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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Mo’

Plenty of Italians would argue that this word is not, in fact, Italian.

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

You won't find it in every Italian dictionary and north of a certain latitude you're unlikely to hear it at all.

But on the streets of Rome and other parts of Italy's centre-south, mo is as common as ora or adesso, the two “proper” Italian words for the same thing: 'now'.

Mo che facciamo?
What shall we do now?

Mo sto studiando, però dopo vengo.
I'm studying right now, but I'll come later.

It's pronounced “moh”, and written with or without a final apostrophe: mo or mo'. Though it's the kind of word you use when you're speaking Italian far more than when you're writing it.

But anyone who thinks mo is just slang should take a look at the word's etymology: it has classical credentials, deriving most likely from one of two Latin words, modo ('just now') or mox ('then', 'soon afterwards').

And it was deemed fit for poetry by none other than Dante Alighieri, the father of modern Italian, who uses it repeatedly in his Divine Comedy. Canto 8 of Purgatorio, for instance, includes the lines:

Verdi come fogliette pur mo nate
erano in veste…

Green as the little leaflets just now born
Their garments were… 

As Dante demonstrates, mo doesn't only refer to the present but also to the (very) recent past – like 'just now' or 'a moment ago'.

L'ho visto mo, il tuo messaggio.
I just saw your message a moment ago.

But mo can also refer to a future so close it's practically the present – like 'immediately' or 'right this minute'. That's especially the case when you repeat it for emphasis.

Dammelo! Mo mo!
Give it to me, right this minute!

You can even combine mo with other words for 'now' for a similar effect: for instance adesso mo, ora mo, or mo ora.

If that doesn't seem to make much sense, we should warn you that you'll often hear mo as a sort of filler word that doesn't mean much on its own – a bit like 'right' or 'well' in English.

This famous line from the 1980s time travel comedy Non Ci Resta Che Piangere ('Nothing Left to Do But Cry') should give you an idea: warned by a priest that he will one day die, actor Massimo Troisi replies: “Mo, me lo segno” – “well, I'll make a note of that”.

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

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Avere un diavolo per capello’

No need to blow your top about this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Avere un diavolo per capello'

At one point or another, we’ve all had un diavolo per capello – ‘a devil by the hair’.

This isn’t a devil on your shoulder – the little voice encouraging you do so something bad or mischievous.

The demon is this phrase isn’t devious but seething, making the person whose locks it is clutching furious, enraged, or extremely irritable.

State attenti alla signora Russo, ha un diavolo per capello stamattina. 
Watch out for Mrs. Russo, she’s in a foul mood this morning.

Ha abbandonato la riunione con un diavolo per capello.
He walked out of the meeting in a fury.

You might picture someone tearing their hair out in rage, or a furious djinn perched on someone’s head directing their movements.

Angry Inside Out GIF by Disney Pixar

Another common Italian expression involving the devil is fare il diavolo a quattro.

This phrase can mean any of raising hell – either by causing a ruckus or kicking up a fuss – or going to great lengths to get something.

Ha fatto il diavolo a quattro quando le hanno detto che l’orario di visita era finito e non l’hanno fatta entrare.
She screamed blue murder when they told her visiting hours were over and wouldn’t let her in.

Ho fatto il diavolo a quattro per ottenere quel permesso.
I fought like hell to get that permit.

It’s unclear quite how a phrase which literally translates as something along the lines of ‘doing the devil by four’ came to have its current meaning – according to the Treccani dictionary, there are a couple of explanations.

One is that in some profane medieval art that involved religious imagery, the devil was often depicted along with the number four.

Another is that when the devil was represented on stage, he had so many different guises that four actors were required to play him in order to avoid having too long a time between costume changes.

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

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