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Seven Italian Hand Gestures Worth Knowing Posted by on Jul 13, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Hand Language

Many years ago, back when my wife was just my girlfriend and I was visiting her family for the first time in rural Italy, I spoke about as much Italian as a plate of spaghetti Bolognese. Unfortunately, her family spoke as much English as a chicken pot pie, so there were plenty of hilarious misunderstandings. I tried my best with what little Italian I could muster (mostly just Spanish accented hopefully in Italian) and managed fairly well with her parents. Her grandparents, however, didn’t even speak Italian. They spoke Veneto, the local dialect. Adorably, they would ask my then-girlfriend how to say things in Italian—they assumed that I didn’t speak Veneto, but surely I spoke Italian, or what would I be doing there? Needless to say, they might as well have been speaking Latin.

Anyway, at one point I was left alone with her grandfather. The both of us at a lack of words, he looked at me, grinned, and did this:Italian hand gestures - "I'm hungry"I had no idea what to make of it. Did he have a stomachache? Was he making a comment on my height? Did he want to be chopped in half? He assumed Italian gestures were universal—sadly, I remained utterly baffled. I decided to try what I was fairly sure was a universal sign, and smiled and nodded. Luckily, this turned out to be exactly the correct response.

As you probably know, Italian is not only spoken with your mouth; it is also spoken with your hands. There are thousands of gestures ranging from subtle to obvious (many of them involving the depiction of or referral to genitals – thank you, Italian machismo), but there are a few that are fairly commonplace, and worth knowing, if you’re going to be learning Italian. I learned what my wife’s grandfather was trying to tell me, and many more, and now I will pass them on to you, dear reader.

Seven Italian Gestures Worth Knowing

Italian hand gestures - WTFThe classic, stereotypical Italian hand signal. I used to think it meant “good, great” or was simply a mobster’s way of pairing his mustachioed frown with a gesture. WRONG. This gesture must be paired with a “WTF” look, as that’s exactly what it means: “what the farfalla are you talking about?”

4Not “okay,” not “good,” but perfetto. Things went off without a snag, everything’s lovely, this pasta pomodoro is just heavenly. Perfect.

Italian hand gestures - "look at this idiot"Used on someone who thinks they’re pretty big, but is in fact an oaf. “Look at this guy! Look at you! What an idiot!” Can be used as a proper insult, or all in good fun. Like sarcasm, Italian hand gestures used strategically in different contexts can have subtly different meanings.

Italian hand gestures - "I don't care"Looks like an insult, and I suppose it could be taken as one, but technically it isn’t. Simply means, “I don’t care.” Fuhgettaboutit.

Italian hand gestures - "scared?"This one is fairly graphic when you know what it’s referring to. It means “scared,” and can be used either as an admission of fear (“I’m scared/nervous!”) or as a taunt (“scared? Huh? Are ya?”). What I’ve been told it literally symbolizes is the puckering of your…er, posterior.

Italian hand gestures - "I'm hungry"Finally, we get to Nonno (grandpa)’s mysterious signal: “hungry?” As you can see, smiling and nodding is the only correct nonverbal response. And once you’ve finished what was no doubt a delicioso meal:

Italian hand gestures - "tasty"“Tasty!”

Anyone got any other Italian hand gestures I might have missed? What about other languages that rely heavily on gestures and the like?

All photos provided by the author.

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Eugene:

    The only strange gesture I’ve heard about is Bulgarian reversal nodding. They use “yes” nodding for depition of “no”, and vice versa. This is not a myth, I have a virtual friend who is a polyglote and is visiting Bulgaria in the same time perfecting his Bulgarian.

  2. Gesiticolare:

    Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture
    A Supplement to the Italian Dictionary

    by Bruno Munari
    Chronicle Books, San Francisco

  3. Gesticolare:

    Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture
    A Supplement to the Italian Dictionary

    by Bruno Munari
    Chronicle Books, San Francisco

  4. GUido:

    the same gesture of fear can be used to say “a lot” even in sarcastic way (so can mean a lot or none) 🙂

    in tuscany gesture for hungry is not known, you can rub your stomach to say the same things.

    the 5 finger closed (as to say a lot) and moved towards the mouth can mean eat

    the finger that points and roll to the temple instead of the cheek means nuts/crazy

  5. Sean:

    I like the “under the table” gesture: One hand with fingers down and rotating slowly in a circle, implying devious machinations and sneakiness.

  6. Georgeann Maguire:

    I just want to say how much I enjoy your cartoons! They are delightful and are such a unique way to express language concepts! I often share them with my Italian sister who enjoys them as well! Buona giornata!

  7. Alexandra Abraham:

    I am Italian, and the joke goes that if you remove an Italian’s hands, he becomes dumb. There are so many gestures, some of them, naturally, somewhat vulgar or insulting in meaning; I learnt many in the company of my cousins, and I merrily use them liberally in the UK, where I live, in the hope of suppressing manyAmerican gestures from”Da Hood”, which, as is the case withso many bad American usages, are threatening to turn the UK into a mini USA. I’m all for multi-culturalism, but we’re drowning inAmerican imports onsomany levels…Ma shtucazz’,va’f’an cul!

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