Words by Pat Eggleton
Last week we looked at some Sicilian proverbs.
Today I would like to share with you some Sicilian idioms and expressions that I have learnt in the past five years and I hope you’ll find some of them funny and like them as much as I do:
Modica’s lovely Church of Santa Maria di Betlem is known for being a bit independent as, in the past, not only did it ignore the tradition of not ringing its bells between Good Friday and Easter Sunday but also rang its bells at 11 am instead of midday. Thus, someone who has an early lunch or who ignores the conventional ways can be said to be observing the “manzuornu d’î santa Maria”, the “midday of Santa Maria”.
The thirteenth century Church of the Carmine in Modica also appears in a proverb, this time one which describes a very ugly person, who may enjoy the dubious distinction of being “lairu comu ‘i muorti rô Carminu” or “as ugly as the dead of the Carmine”.
At one time dead bodies were embalmed and hung in the crypt by the Capuchin monks as they were in the famous Catacombe in Palermo.
This brings us to Palermo, which features in a saying which indicates that you shouldn’t believe all that you hear:
“Rittu pi dittu ca Palermo è beddu” – “They say Palermo is beautiful”.
I can just imagine this being repeated with a sniff and a dismissive wave of the hand. No city, to the Modicans, can rival their own and, less than a century ago, very few of them would have travelled as far as Palermo.
If people are gossiping about your business, you can sigh that “even the dogs and pigs know about it” and, of a gossip, you can say that he or she has “a mouth like an oven”. You might lose the person’s friendship, though!
Someone who always has ”le mani in pasta” – their “hands in the pastry” or a “finger in the pie” can also be described as “sempri ‘nto mienzu comu ‘u miercuri” or “always in the middle like Wednesday”, which is one of my personal favourites.
Sicilians in general dislike hypocrites so we have a more vulgar saying to denote such folk, who have “a vucca aruçi e ‘u culu amarù” – “ a sweet mouth and a bitter bottom”.
Stupid people do not fare much better, for they may be asked if they have “bran in the head”. And a lady of easy virtue may be described as being “light with her tail”.
A clinging person is “còmua péddi re cugghiùna” or “like the skin of the testicles” and a stubborn person is for some reason described as “like the Calabrians”.
The resignation of Sicilians is again reflected in some of their most common sayings and I particularly like, “ ‘ u viagghiu ô Signuri”, “a journey for God”, said of an action or journey which turns out to have been useless.
If you do something that ends up being a waste of time, you have been “making broth for the cats” and , whether you are alive or dead, you will be talked about for only three days. This is both a reference to the three-day period after a funeral when people come to the house of the bereaved to offer their condolences and to the undeniable fact that life goes on.
Sometimes the response to an enquiry about someone’s health is, “Miegghiu cà ca ddà” – “Better here than there”, that is, all things considered, it is better to be among the living.
Food features in many sayings and if you are sure of something, you can “throw the pasta in the pot”, for there is no surer indicator that it is lunchtime. If a situation ends in an unexpected way, it ends in “cicci e lolli”, or “desserts and pasta”, “lolli” being a local pasta shape. If the conclusion of the situation is also better than expected, someone may cry that, “The bread’s turned out whiter”.
A person who has the misfortune to be too tall, too thin and ugly into the bargain is like “a seedless cucumber” and a mean person will “eat the bread and his spit”.
It wasn’t until I came to Sicily that I learned how to prepare an artichoke and even now, I wonder at the amount of waste the task produces. So I love to hear a Sicilian describe a pretentious person as “tuttu cacuoccila” – “all artichoke”.