Italian Phrases You Won’t Learn in Class: The Sea

Aug 1, 2014

In our continuing series of posts, Riccardo Cristiani, the head Italian teacher at Dante Learning,  talks about the ways Italians, who  love to spend their summer holidays on the beach with their friends and family, talk about the sea.

Beach at Ansedonia

il mare

the sea

a guest post by Riccardo Cristiani

Italians are a  popolo di navigatori (nation of sailors), and idiomatic expressions about il mare are quite common. Please read the following explanations,  and take some time to listen to the podcast on Dante Learning. I won’t translate the examples. Use your imagination and try to understand the meaning. Cominciamo!

*Essere in alto mare: to be in open sea, surrounded by water without any reference point. We say this when we have no clue of what is going on or when the solution of a complicated matter seems far off. 

               Non riesco a studiare per l’esame, sono in alto mare.

*In un mare di guai: in a sea of trouble.We usually combine this idiom with the reflexive verbs “cacciarsi” or “ficcarsi,” meaning to “put oneself into” un mare di guai. Both verbs also imply that it’s difficult to get out of a place where ti sei cacciato (you have put yourself).

               Mi sono cacciato in un mare di guai!  

*Promettere mari e monti: To promise sea and mountains. This expression is used ironically for someone who promises great things and doesn’t deliver. Another conversational expression – fare promesse da marinai (to make sailors' promises) – -carries the same meaning.

            I politici promettono solo mari e monti

*Tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare: Between saying and doing is half a sea. This proverb means that saying you will do something and actually doing it are totally different.  There is a "sea" between intentions and acts.

              Vorrei cambiare vita, ma tra il dire e il fare…

*C’è maretta: choppy sea. We use this description when there is tension between people and a storm could come pretty soon

              In ufficio c’è maretta, sta succedendo qualcosa.

*Una goccia nel mare: a drop in the ocean, an insignificant quantity. No need to explain this one!

              Ho donato dei soldi per i bambini bisognosi, ma è una goccia nel mare

*Buttare a mare: to waste something, to dump something in the sea. We usually say this when people lose a great chance by doing something stupid or silly.  Grammatically, this sentence is weird because we rarely use the simple preposition “a” in front of “mare.”  A good way to remember it is with this example:

              Ho buttato a mare un’occasione d’oro. 

A note from Dianne:  I  don't want to miss this "golden opportunity" to add some of my favorite colorful "sea words," such as: 

acqua di mare – sea water 

lupo di mare – sea wolf, or expert mariner 

mal di mare — seasickness

frutti di mare -– seafood

i cavalloni — white horses, a wonderful description for foam-topped giant swells          

                                Buone ferie estive!  (Happy summer holidays!)

Dante-Learning is an online Italian language school based in Milan and Tokyo, with students from many countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan.

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.  Click here to read her other blog, "Discovering Mona Lisa." 

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