Italian word of the day: ‘Cavolo’

Why are Italians always talking about cabbage?

Italian word of the day: 'Cavolo'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Maybe you’ve come across this word already, on menus or at the market.

No, you haven’t misremembered: cavolo means plain old ‘cabbage’. 

Now, while cabbage is valuable vocabulary in itself (minestra di cavolo? Yes please), the reason it’s really worth learning it is that it’s also a surprisingly versatile slang term.

Hear un cavolo pronounced:

It usually serves as a milder substitute for cazzo (‘shit’ or ‘dick’), much the same way ‘sugar’ and ‘fudge’ can stand in for stronger terms in English. But more than just a placeholder, we think cavolo has a certain charm all of its own.

Che cavolo vuoi?
What the heck do you want? (literally: What the cabbage do you want?)

You can use it as a noun, to mean ‘nothing’ or ‘not at all’…

Non m’importa un cavolo!
I don’t give a damn!

Non capisce un cavolo.
He doesn’t understand a damn thing.

… as an adjective, like ‘bloody’ or ‘crappy’…

Che giornata del cavolo…
What a crappy day…

Spero che tu abbia finito quel libro del cavolo!
I hope you’ve finished that bloody book!

… or you can yell it out on its own to express your surprise or frustration.

– Ho vinto la lotteria!
– Cavolo!

– I won the lottery!
– Wow!

Mi hai fatto male, cavolo!
That hurt, dammit!

It even crops up in its own expressions, such as col cavolo – ‘fat chance’…

– Ci presterà la macchina?
– Sì, col cavolo! 

– Will she lend us the car?
– Fat chance! (literally: With cabbage!)

… and cavoli miei/tuoi, ‘my/your cabbages’ or figuratively, ‘my/your business’. 

Se voglio figli? Sono cavoli miei.
Do I want kids? That’s my business.

Fatti i cavoli tuoi!
Mind your own beeswax!

Frankly, cavolo is a word worth giving a cabbage about. 

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

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Farla franca’

You won't get away with neglecting to learn this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Farla franca'

If you like Italian detective or murder mystery novels, sooner or later you’re bound to encounter the phrase farla franca: to get away with something.

Con Poirot alle calcagna, l’assassino non riuscirà mai a farla franca.
With Poirot on the scent, the killer will never get away with it.

Pensavi davvero di potermi derubare e farla franca?
You really thought you could steal from me and get away with it?

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According to the Treccani dictionary, the expression comes from the bureaucratic use of the adjective franco to mean ‘free’, describing either people that are exempt from carrying out their duties (like off-duty naval officers) or goods that are exempt from tariffs and duties.

One of the first recorded uses of farla franca as a phrase comes from the early 14th century.

The Florentine historian Giovanni Villani wrote that in June 1322, the city of Florence celebrated the Feast of San Giovanni with a big fair, ‘la quale feciono franca‘ for non-citizens – in other words, foreign merchants who came didn’t have to pay the usual taxes.

By the mid-1800s, the expression to mean escaping from some illicit act or risky endeavour without having to pay a penalty. In English (if you were being old-fashioned) you might talk in the same way about someone ‘getting off scot free’.

The la in farla franca is the part of the phrase that stands in for the ‘it’. It doesn’t necessarily have to be attached to fare but can go somewhere else, as long as it’s there.

Non possiamo permettere che la faccia franca.
We can’t let him get away with this.

Pensa di poterla fare franca.
She thinks she can get away with it.

With this phrase now in your repertoire, there’s no telling what you’ll get away with.

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