Italian proverbs are fun in general but Sicily has its own, unique collection with some, just like certain dishes, belonging to a particular town or even village.
These sayings show a wry sense of humour, a healthy cynicism about the pretentious and, as you would expect of a people who have suffered countless invasions, sometimes a mistrust of new people and ways. “Pazienza”, that eternal Sicilian virtue, is, of course, there too.
The proverbs are all in various forms of dialect but usually I can work them out from my French and Spanish and if I can’t, I ask a friend to explain them. In the many books of Sicilian proverbs available here, all are translated into standard Italian anyway.
As in all agricultural lands, many sayings are about seasons and weather and some tell the farmer when to plant certain crops:
“A San Franciscu si simìna lu pitrusinu” – “On St Francis Day [October 4th] sow parsley”.
Others are about food and there are a lot which tell you which foods you can eat in abundance without doing yourself harm and that wine, in moderation, is necessary:
“Bonu vinu fa bonu sangu” – “Good wine makes good blood”.
The importance of the vineyard is stressed:
“Cu’ havi ‘na bona vigna, havi pani, vinu e ligna” – “He who has a good vineyard will have bread [because he can sell the wine] wine and wood” [wood, of course, being essential for the fire].
There are also many proverbs about farm animals and, in some cases, they seem to have the same value as women!
Asini, donni e voi, nun t’alluntanari di li toi” – “Don’t go far away from your donkeys, women and oxen”.
At the risk of losing my feminist credentials, I’ll quote a few more proverbs about women:
“ Fimmine e tila ‘un si ‘nn’accàttanuu di sira” – “Don’t choose a woman or a fabric in dim light”.
The implication here is that, if you do, you might be deceived and I just love the way in which the woman is considered along with a household object. Or how about:
“La donna e la gaddina si perdi si troppu cammina” – “Women and hens get lost if they wander too far”.
Here we have an assumption that women belong in the house, perhaps, but also a rather charming notion that a woman needs to be protected [even if she is compared to a hen].
This idea, as well as a traditional view of the family, could also be behind this one:
“Cui nun ha maritu, nun ha nuddu amico” – “She who has no husband has no friend”.
And I‘ll leave you to make up your own minds about this Modican saying:
“ Cuannu ‘a fimmina camina e u’ culu ci abballa, si nun è buttana, falla” – “A woman who sways her hips when she walks is a whore or nearly one.”
There are as many proverbs about priests, monks and nuns as there are about women and we are often warned that a priest will always turn up where there is food. And if you have to ask the monks for charity, this is where you should go:
“Lettu di Duminicani, tavulu di Cappuccini, lussu di Biniottini” – “The Domenicans for a bed [their beds were reputed to be soft] the Capuchins for food and the Benedictines for luxury”.
Sicilians mistrust those who boast and this is shown in:
“Dinari e santità, crìdìtinni mità” – “Only half believe what someone tells you about their wealth and saintliness” and “Anni e piccati su’ cchiù di quantu si dicinu” – “People are always older and more sinful than they let on”.
In the countryside, professionals were generally mistrusted and villagers were advised to get an old doctor, because he would be experienced, but a young pharmacist because he would be without guile [that is, he would not yet have learned how to charge you too much for your medicines].
A fear of change is prevalent, too and perhaps here we also have a warning against emigration:
“Cui lassa la via vecchia pri la nova, li guai ch’un va circannu, ddà li trova” – “He who leaves the old road for the new will often find himself betrayed”.
And maybe we should just leave things as they are:
“Se nun si’ Re, nun fari liggi nova” – “If you’re not the king, don’t make new laws”.
My favourite proverb of all is this one, for it sums up not only the Sicilian’s patience but his resignation:
“’U Signùri rùna ‘u viscuottù a cu nun’ avi rienti “ – “God gives biscuits to those with no teeth”.
As I recite this proverb, I can picture a Sicilian family of one hundred years ago, seated around a wooden table in a small cottage, eyes heavenward, sighing as they speak of a neighbour who is unable to benefit from his recent good fortune. And I just know that the next word they will utter is “Pazienza”.
In five years I have learned that there is a Sicilian proverb for every eventuality. Are you feeling a little down today?
“Bòn tièmpu e màlu tièmpu nun nùra tutu u tièmpu” – “Neither good nor bad weather lasts forever”.
Words by Pat Eggleton
Here is additional Sicilian proverbs with english translation and meanings. If you know some Sicilian proverb, please send us, we publish them on this page.
I palori nimici fannu ridiri, chiddi di l’amici fanni chianciri.
• Translation: The words of enemies make you laugh, but those of friends make you cry.
• Meaning: Ignore what your enemies say, buy pay attention to the words of friends.
Nun si po’ aviri la carni senz’ ossu.
• Translation: You can’t have meat without the bone.
• Meaning: You can’t have the good things in life without some of the bad.
Cu scava na fossa ppi so frati, ci cadi dintra iddu.
• Translation: He who digs a grave for his brother falls in it himself.
• Meaning: He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword
Nenti mi ratta a manu comu i me unga.
• Translation: Nothing scratches my hand like my own nails.
• Meaning: No one knows my business better than I do.
Camina chi pantofuli finu a quannu non hai i scarpi.
• Translation: Walk with your slippers until you find your shoes.
• Meaning: Do your best in bad times until the situation improves.
A cani tintu catina curta
• Translation: To bad dogs, a short chain is placed
• Meaning: People who are not very reliable do not get much freedom
Pesci fet d’a testa.
• Translation: The fish stinks from the head.
• Meaning: Corruption starts at the top.
A ghiri e veniri si fa lu maccarruni
• Translation: Go ahead, the maccaroni is made
• Meaning: If at first you don’t succeed try and try again
Tinemu d’occhiu u scurpiuni e u sirpenti, ma nunni vardamu du millipedi.
• Translation: We keep an eye on the scorpion and the serpent, but we do not see the millipede.
• Meaning: Watch out for hidden dangers.
A petra ufferta di n’amicu e comu un pumu.
• Translation: A rock offred by a friend is like an apple.
• Meaning: You can accept anything from a friend.
Cu e fissa sta a so casa.
• Translation: The simpleton should just stay home.
• Meaning: Using your head pays off.
Sicilian proverbs translated in English
- Love, beauty and money are three things that can’t be hidden.
- A fortress is made of more than one stone.
- A overly ripe melon is often rotten inside.
- The devil eats macaroni with the monk and drinks wine with the politician.
- The liar cries best of all.
- If you sleep with dogs, you will wake up with fleas.
- Pluck the grapes while still on the vine.
- Who makes excuses without being accused, shows his guilt.
- Her beauty is the only dowry a beautiful girl needs.
- If you want to be loved by all, first love God, then your mother and father.
- If your neighbor’s house is afire, fetch water to save your own.
- When you lose friends, you go down many steps.
- You can tell a man by his talk, and bells by their ringing.
- A woman in her forties makes a succulent dish.
- Invite the plague ship into the harbor then burn it.
- Beneath the corpse of a wealthy man you will still find maggots.
- The door is always open to the bearer of gifts.
- Love without pain is only infatuation.
- Health flows from the happiness of the heart.
- Today in person, tomorrow in a grave.
- Better to die and have something to leave than to live wanting.
- During the plague doctors grow rich.
- Don’t confide to your friend your deepest secrets; remember that one day you may have him for an enemy.
- Knowledge is no match for luck.
- Night time sleep counsels man.
- Priests dressed in black bring bad tidings, in white they take you to the cemetery.
- One ripe grape doesn’t make the harvest.
- A deeply wounded heart never heals.
- One sin and is crowned, another sin and is crucified.
- Don’t press olives that you are not yours.
- Don’t go to the doctor for every malady, nor to the lawyer for every disagreement, nor to the fountain for every thirst.
- Latin hides the stupidity of the priest.
- The honest man has two eyes, the liar, one hundred.
- He who loves suffers.
- Better to marry an old but wise man than a young but foolish man.
- The war is lost for too much advice.
- Gold begets gold, and lice beget lice.
- The mother of a fool is always pregnant with another one.
- Death rights everything.
- The barking of dogs does not reach heaven.
- Only your real friends will tell you when you have a chive on your front tooth.
- Buy good quality and sell at the market price-
- Olive trees don’t produce pomegranates.
- The June bee portends lots of honey.
- Water does mischief but wine comforts.
- A maggot dipped in honey is still a maggot.
- If you plant tomatoes but do not pluck the weeds, you won’t even harvest enough to re-seed.
- Eat yesterday’s bread and last year’s wine.
- Morning makes the day.
- The pardon arrives after the man was hung.
- Water and sun make work, water and wind make grain.
- Women have got long hair and stunted common sense.
- A jealous man is born cuckolded.
- Only your real friends will tell you when your face is dirty.
- Flies can’t fly into a closed mouth.
- Your most faithful friends are your own hands.
- When you are right no one remembers; when you are wrong no one forgets.
- Public money is like holy water; everyone helps himself to it.
- The one who pleased everybody died before they were born.
- Young people talk of what they are doing; old people of what they have done; and fools of what they have a mind to do.
- When we can’t find peace in ourselves it is vain to look for it elsewhere.
- If you wish for peace be ready for war.
- Better to ask a question than to remain ignorant.
- A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner
If you know some Sicilian proverb, please send us, we publish them on this page.1