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Italian word of the day: ‘Giallo’

In Italy, the colour yellow means more than you think.

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

Giallo (‘yellow’) is a colour we’ve seen a lot of lately, thanks to France’s gilet gialli, or ‘yellow vests’.

But in fact, in Italy the word giallo is rarely out of the headlines.

That’s because the word is a byword for a certain type of mystery, thanks to a popular series of detective stories – usually quite short books in the pulp genre, often with unbelievable twists – that were published in the early 20th century between distinctive yellow covers.

Un giallo is still used as shorthand for ‘a detective story’ today.

A contemporary libro giallo, both literally and figuratively.

But in Italian newspaper-speak, giallo can refer to anything vaguely mysterious: like ‘riddle’ or ‘enigma’.

Most often you’ll see it accompanying crime stories, particularly when the culprit isn’t yet known.

‘Vigne Nuovo mystery solved: poisoned by girlfriend with drink and drugs, she’s arrested for murder’: a recent crime story.

It’s also used to spice up the fairly mundane. Local residents report hearing an unexplained noise? It’s un giallo. S

ports reporters aren’t sure what time a football match starts? Un giallo again. 

‘Ahead of Lazio-Roma, the time of the derby is a mystery: decision expected today’: one recent sports headline

Headline writers are the people most prone to use the word this way: in everyday speech, you’re more likely to hear giallo (pronounced “jial-lo”) in all the places you’d expect it – on a football pitch (un cartellino giallo is a ‘yellow card’), inside eggs (il giallo dell’uovo – ‘egg yolk’) and all over the phone book (le pagine gialle – ‘Yellow Pages’).

But there’s one extra place it turns up: on traffic lights, which for some reason in Italy turn giallo instead of orange or amber.

Why? It’s a mystery.

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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.

Business Guy Nbc GIF by Sunnyside

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.