Italian word of the day: ‘Sistemare’

One of the most satisfying words in the Italian language.

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

There are few things more gratifying than the feeling of having got everything in order (even if, as anyone who lives in Italy can tell you, it probably won't stay that way for long). 

“Ho sistemato tutto!”, you'll be entitled to declare in triumph upon, for instance, finally obtaining your permesso di soggiorno – just in time to start the process of renewing it all over again.

Sistemare means 'to sort out', 'to put in order' or 'to arrange', whether it's pesky things like documents or more abstract problems.

Ha sistemato tutti i libri sullo scaffale.
He arranged all the books on the shelf.

Abbiamo ancora una faccenda da sistemare.
We've still got one last issue to settle.

That's easy enough: it sounds like 'systematize', our own (much less common) verb for organizing things into some kind of established order.

But there's a couple of other meanings to sistemare that might come as a bit more of a surprise. It can also mean 'to put somebody up', as in, provide somewhere to stay…

L'abbiamo sistemato nella camera degli ospiti.
We put him up in the guest room.

… as well as 'to find a job' for yourself or someone else… 

La direttrice ha sistemato nell'azienda tutti i suoi parenti.
The director set up all her relatives with jobs in the company.

… or 'to fix someone up' with a spouse.

Aveva quattro figli e li ha sistemati tutti e quattro.
She had four sons and married off all four of them.

You can even threaten to sistemare someone who's misbehaving, a bit like offering to 'straighten them out' in English.

Se non studi, ti sistemo io!
If you don't study, I'll give you what for!

If you think about it, all these uses are just different ways of 'sorting people out', the same way you'd tackle a particularly messy filing cabinet.

Just remember that it matters who's doing the sorting. If someone else is taking care of something for you, use plain sistemare; but if you're looking after business on your own, the verb becomes reflexive: sistemarsi.

Ci siamo sistemati in campagna.
We settled (ourselves) down in the countryside.

Si è sistemata presso una compagnia di assicurazione.
She got (herself) a job with an insurance company.

You'll encounter the reflexive form especially when you're performing some kind of 'sorting out' action on yourself, like tidying your hair or clothes.

Prima di uscire, sistemati la cravatta!
Fix your tie before you go out!

But you can also use sistemarsi when neither you nor anyone else is sorting things out: for those wonderful times when they sort themselves out on their own.

Prima o poi, le cose si sistemeranno.
Sooner or later, things will sort themselves out.

Amen to that.

Do you have an Italian word 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: ‘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.