The Book of the Judges (16:18-21; 28-30) tells the story of Samson, an Israelite judge who performed feats of strength against the Philistines but was betrayed by Delilah, his mistress. Blinded by revenge, Samson decided to destroy Philistines temple with his bare hands, although he knew he would die too. The idiom is often used in reference to someone who doesn’t hesitate to harm him or herself if it helps hurting others.

13. Essere un Giuda (to be a Judas).

The figure of Judas is commonly used (not exclusively but very widely in the Italian language) to indicate a traitor. Along with his name, the expression per trenta denari (for 30 pieces of silver) indicating the amount of money earned by Judas to betray Jesus Christ, is often used.

So this was our list, but please feel free to integrate it and suggest new idioms in the comments!

Read the original article on Kappa Language School’s website.

Amen. 😀


When in Rome… speak as an (ancient) roman would do

Some people think that idioms are the most obscure subject that can be encountered when attempting to learn a foreign language, and we might agree with this assumption. Beacause of their sheer nature of crystalized linguistic structures whose origins have often been lost in the process of language evolution, idioms are always a very tricky issue in the hands of a foreign student, lending themselves to misuse and being an obstacle to plain communication. That said, Italian language students should not fear, for many native speakers, when asked, cannot explain the source of idioms that they nevertheless use everyday.

When it comes to Italian, the rich and well documented history of its predecessor, Latin, allows us to track down the origin of many commonly used idioms. Of course you need to know at least the basics of roman history to be aware of what you’re talking about when you name Tizio, Caio e Sempronio or you accuse someone to rest on his laurels (dormire sugli allori) but, hey, that’s why we are here!

Here’s a list of idioms originated by concepts and customs of the ancient Rome:

  1. muzio-scevola_1

    He doesn’t seem that much in pain, does he?

    Metterci la mano sul fuoco (literally: to put one’s hand on fire). This expression, meaning “being so sure about something one could swear on it”, originates from a latin legend involving the historical charachter Muzio Scevola, a young roman aristocrat who, in the VI century b.C., voluntarily burned his right hand because it failed in killing the Etruscan king Porsenna. The connection between the act of bravery ascribed to the roman warrior and the condition of being extremely sure about something lies in the utmost firmness of Muzio‘s beliefs.

  2. Essere una pietra miliare (literally: to be a milestone). Yes, this one exists in English too, but the origin is 100% Latin. Milestones were in fact actual stones that romans used to put alongside their neverending consular routes (such as via Appia, via Casilina, via Tuscolana etc.) in order to mark the distance from the Urbe. Therefore, being a pietra miliare figuratively means being a turning point, after which something changes forever.
  3. Apollo turning Dafne into laurel in one of Bernini's masterpieces.

    Apollo turning Dafne into laurel in one of Bernini’s masterpieces.

    Dormire sugli allori (literally: to rest on laurels). Again, you have this in the English language too. The origin of this idiom is relatively clear, due to the common iconography connected to the concept of success, which has remained basically unchanged from the times of ancient Greece (and Rome). Laurel, commonly associated to Apollo, was and still is a symbol of victory (both military and artistic); “to rest on it” means to stop trying because one is satisfied with one’s past achievements. As simple as that.

  4. Tizio, Caio e Sempronio (Tom, Dick and Harry). This is a placeholder for unidentified subjects, and expressions similar to this one are present, with culturally connoted variants, in many languages. The italian form comes from the names of three historical figures, the Gracchi brothers (Tiberio and Gaio) and their father (Sempronio). The first use of these three names as placeholder can be found in a XI century document from the jurisconsult Irnerio.
  5. Passare sotto le forche caudine (running the gauntlet). This idiom comes directly from an historical event, the battle of the Forche Caudine (321 b.C.), in which the roman army was shamefully defeated by the Samnites. It is told by many historician (such as Tito Livio) that the surviving roman soldiers were humiliated by being forced to pass between two rows of enemy soldiers. which whipped, tortured and insulted them. In modern language the expression means experiencing a deep humiliation or enduring a series of abuses.
  6. You definitely don't want to mess with the Furies...

    You definitely don’t want to mess with the Furies…

    Andare su tutte le furie (to rampage). This one comes from greek mythology, in which the Furies (Aletto, Tisifone and Megera) were the personification of vengeance and wrath. In the greek and roman society, people used to offer sacrifices to calm their blind and destructive rage, to which no human being could resist. Knowing this, the meaning of the italian expression becomes pretty clear: no need to rampage!

  7. Una vittoria di Pirro (a phyrric victory). Have you ever experienced the awful sensation of winning a battle but losing the war because the cost of your victory is so high that it is unbearable in the long term? Well, that’s exactly how the Epirus king, Pirro felt when defeating the Romans in 280 b.C. at the Eraclea battle.

Clearly this list includes just a small part of the huge amount of monuments left in our language by the Latin world. Nevertheless, is somehow comforting to see how those evidences of the human spirit can be appreciated even in our everyday language.

Read the original article on Kappa Language School’s website.