Italian expression of the day: ‘Colpo d’aria’

If you're in Italy this autumn, make sure you learn this seasonal expression – and most importantly, wear a vest.

Italian expression of the day: 'Colpo d'aria'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Autumn in Italy may have many delights, but it also brings its own particular dangers – at least according to Italians.

As the weather cools, don't be surprised if you find yourself being warned about un colpo d'aria: literally a hit or blast of air, more colloquially a draft, and in the Italian imagination the cause of everything from a stiff neck to a headache to indigestion.

The term springs from the belief that sudden changes in temperature are bad for the health, and the closest equivalent in English would be the equally vague “chill” that your grandma always warned you about.

– Mettiti una giacchetta o ti prenderai un colpo d'aria!
– Wear a jacket or you'll catch a chill!

Common ways to fall victim (prendere un colpo d'aria) might include failing to wrap up warm as soon as the temperature drops below 25 degrees Celsius, leaving the house with wet hair, opening a window while sweaty, or sitting too close to the air conditioning.

According to one Italian health site, symptoms can include: redness of the eyes, ear pain, muscle contractions and, for the especially unfortunate, un colpo di strega – literally “a strike of the witch”, it describes a back strain, to which you might be extra vulnerable if you attempt any sudden movements while dangerously chilled by air.

The vast collection of symptoms attributed to chills explains why you might hear Italians specifying which part of their body is bearing the brunt.

– Ho preso un colpo d'aria…
… all'orecchio.
… alla schiena.
… agli occhi.
… al collo.

– I caught a chill in my ear/my back/my eyes/my neck.

It's basically a way to say that you have an unexplained ache or pain – and if you don't know the exact cause, why not blame it on the air?

It looks like some Italians are becoming suspicious of whether the colpo d'aria really exists.

Cures include hot baths, camomile tea and breathing in steam. The tried and tested prevention, meanwhile, is la maglia della salute (the “health shirt”), a vest or undershirt that keeps your chest safely covered.

Fear of the colpo d'aria also explains why you'll see Italians in scarves and puffa jackets while those of us originally from cooler climates are still happily in short sleeves.

Dressing for the season, not the actual weather, is important when colpo d'aria could hit at any moment.

If you've ever felt like you read a different weather forecast to the one your Italian friends seem to have dressed for, now you know why.

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

This article was originally published in 2018.

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Può darsi’

This might be just the Italian phrase you need.

Italian expression of the day: 'Può darsi'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s expression is one I learned courtesy of my Italian in-laws, who frequently use it as a non-committal response to my suggestions.

This isn’t a phrase that ever came up in Italian class, and at first I wasn’t sure what they were saying. But from the context it was obvious that it meant something like “perhaps” or “possibly”.

– Forse sono in ritardo a causa del traffico

– Può darsi

– Maybe they’re late because of the traffic

– Possibly

When può darsi is used alone as a response, it’s not always clear just how likely the speaker thinks something is.

In fact, it can mean anything from “maybe” to “probably”.

Literally translated, the phrase doesn’t make much sense to English speakers. It’s a combination of può (the third-person singular form of the verb potere, ‘to be able‘) and darsi (the reflexive form of the verb dare ‘to give‘). It could be translated literally as “it can be given”.

As well as being used alone, this phrase can be used within sentences instead of forse (maybe) or magari, which is altogether more complicated.

With può darsi you’ll need to pay more attention to the grammar. But it’s worth mastering, as the phrase is very commonly used in spoken Italian.

Unlike forse and magari, sentences using può darsi need to be constructed in a particular way.

The formula you’ll need is può darsi + che + a verb in its subjunctive form.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

– Può darsi che Gianni sia in ritardo.

– Maybe/it’s possible that Gianni is late

Compare that to the simpler structure of:

– Forse Gianni è in ritardo.

– Maybe Gianni is late

Both sentences effectively mean the same thing.

In the first example, the form of the verb ‘to be’ used is sia because we’re speaking in the subjunctive.

Understandably, language learners often want to run for the hills when they start hearing about the subjunctive mood (congiuntivo). But it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Put very simply, it’s used whenever you’re not stating a fact. It expresses doubt, possibility, or uncertainty. It may also be used to talk about emotions, or when making suggestions – so for most normal everyday conversations, then.

So, while this is often taught as a more ‘advanced’ bit of grammar, you may want to get on friendly terms with it ASAP in order to partake in everyday chit-chat with Italians. Read a more detailed explanation of it here.

It pays to remember that with può darsi you don’t need to use the verb in the subjunctive form if you’re speaking in the future or conditional tense.

For example, you could also say:

Può darsi che Gianni sarà in ritardo

– Maybe Gianni will be late

Here, the verb refers to the future, so we used sarà – the future simple form of essere (to be).

And once you’ve got the hang of that, you can take things a step further by inserting the word anche (also) in between può and darsi to add emphasis.

Può anche darsi che sia un disastro totale.

– It may well be a total disaster

As mentioned earlier, this phrase is used for things you think are possible or likely.

If you’re a bit more certain about something, it would be better to use probabilmente or è molto probabile (‘probably’ or ‘it’s very likely’).

Will your Italian friends be impressed if you master the use of può darsi?

Sì, è molto probabile!

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