Italian Language Blog

Diamo i Numeri Posted by on Feb 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

There are many things that we take for granted in our mother tongue, and it’s not until someone actually points them out to you that you say to yourself “hmmm, that’s interesting”. This happens a lot with me and Geoff. As Italian is Geoff’s second language he tends to spot words and expressions that I don’t really notice, especially when he’s reading in Italian. One such expression came up the other day in the book Fango by Niccolò Ammaniti: “in tre e tre sei” = ‘in three and three six’, which is a variation on “in quattro e quattr’otto” (see explanation below).

This got me thinking about the many ‘numerical’ expressions that we use in Italian. Here are some of the most common ones:


Prendere due piccioni con una fava = kill two birds with one stone (lit. take two pigeons with one fava bean)

Non c’è due senza tre = good things come in threes (lit. there’s no two without three). In Toscana we normally add a coda to this proverb … ed il quarto vien da sé = and the fourth comes uninvited, meaning that it’s hard to stop things from happening over and over again.

Chi fa da sé fa per tre = if you want a thing done well, do it yourself (lit: who does it by himself does it for three)

Idiomatic expressions:

Dare i numeri = to be out of one’s mind, to rave (lit. to give numbers); Mario sta dando i numeri (Mario is out of his mind)

Su due piedi = there and then, right now (lit. on two feet): non possiamo prendere una decisione così su due piedi (we can’t make a decision right now)

Prendere il coraggio a due mani = to pluck up one’s courage (lit. to take courage with two hands): finalmente ho preso il coraggio a due mani e sono andata dal dottore (finally I plucked up my courage and went to see the doctor). Less commonly we also say: prendere il coraggio a quattro mani

Fare due/quattro chiacchiere = to have a little chat (lit. to do two/four chats): ho incontrato Annalisa e ci siamo fermate a fare due chiacchiere (I met Annalisa and we stopped to have a little chat)

Fare due/quattro passi = to go for a short walk without a specific aim (lit. to do two/four steps): appena ha smesso di piovere siamo usciti a fare due passi (as soon as it stopped raining we went out for a short walk)

QUIZ: What is the connection between this iconic 70’s female rock star and the expression Parlare a quattr’occhi?

Parlare a quattr’occhi = to talk to someone privately (lit. to talk at four eyes): Annalisa, ho bisogno di parlarti a quattr’occhi (Annalisa, I need to talk to you privately)

A quattro zampe = ‘on all fours’, or ‘four legged’ (lit. at four legs, ‘zampe’ are animal legs): camminare a quattro zampe (to walk on all fours), amici a quattro zampe (four legged friends)

Mangiare a quattro palmenti = to eat greedily, to stuff oneself (lit. to eat like four millstones): Claudio ha mangiato il gelato a quattro palmenti (Claudio stuffed himself with the ice cream). There’s also the variation mangiare a due palmenti

Essere quattro gatti / essere in quattro gatti = to be very few (lit. to be four cats): al concerto eravamo solo quattro gatti (we were very few at the concert)

In quattro e quattr’otto = in less than no time, just like that (lit. in four and four eight, meaning that something takes as long as the calculation 4 + 4 = 8): in quattro e quattr’otto abbiamo risolto il problema (we solved the problem in less than no time). You will also hear in tre e tre sei (‘in three and three six’), meaning even faster than ‘in four and four eight’.

Essere al settimo cielo = to be in seventh heaven (lit. to be in the seventh sky): Lucia è al settimo cielo quando è con Jacopo! (Lucia is in seventh heaven when she is with Jacopo)

Ventiquattro ore su ventiquattro = ‘twenty four seven’, ‘twenty four hours a day’, or ‘all the time’: il pronto soccorso è aperto ventiquattro ore su ventiquattro (the emergency department is open all the time).

If you manage to work out the answer to the photo quiz please leave a comment.

Tags: ,
Keep learning Italian with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. Phil:

    Penso che è Joan Jett e lei ha cantato la canzone “Eye to Eye” nel 1994.


  2. Fred Rizzo:

    Suzi Quatro’s family’s last name was Quattrocchi. Ho saputo che questo perché mia bisnonna cognome era Quattrocchi. Ha nato a Santa Lucia di Mela, Messina, Sicilia. Questo cognome ha le sue origini in Sicilia e Italia meridionale. Molte persone accorciato il loro cognome quando emigrarono negli STATI UNITI.

  3. Serena:

    Complimenti a Fred e Perry, la rock star nella foto è Suzi Quatro, il cui cognome originariamente era Quattrocchi.
    Saluti da Serena

  4. Joseph T. Madawela:

    I hoe that you do a blog on “Mathematics and Italian”.There have been many illustrious mathematicians. Just reading about Fibonacci and Venice also led the way in double entry book keeping.Excellent in Arts and Mathematics! Italians are excllent!

Leave a comment: