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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Coso’

Now what's the word for this again...

Italian word of the day: 'Coso'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

No, that isn’t a typo: we do mean coso and not cosa. The two are closely related but subtly different, as you’ll see.

Cosa, as you probably know already, means ‘thing’, ‘something’ or ‘anything’ – whether that’s a particular object, an abstract matter or something undefined.

Vuoi qualche cosa da mangiare?
Would you like something to eat? 

Cosa hai fatto di bello oggi?
Did you do anything nice today?

You can use cosa for pretty much anything. But there’s a particular situation when you can say coso instead: when you want to be even less specific.

If cosa is ‘thing’, coso is like ‘thingy’ – it shows that you don’t know what to call whatever it is you’re referring to. And it goes for both objects and people, making it ‘whatchamacallit’ and ‘what’s-her-name’ all in one.

Passami quel coso.
Pass me that thingummyjig.

Come si chiama quel coso che si usa per i capelli?
What do you call that thingy you use on your hair?

Forse dovrebbe chiedere al dottor coso.
Maybe you should ask doctor what’s-his-name.

Note that while cosa is feminine, coso is masculine. And while cosa is perfectly standard, coso is more colloquial: you generally use it only in spoken or informal Italian.

While our English words for unknown items (doodad? thingamabob? hoojamaflip?) may be more inventive, Italian goes one step further and turns the whole, er, thingy into a verb: cosare. It means ‘to perform an action you don’t know the name of’ – or if you like, ‘to thingummy’.

Hai cosato la macchina?
Have you thingummy’d the car?

Just be warned that cosare isn’t widely used everywhere in Italy (it seems to be more common in the centre and north), and some people object to it as an ugly corruption. Though personally, I think it’s rather brilliant.

See our complete Word of the Day archive here.

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 WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Conosco i miei polli’

We know what we're dealing with with this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Conosco i miei polli'

You don’t have to be a poultry farmer to go around telling people ‘conosco i miei polli’ – literally, ‘I know my chickens’ – in Italian.

There’s no perfect translation, but it means something along the lines of ‘I know who I’m dealing with/ what they can get up to/ what they’re like’; I know what to expect from them, for better or worse.

It usually implies slightly mischievously that the people or person being discussed could be troublemakers, and that the speaker has the necessary knowledge to deal with them effectively.

You might think of it as ‘I know what those little devils/rascals are like’ if referring to naughty children, or ‘I know how those jokers/b******s operate’ if discussing petty officials or difficult colleagues.

Saranno tornati entro la mattinata; fidati, conosco i miei polli.
They’ll be back by morning; trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

Conosco i miei polli; vedrete che arriveranno alla riunione con mezz’ora di ritardo e daranno la colpa al traffico.
I know them: you’ll see, they’ll get to the meeting half an hour late and blame it on the traffic.

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According to at least one source, the full original phrase is ‘conosco i miei polli alla calzetta‘, or ‘I know my chickens by their stockings’.

It refers back to a time when chickens roamed the streets or shared courtyards freely.

So they didn’t get mixed up, each bird had a little scrap of coloured cloth tied around their foot that allowed each owner to quickly spot their chicken.

The next time you’re dealing with some tricky characters, you’ll know just what to say.

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

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