Italian word of the day: ‘Spezzacchio’

Today's word is in honour of Rome's wonky Christmas tree.

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

Alas, poor Spezzacchio.

Thus has Rome's official Christmas tree been dubbed, just hours after its arrival in the capital's Piazza Venezia. But what does the nickname mean?

You won't find it in the dictionary, so let's divide it into its parts: first, the verb spezzare, which means 'to break' or 'to split'. It can be literal…

Gli spezzò la gamba.
He broke his leg.

… or figurative.

Mi spezzi il cuore!
You're breaking my heart!

It's not always negative: spezzare is often used to mean simply breaking something into pieces, separating or dividing it.

Abbiamo spezzato il viaggio in più tappe.
We broke up the journey with several stops.

In menswear, for instance, a spezzato suit is one worn separately, i.e. mixing and matching jacket and trousers, and it's rather dashing. 

Spezzato: a good look. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

If you suspect that Spezzacchio isn't exactly a compliment, though, you'd be right. This is where the second part of the word comes in: ~acchio, a suffix that you can add to the end of a word to imply that it's small, poor or imprecise.

This part's a bit trickier to pin down: it might be a regional variation of the pejorative suffix ~accio (the same one we looked at in the word giornataccia, or 'bad day').

Alternatively, it could be a subtly different one that functions a bit like '~ish' in English, to show that something doesn't exactly fit the bill.

Ha gli occhi verdacchio.
His eyes are greenish.

But when you attach ~acchio to a noun, it usually implies that it's small or young: an orsacchio (orso + acchio), for instance, is a 'little bear'. 

One more (charitable) possibility: ~acchio can also be the equivalent of our suffix '~er' in English, which shows that something performs a particular action or purpose. 

battere + acchio = batacchio
to knock + er = (door)knocker

So Spezzachio is either 'crappy broken thing', 'sort of broken thing', 'little broken thing', or simply 'broken thing'.

None of them are exactly what you'd want your new Christmas tree to be called – but it is arguably better than Spelacchio, last year's threadbare fir, whose nickname derived from the verb spelare ('to pluck') and translated roughly to 'Baldy' or 'Mangy'. Or, as some wags dubbed it, The Toilet Brush. 

Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan 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.