Italian Idiom and Sayings

Note: See the Italian slang section for stronger language (if you’re not easily offended…). Note: Some of the new phrases added here are rude!

Alla Come Viene, Viene

[To do something] sloppily, literally “it comes out as it comes out.”

Alla Meglio

[To do something] as best one can, in a hurry or under constraint, with the implication that this isn’t very good.

Attaccare il Cappello

“To hang up one’s hat” – used of a man who marries a wealthy woman, and (presumably) doesn’t have to work anymore.

Avere la Botte Piena e la Moglie Ubriaca

“To have the wine cask full and the wife drunk” – to have your cake and eat it, too.

In Bocca al Lupo

“Into the wolf’s mouth”. I don’t know why, but this is the phrase used instead of “Good luck” before an event, exam, etc., somewhat in the sense of “You never say ‘good luck’ on opening night” (instead you say “Break a leg”).

The proper response is Crepi il lupo (“May the wolf die” – which is to say: “I’m going into the wolf’s mouth, and may he choke on me.”)

A ruder version used nowadays is In culo alla balena – in the whale’s ass. I’m not sure whether the whale is also supposed to die.

Botte Piccola Fa Vino Buono

“A small cask makes good wine” – A friendly compliment to a short person.

Buona Notte al Secchio

Literally, “good night to the bucket”, it’s used to mean “…and then we’re screwed.” Why there should be a bucket involved I do not know.

Buono Come il Pane

“As good as bread.” A stock phrase typically used in situations when someone or something has unexpectedly behaved very badly, e.g. the Rottweiler who just killed a child, to its owner’s vast surprise: “He always seemed as good as bread!”

Caduto dalle Nuvole

“Fallen from the clouds” – Completely taken by surprise, or pretending to be.

Capita a Fagiolo

“Occurs at the bean” – happens at exactly the right moment. This derives from a time when beans were an essential and common part of the diet of many poor Italians, so to capitare a fagiolo was to turn up just in time for a (probably much-needed) meal.

Casino

[cah-ZEEN-o] A mess. Can also be used figuratively: Siamo incasinati – “We’re in a mess” (or “we’re very busy”). This one is okay for polite company. Can also be used like “a lot”: Mi piace un casino – “I like it a lot.”

Chi Me Lo Fa Fare?

Literally, “Who makes me do it?” Used as “Why should I do it?”

Comandare é meglio che fottere

A Sicilian proverb (which I cannot render in the original Sicilian) meaning “It is better to command than to fuck.” In other words, the pleasures of power are even greater than the pleasures of sex. Though, in reality, the two are usually closely intertwined.

Dalle Stelle alle Stalle

“[To go] from the stars to the [horse] stalls” – to fall from grace. I’m not sure whether this was originally used in the opposite form, about someone who’d had a meteoric career, but it seems I’ve heard it more often used this way.

Dente Avvelenato

Every now and then I stumble across a phrase I can’t easily translate from Italian into English, or vice-versa. Those are usually the most interesting ones, from a cultural point of view. Friends asked my opinion of the Italian school system; my reply began: C’ho il dente avvelenato. Literally, “I have a poison tooth,” this phrase implies: “When I speak on this topic, be aware that I am foaming-at-the-mouth furious about it, and anything I say is colored by that.”

Dio Ce Ne Scampi

May God make us avoid it – i.e., “God forbid.”

Dio li Fa, poi li Accoppia

“God makes them, then he mates them.” Said of any couple or pair who seem destined to be together by reason of sheer eccentricity.

Fuori (di Testa)

[FWOR-ee di testa] Out (of your) mind. Sometimes used in the phrase fuori come un balcone – “out[side] like a balcony” – crazy as a loon (or whatever equivalent English expression for extreme craziness.

Guai

[GWAH-ee] Troubles. Siamo nei guai – “We’re in trouble(s).”

Metterci il Cappello

To put one’s hat on (top of) – to falsely claim ownership of or credit for.

Modestamente Parlando

“Speaking modestly” or, in more colloquial English, “in all modesty…” Usually used ironically.

Most famously used by the Neapolitan actor Toto’: Signori si nasce. E io, modestamente parlando, lo nacqui.

“One is born a lord [gentleman]. And I, in all modesty, was born one.”

Occhio Scuro e Cappello Biondo é il Piu’ Bello del Mondo

“Dark eyes and blonde hair are the most beautiful in the world.” Well, of course, I agree!

Parlare Fuori dai Denti

“To speak outside of one’s teeth” – to say openly what’s on your mind. I suppose this is the opposite of speaking through clenched teeth, as you tend to do when restraining yourself from saying what you really think.

Peli Sulla Lingua

Literally, “hairs on the tongue.” Usually used in the negative form: “He doesn’t have hairs on his tongue,” meaning that he speaks plainly (perhaps even viciously), without flattery. I suppose the idea is that having hairs on your tongue would make your tongue less harsh, but – ick! Who would want hairs on their tongue anyway?

Peli Sulla Pancia

Literally, “hairs on the stomach.” Again, usually used in the negative form: not having hairs on one’s stomach means to be tough, able to stand up to criticism.

Piove sul Bagnato

“It rains on what’s [already] wet” – too much of a good thing.

Sposa Bagnata, Sposa Fortunata

“A wet bride [is a] lucky bride.” What you say to console her when it rains on her wedding day!

Ti Amo vs. Ti Voglio Bene

Two different ways to say “I love you” in Italian.

Tira piu’ un pelo di figa che un carro di buoi

“A cunt hair pulls [attracts] more than an oxcart.” In other words, the power of sex overcomes all other forces!

“Every Death of a Pope”

Apr 3, 2005

Italians have two sayings related to the deaths of popes. One is the phrase ogni morte di papa – “every death of a pope,” used for rare events, much like the English “once in a blue moon.”

The other is Morto un papa, se ne fa un’altro – “one pope dies, they make another.” Which shows just how blasé Italians are about popes and the workings of the Vatican. It is widely believed in Italy that the pope who preceded John Paul II was murdered (after only a month in office) because he showed radically liberal tendencies. This cannot be proven: the Vatican is a sovereign state, so it can (and did) refuse the Italian police permission to autopsy.

But the Italians are making as much fuss as the rest of the world about the death of this particular pope (John Paul II). I found the papal deathwatch disgusting, about on a par with the Terry Schiavo* mess, and have ignored both as much as possible (which hasn’t been easy).

And that is all I’m going to say about it.

Note:See the Italian slang section for stronger language (if you’re not easily offended…).

What Italian sayings am I missing? Let me know!

83 thoughts on “Italian Idiom and Sayings

  1. cathy

    I’d like to know the meaning of the Italian idiom, “Il viso e lo specchio del’anima.”

    Thanks.

  2. lbo

    hello D,

    I’d like to make some comment to italian idioms.

    “in culo alla balena”: maybe it was originated from a sort of game of putting together opposites of the words that together make an idiom. one may ask: what’s the opposite of a wolf? well, say an animal that live in different ambient (water), is different in size and behavior, has something strange that will help to impress and also goes along well when pronouncing it. balena (whale) will do. and what’s another body part where one could go? supposedly a whale’s one should be big enough to accomodate peoples.

    the common answer to “in culo alla balena” (like in: “in bocca al lupo” – “crepi”) is “speriamo ce l’abbia pulito”, “let’s hope it is (she keep it) clean”.

    about the hairs on the stomach: I’ve always heard and read it as “peli sullo *stomaco*”, never as “peli sulla pancia”.

    another idiom that involves stomach or belly is a sicilian one that anyway has spread nationally: “omo de panza” (dialect – not sicilian anyway – for “uomo di pancia”, something like “big bellied man”). in the sicilian meaning is for a man that keep everithing inside him, so a trustworthy one, one that is not going to talk about secrets. sometimes there’s a rhyme: omo de panza omo de sostanza”, “bellied man, full of substance”, where substance may be plain material wealth or generical good attributes.

    the pope that reigned for such a short period is not John Paul II, papa Woitila, but John Paul I (first), papa Luciani. He choose his name by joining the names of his illustrious predecessors, John XXIII (papa Roncalli) and Paul VI (papa Montini) whose papacy had very important effects on the Church, as a sort of vote to continue their work.

  3. Randall

    Good evening, I have an unusual question. My mother and her sister have taught my 5 year old to say “goofer dama soey fraca muchie” I have no idea what the spelling is, nor if it means anything. My mother said HER grandmother told her a neighbor used to say it to her.

    Please let me know if this is something my Daughter should, or should not be saying. I do not want her to offend anyone.

    Thank you Randall H. Tyler
    rtyler7421@comcast.net

  4. jonny

    Well, just a specification…
    the answer i know to “in culo alla balena” (like in: “in bocca al lupo” – “crepi”) is “speriamo che caghi , “let’s hope she’s going to shit”, an ugly solution to be freed…
    I didn’t ever hear “speriamo ce l’abbia pulito”, “let’s hope it is (she keep it) clean”, maybe i grew up in bad company :).

    Meanwhile i’d like to use “she” as pronoun for a whale (or he if a male?).
    Whales are higly self-awareness beings, maybe more than dolphins, and it’s a shame that we keep hunting them…(well i adore Melville’s Moby Dick, is that a contradiction?)

  5. pippawilson

    Significa che attraverso il volto di una persona si vede com’è dentro. Com’è la sua anima. La faccia di una persona è uno specchio in cui si riflette la sua anima. Spero di essermi spiegata.

  6. pippawilson

    Oh I think I misunderstood the question, I was answering the 1st comment, but I guess you are looking for italian idioms… here are a few:

    acqua cheta rompe ponti – calm water breakes bridges
    meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani – it’s better to have and egg today that the promise of a cick tomorrow
    a buon intenditor poche parole
    pietra che ruzzola non fa muschio – rocks who rolls doesn’t make “muschio”?!

    for others with english translation go here: http://italian.about.com/od/vocabulary/a/aa081402a.htm

  7. Renee

    A friend of mine told me that: “I was not the kind of flour that would be used for making the holy sacrament bread!” Naturally, I took offence to this! Then, he proceeded to tell me that he was just being a good friend! I do not understand this one. To me, it says that you do not possess the fine qualities that we would use to make something even better………..how rude! Totally offensive! Then, he told me that I couldn’t understand the Italian meaning behind it! It was a popular Italian saying! Please help!

  8. Gio

    A couple of favorites:
    Chi troppo vuole non l’ottiene- If you want too much you won’t get it.

    Mangi la minestra o salt’dalla finestra- Eat the soup or jump out the window; IE my way or the highway.

    Renee, your friend was not trying to offend you, it’s a sardonic way of saying that you’re not goody two-shoes, or even that you don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Many Italians have a deep distrust of the church and there are a lot of idioms that express that.

  9. Angela

    “In Bocca di Lupo” refers to Romulus and Remus who were suckled by the she-wolf when they flew from Greece to Rome. Romulus became the twin for whom Rome was named; therefore to be in the mouth of the wolf means that you are nurtured and taken care of.

    My mother use to always say “in casa di bats” I know the spelling is off, but she meant the house of crazy people–I think the correct word is batso?!

    One of my favorite that I learned in Italian class in high school:
    “Tutti i gusti sono gusti.” To each his own taste.

  10. Guido

    How do you translate in English “Inzuppare il pane” meaning to insist on a (usually unpleasant) situation to increase one’s advantage

  11. Joseph Gangemi

    There is a proverb the beginning of which is “Egli ch ridi
    senza causa….” I don’t know the last part. Perhaps you can help. I believe the translation is “He who laughs without cause……… Sincerely, Joseph Gangemi

  12. Sophie

    Far venire latte alle ginocchia….
    weird one, literally it means to have milk in your knees… i think it means, makes you scared.

  13. Domenic

    First of all I don’t speak Italian and am not a good speller even in English. My father used to use the expression see Naples and die. This was as close as he came to bad language. I never got it, but I think it is similer to go to hell in English.
    Domenic Tarducci

  14. webmaster

    Actually, as far as I know it’s meant to a compliment to Naples: once you’ve seen the city, there is nothing more wonderful in the world left to see. Unfortunately, these days it tends to be used ironically…

  15. Abel

    “in culo alla balena” “up the bum of the whale” is a rather rude expression not to be used in polite company, but I was always led to believe it was a strictly Theatrical term used in the same way as “Break a leg”… with reply “spero che non caca” “hope it doesn’t poo” being an ironic answer. It has become more common to use it outwith but only between friends.

    I’ve always loved “porca la miseria” literally “pork the misery” when you are exasperated or fed up by something. There are other varients on the same theme. For example: “porco dio” only when you are really, really peeved. Heard it only once in public on the metro in Rome as a man with a broken leg, was being trampled on by rush hour passengers. After a few mutterings he just cried out “prorrrrccco DIO, c’ho la gamba rotta, dammi spazio” the whole carriage fell silent.

  16. capotosto

    Here are a few from Abbruzzo
    Pane e panello caccia figli’ bello. Pane senza mazza caccia figli’ pazza.
    (Bread and a board makes beautiful children. Bread without the switch makes for crazy kids.
    Fregatura! Rip-off.

  17. kevin thomas

    I’m trying to recall a phrase, “… finito” for the end of an impassioned argument or polemic, to indicate that one is now getting off of one’s high horse. Any clues?

  18. Dominic Coluccio

    Acqua di rosa. I heard three opinions on this phrase.
    1. morning dew on a rose indicating purity or freshness.
    2. liquid extracted from roses to make perfume.
    3. something superficial, not to be takien seriously
    or to brush off lightly.
    Do we have a winner here?

  19. Linsay

    I’m not an italian speaker (well, only a bit), so please excuse the probably awful spelling, but my friend’s dad is Italian and he has a great one:
    “La vita e come l’albero di natale – che sempre cualcuno che rompe le pale!”

    Life is life a Christmas tree – there’s always someone who’ll break your balls!

    A bit like “life is like a box of chocolates…” but better, I think!

  20. Richard

    In reference to why “buona notte al secchio” might have reference to both a bucket and being “in the shit,” if the phrase originated before indoor plumbing became commonplace, the toilet would have likely been a simple bucket kept under the bed. A “buona notte al secchio” would thus be one where said bucket did NOT get knocked over (and spilled). Also, if the desire was for vigorous physical activity on the mattress above, then a “buona notte al secchio” would be one that’s unfortunately boring for the folk in that bed. :)

  21. Simone

    Which one is a good sentence in english that would reflect the proverbio AVERE IL COLTELLO DALLA PARTE DEL MANICO?
    tnx

  22. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    AVERE IL COLTELLO DALLA PARTE DEL MANICO literally means “to have the knife by the handle.” I guess you could say in English “to have the upper hand.”

  23. keenkeen

    my grandmother had a word or a saying for passing the meat she cooked in the pasta sauce when we ate. i can’t remember the slang she called it, does any one know what i am talking about?

  24. TIMOTHEO

    To the creator of this site,
    You should know the word “casino”, contrary to your suggestion,is NOT suitable for polite company as it means “house of ill repute” or “brothel”,etc. Hopefully this will spare your readers any future embarrassment.

  25. Frank Pane

    I don’t know if anyone is familar with the Sicilians use of ‘cugina Guiseppina’ (cousin Josie)as an example of what happens to children who misbehave. This is where you use two unrefutable facts, totally divorced from each other, to present a convoluted argument.

    An example: Daughter wants to stay at a friend’s house.

    “Cugina Guiseppina stayed at a boy’s house once -57 years later she died!”

  26. Marco

    I thik you’re missing a very important expression that Italians ude very often,which is “ogni morte di papa”. You can use it to say that something happens rarely. ex. – A Roma nevica ogni morte di papa- = – It’s almost never snowing in Rome-

  27. fede

    attaccare il cappello simply means quitting one’s job, to retire.
    and far venire il latte alle ginocchia dosn’t mean to scare someone but to bore someone to death. where it comes from no idea

  28. fede

    and i don’t agree with the fact that casino can be considered rude italians use it just like the word mess

  29. fede

    all’acqua di rose definatly means superficially.
    done without proper care and attention

  30. Winston Wolffe

    caSIno versus casino’. Correct emphasis on the right syllable is important.

    BTW, here in OZ we actually say ‘what a brothel’ for ‘what a mess’. We are not easily offended.

  31. Alaude

    Thanks for this :D Makes so much more sense, now.

    pietra che ruzzola non fa muschio – rocks who rolls doesn’t make “muschio”?!
    Is the equivalent of the English saying ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss”
    Just a correction :P

    I also agree with Winston Wolffe, I use ‘what a brothel’ all the time with my friends. No one has gotten offended before.

  32. Mehrdad

    Hi,I am Mehrdad from IRAN and I am interested in learning italian language and I have been learning italian since 2 years ago . I could read and talk but I am not gppd at it . I need your comments in order to learn more and more , and how can I improve my language .
    please give me some information and itruduce some books which are more effective in learning and if its possible send to my E.mail adress italian idiomes and proverbs .
    thank you so much .
    grazie.
    sono povere di lei .Io aspeto .

  33. steve maltese

    the night is made for the wolf – believe it’s old sicilian used by my father -la sera fa por il lupo = probably incorrect trans.
    my FIRST GEBERAtionDNneapolitan mother used to call me in italian lazy/ lacking in drive etc. phonetic sound sed like SCHVADIGAH

  34. steve maltese

    the night is made for the wolf – believe it’s old sicilian used by my father -la sera fa por il lupo = probably incorrect trans.
    my FIRST GENERAtion Neapolitan mother used to call me in italian lazy/ lacking in drive etc. phonetic sounded like SCHVADIGAH -anybody know what it means or if they heard something like it. ??
    I AM HUNG UP ON THE PHRASES AND EXPRESSIONS,maxims, proverbs USED BY FIRST GENERATION ITAL-AMERICANS IN THE 40′S, 50′S, 60′S – TERMS FROM THE OLD IMMIGRANTS AS THE NEWER IMMIGRANTS ARE MUCH BETTER EDUCATED THAN 1900 TO SAY 1945
    PARTICULAR TO METRO NEW YORK-if u have anything i would appreciate it- thanks, STEVE

  35. Frank Torelli

    What does the phrase “Il lupo si depila…” mean and what is the proper response?
    What would be the proper context?

  36. steve maltese

    “the wolf is shaving ” and i saw added on o pelo perdito =0r lost his hair—— i haven’t found what context or if a response is needed. my guess is the guy lost his …….. or is faking some kind of weakness or because the vthe wolf is sharp crafty

  37. ellen

    I recently heard a word, slang, I’m sure, “scrinfio.” I’m told it refers colloquially, to a man, analagous to being a “cat on the prowl.” how close is that?

    and one comment on, Tira piu’ un pelo di figa che un carro di buoi — BRILLIANT! It figures the Italians would acknowledge the power of a woman that way. Really. fabulous.

  38. Lee

    Can someone tell me the proper way to say, and actually spell the following expression that a friend (from the south)taught me many years ago? “Mango si Vene Gesu Cristo incciovatto a la cruci…”

    Thanks,
    Lee

  39. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    I haven’t heard this one myself, but I’m guessing it’s “Manco se viene Gesu’ Cristo incciovatto a la cruci…” – Not even if Jesus Chris himself nailed to the cross [shows up]. This is Sicilian dialect, and your question capita a fagiolo – I’ve just been reading some new Camilleri books my daughter brought from Italy.

  40. Tommaso

    @ Steve Maltese “my FIRST GENERAtion Neapolitan mother used to call me in italian lazy/ lacking in drive etc. phonetic sounded like SCHVADIGAH -anybody know what it means or if they heard something like it. ??”

    The word your mum was using was sfatica’ or possibly sfaticàt, pronounced phonetically exactly how you spelt it. It’s tricky to translate precisely, but can be used anywhere in the ball park of careless, reckless, negligent etc… “Faticà” is the neapolitan verb for “to work” (lavorare) so it’s essentially the flip of that. Hope that helps.

  41. Pinky

    Hi, i’m finding this website really useful because im doing an italian GCSE at the moment, my teacher is italian but obviously because what im doing is exams it’d be really good to know if it would be the kind of thing i could say in a speaking and listening test or whether i should keep it for company of my own age, thank you. Also a favourite idiom: Tra il dire, e il fare, c’e il mare. = between the saying and the doing is the sea (easier said then done) :)

  42. steve maltese

    my grandmother — from area around Avellino- used to say this when we sneezed as babes sounded like – greesha sanda – phonetic again – thinking it means a thousand blessings maybe Tommasso can help me out again !!!

  43. john balasko

    I’ll keep looking, and I don’t know if you do this sort of thing. I need the phrase ‘What goes around comes around’ in Italian, and I’m sorry to say, by Monday midnite. I always understood it as (phonetically) ‘Mungu Schcordu’. I don’t know if this is correct. At any rate, thank you for your site!…J

  44. joe vuci

    i speek no italian, at my son’s upcoming wedding i would like to tell them in italian “moma and I want to wish you both health, love and happinest. can you help me?

  45. martone armando

    TO JOE VUCI
    io e tua madre vogliamo augurarvi una vita piena di amore,felicita’ e di buona salute

  46. martone armando

    sfaticato=is a person that does not like working,studying etc etc.A person with no ambitions
    cresci santo= grow to be a good man healthy man. It is the same as we say when someone sneezes God bless you
    At one time when there were no antibiotic sneezing was a signal that something serious could happen

  47. Jodi Alfieri

    There is a saying that my grandparents/relatives use when a child is misbehaving and I know the literal translation is “with horns” I just can’t figure out if it’s goona jhoon or jhoona goon. Which is it, and how is it spelled?

  48. frankie

    what is un fumatore senza fiammifero e come una buttana senza cassa? I heard some one say this.

  49. Lisa Blok

    Deirdre almost had it right but cassa is not house(casa) it is cash. So “A smoker without matches is like a whore without cash” . Wonder if this idiom is more Sicilian since whore is spelt buttana ( puttana in proper Italian).

  50. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    It must be a dialect form (I don’t know which dialect) of felici e contenti – happy and contented. Usually used as the classic fairy tale ending: E vissero felici e contenti – “And they all lived happily ever after”.

  51. mandy

    Can some1 pretty please tell me how 2 call my boyfriend who is a complete, well he’s a complete list of bad things so if some1 could tell me how 2 get it across 2 him that he is a lying, cheating, no good piece of shit asshole & he may b an idiot but i’m not so I’m done. thanx yall, & the reason i wanna kno is just found out he’s cheated twice n the past 2 yrs w/his ex who speaks fluent Italian so i kno the dumbass will get her 2 translate if i message anything, he’s outta town 4 another week, so if some1 can give me anything i’d appreciate it, the main thing is the lying & cheating but puhleeeeze put some good stuff (& i mean the good cuss words that she’ll get since she lived there, southern Italy I believe)4 her 2 read out loud 2 him..duznt have 2 b long but feel free 2 add whatever u wish!!

  52. to mandy

    thats awful!
    id say pretend you dont know and the next time you see him, meet up with him and his mates kick him in the yuhuu&backhand him so hard he falls to the ground and makes a fool out of himself infront of his mates!

  53. Vikki

    Would anyone be able to translate ” two can keep a secret if one of them is dead” my sister and I are getting matching tattoos and have been lookin and can’t seem to find a correct translation.

    Thank you
    Vikki

  54. luci

    Hi; my aunt used to have an expression, something like face e contente – I think it meant show a happy face especially if you are not to your enemies. Can you help. Thankx

  55. diego montagner

    hi,
    I would like to know what ” le galline cianno le gambe corte” means . Its a saying my friends farther told her and we don’t know.
    Thanks for your help
    Diego

  56. james andrea

    I came to your site (and honestly I haven’t searched it thoroughly, yet) but I am looking for an Italian phrase (I think I heard it referred to on US public radio) that means one’s political views are too particular for any party…
    Thanks, Jim.

  57. Michael

    My Grandmother used to say something that soundedlike this when someone sneezed: Christo Sancto e filio mashkalo. Any idea? My Mom says it is supposed to mean: Giod Bless You, and may you have a son.

  58. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    Your mother is exactly right. I guess your grandmother was Sicilian – mascolo is Sicilian dialect, maschio would be the standard Italian. Funny thing to say for a sneeze. Maybe there was some Freudian association of sneezing with ejaculation.

  59. Peter R

    Resurrecting this thread perhaps

    My favourite Italian idiom is

    ci sono pinguini fuori – literally there are penguins outside – it means its cold

    I used this once in Rome as it started to get cold outside when having aperitivo. My sisters friend assumed I was fluent!

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  61. nigerochi.

    How do you say “To love and be loved” I havent been able to find the translation except for google translate, which I dont trust.

  62. Diane

    My grandparents used to reply a word like “sunza” after someone burped. It was not meant in a derogatory way but almost like a blessing. What does it mean?

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