There is no doubt that a language is the reflection of its culture, and idioms are a clear example of this. The fact that Italian is a language whose idioms often include food will therefore surprise no one. There are food idioms for every taste, involving all kind of ingredients, but some of the most famous and used involve the humblest, most basic yet precious food of all: bread.
Bread is undoubtedly omnipresent in the Italian cuisine and each region (or even town!) makes it its own way; it also features in many typical dishes throughout the country, from bruschetta to bread cake, from panzanella to pappa al pomodoro.
Being an enthusiastic baker and an idioms fan, I could not helo but sharing with you ten Italian bread-based idioms that are due to whet your appetite!
- Essere buono come il pane (to be as good as bread): this idiom is used to describe a caring, loving person with a good heart. Few things are as nice to eat as a well baked piece of bread still warm from the oven; if a person is as good as that, it’s really the best you can get. Another idiom with an equivalent meaning is essere un pezzo di pane (to be a piece of bread).
- Dire pane al pane e vino al vino (literally, to say that bread is bread and wine is wine): it’s the Italian equivalent of “to call a spade a spade”. Somebody who does this is bluntly honest and frank, even at cost of hurting someone’s feeling.
- Portare a casa la pagnotta (to bring the loaf home): the cabs-based version of “bringing home the bacon”, and along the same line, English has another word to indicate somebody who provides for the family, the breadwinner. Bread has been deemed as source of energy and nourishment for thousands of years, and even in the Holy Father (“give us this day our daily bread”) it is considered as a basic nutrition for all mankind.
- Chi ha il pane non ha i denti, chi ha i denti non ha il pane (literally, he who has bread has no teeth, and who has teeth has no bread): this idiom is used to indicate a situation where someone has the will to do something but lacks a medium, while somebody else has the medium but lacks will. While browsing for a possible translation, I found here the English expression “They have most bread who have last teeth” and I find it to be quite fitting!
- Essere pane per i tuoi denti (literally, it’s bread for your teeth): here we go again we bread and teeth! If you have to eat a stale piece of bread but you have good teeth, you’re up for the challenge; this idiom is used to describe a situation you can measure up to. I haven’t found an exact equivalent in English for this one so all thoughts are welcome.
- Rendere pan per focaccia (literally, to give bread for focaccia): that sounds quite a posh exchange, doesn’t it? This idiom actually means to get tit-for-tat, or to get your revenge in a cruel way. According to Wikipedia, the saying appeared first in Boccaccio’s Decameron back in 1350.
- Mangiare pane e volpe (literally, to eat bread and fox): this is a sarcastic way to state that somebody is not very smart. The fox is a symbol of shrewdness and somebody who lacks it could eat some with his bread to be a bit less naive; it might not be an animal-friendly idiom, but it is quite evocative!
- Togliere il pane di bocca (literally, to take the bread of out someone’s mouth): this is said when someone has been left without the bare essentials, not even a piece of bread to eat. Also, a mother might take the bread out of her own mouth in order to feed her children, so the reflexive form “togliersi il pane di bocca” is used to describe someone who sacrifices for other people.
- Mangiare il pane a ufo: it’s hard to give a literal translation of this one because the etimology of “a ufo” is still debated, although we are all sure it has nothing to do with aliens! Some say that A.U.F. was an acronym for “ad usum fabricae” (Latin for “to be used by the factory”), which was written over the materials used by the Church for its buildings; special levies were applied to such materials, so then “a ufo” became something you do not pay for. According to others, the word “ufo” derives from the Allemand “uf”, “a thing of no importance”. Today, “mangiare il pane a ufo” is often used to describe lazy people who live off others and take all the benefits.
- Se non è zuppa, è pan bagnato (if it’s not soup, it’s wet bread): this might be a bit confusing at first, but etymology can help us understand the connection between soup and wet bread. Both the English soup and the Italian zuppa come from the Gothic word suppe, meaning “a slice of bread immersed in broth”; soups then turned into something more elaborate, but bread often features in the recipes, at least in Italy. The meaning of this idiom is “even if you change the name, the substance of a thing stays the same”; is there an equivalent in English for this?
If you have suggestions to make for the translations of these idioms or if you have something else to add, please share it with me in the coments!
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