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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Guaio’

Woe betide anyone who doesn't know this troublesome term.

Italian word of the day: 'Guaio'
Photo: DepositPhotos

All those vowels at once are enough to get any new Italian speaker into trouble – and that’s apt, because il guaio means difficulty, a snag, a predicament, a pickle.

Il guaio è che è già tardi.
The trouble is that it’s already late.

Siamo in un bel guaio!
A fine mess we’re in!

via GIPHY

One way to remember it is to think of it as the English word ‘woe’: the two are believed to come from the same root, the old Germanic term ‘wai’, an exclamation of pain or suffering.

Today you’ll often see it in its plural form, guai.

È in un sacco di guai.
She’s in a lot of trouble.

Sometimes you seek trouble out, especially if you’re una fonte di guai (a troublemaker)…

Il va sempre a caccia di guai.
He’s always looking for trouble.

… and sometimes it just finds you.

Sono finito nei guai con i vicini.
I ended up in trouble with the neighbours.

You can also use the term as a warning to others – the same way you can say ‘woe betide…’ in English.

Guai a chi la tocca!
Woe betide anyone who touches her!
(That one’s a line from the Puccini opera Manon Lescaut) 

Guai a te se lo fai un’altra volta!
If you do that again you’ll be sorry!

Simplest of all, you can just exclaim “Guai!” in the direction of someone misbehaving to let them know they’d better watch themselves.

Do you have a favourite Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase all about?

Italian expression of the day: 'Si tratta di'

Today’s expression is one you’ll hear a lot in spoken Italian.

It’s also a tricky one for anglophones to wrap our heads around, because although it appears simple – ‘si tratta di’ basically means something along the lines of ‘it concerns/discusses/deals with/is about’ – it actually doesn’t translate very cleanly into English most of the time.

Let’s start with the use that’s easiest for us to grasp: asking and answering what something’s about/what it concerns.

– Pronto, sono l’ispettore Jackson, posso parlare con la signora Hoffman?
– Sì, sono io – posso chiedere di cosa si tratta?

– Hello, this is Inspector Jackson speaking, can I speak with Mrs. Hoffman?
– Yes, this is she – may I ask what this is concerning?

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We can also use the phrase to say that something is ‘a matter of’ or ‘a question of’:

Se si tratta di qualche ora, rimarremo qui ad aspettarla.
If it’s a question of hours, we’ll stay here and wait for her.

Ora si tratta solo di scoprire dove ha lasciato le chiavi.
Now it’s a just a matter of figuring out where she left the keys.

And si tratta di can also be as a translation for ‘when it comes to’.

Adoro mangiare bene, ma quando si tratta di cucinare sono una frana.
I love eating well, but when it comes to cooking I suck.

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Where things start to get a bit more complicated is that you’ll often see the phrase used where the English translation doesn’t require anything.

For example, you might hear the following exchange at work:

– Michela non viene al lavoro oggi perché la sua bambina è malata.
– Spero che non si tratti di nulla di grave.

– Michela’s not coming into work today because her little girl’s sick.
– I hope it’s nothing serious.

You could say ‘I hope it doesn’t consist of anything serious’, which would get you closer to a direct translation – but in English this would sound oddly formal and overblown (in the above example we use tratti rather than tratta because spero che requires the subjunctive).

What if you want to say that a certain thing – a song, a book, a film, a speech – discusses or ‘deals with’ certain themes or issues?

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Firstly, note that impersonal si there. It’s standing in for a subject, which means we can’t have both the subject and the si in the same sentence together – one of them has to go.

You can say, for example, ‘Il suo terzo libro tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘her third book deals with ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom.’

Or you can say, ‘Nel suo terzo libro, si tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘In her third book, she discusses ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom” (a more literal translation would be ‘in her third book, ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom are discussed’, which sounds a bit awkward in English).

You could ask:

Di cosa tratta il libro?
What does the book discuss?

or

Di cosa si tratta nel libro?
What’s discussed in the book?

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What you can’t do is say, ‘Il libro si tratta di…’ or ask ‘Di cosa si tratta il libro?’. Neither of these constructions work because you can’t have both the impersonal si and the subject (in this case, il libro) together.

What if you want to say, for example, ‘the book/film is about…’?

The easiest way to do that is either to just say ‘il film parla di…‘ – ‘the film talks about…’ ; or ‘il film racconta la storia di…’ – ‘the film tells the story of…’:

Il film parla di un robot che vuole distruggere la razza umana.
The film’s about a robot who wants to destroy the human race.

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Il libro racconta la storia di un ragazzo che scopre di essere un mago.
The book tells the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what this phrase is all about!

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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