Italian expression of the day: ‘Me la cavo’

Italian expression of the day: 'Me la cavo'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
A great phrase for getting by in Italy.

“Parli italiano?” ('do you speak Italian?') can be a tricky question to answer when you're still learning.

Do you give a hearty “sì, come no” ('yes, of course') and risk overstating your language abilities, or modestly say “purtroppo, no” ('unfortunately not') and find yourself treated to laborious English that you suspect is no better than your Italian?

Today's phrase is a great way to err on the side of caution, but not too much: me la cavo, 'I manage'.

It comes from the verb cavare, an interesting word that comes from the same Latin root that gave us 'excavate' in English.

It can mean anything from 'to extract' (like a tooth, or information), 'to get' or 'obtain' something (such as a profit or benefits), 'to get out of' (whether it's an uncomfortable pair of shoes or a chore that needs doing), or 'to satisfy', for instance a wish.

Il dentista mi ha cavato un dente.
The dentist took one of my teeth out.

Da questa esperienza non ho cavato niente di utile.
I didn't get anything useful out of that experience.

Voglio cavarmi le scarpe dopo una giornata così lunga.
I want to get out of these shoes after such a long day.

Potete cavare la fame con varie delizie della regione…
You can satisfy your appetite with various regional specialities…

But the form we're most interested in here is cavarsela, the same verb with the pronouns se ('oneself') and la ('it') added. They give it a slightly different meaning, the same way fare is different from farcela.

This version means something a bit like our own phrasal verb 'to get by'.

Me la cavo a parlare l'italiano.
I speak enough Italian to get by.

Dobbiamo cercare di cavarcela da soli.
We should try to get by on our own.

You can turn it into a question to check if someone else is managing…

Come te la cavi?
How are you getting on?

… or reassure them they're doing just fine.

Te la cavi benissimo.
You're managing really well. 

Of course, there'll inevitably be times when you're not getting by. That's when you can turn to the evocative idiom non cavare un ragno dal buco (literally, 'to not get a spider out of a hole'), which is a way to saying you're getting absolutely nowhere or nothing.

Non cavo un ragno dal buco.
I'm getting nowhere.

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