Italian expression of the day: ‘Me la cavo’

A great phrase for getting by in Italy.

Italian expression of the day: 'Me la cavo'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

“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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Italian word of the day: ‘Tirocinio’

Let us offer you some (unpaid) experience with this Italian word.

Italian word of the day: 'Tirocinio'

If you’re entering the world of work in Italy, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ll be offered a tirocinio (pronunciation available here). Should you accept?

That all depends on whether you think you’ll get enough benefit (and money – in the unlikely event there is any) out of an internship, which is what this slightly odd-sounding word means.

According to the Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s oldest linguistic academy and the guardians of the Italian language, it comes from the Latin word tirocinium, which has two components.

The first part of the word comes from tirone, the name for a recruit to the Roman military (tirare means – among others things – ‘to shoot’ in Italian).

The second, cinium, comes from canere, meaning ‘to sound’ (a horn) or ‘to play’ (music); a tubicinium was a horn or trumpet player.

Joined together, the two words meant something like ‘a rousing of the recruits’, in the sense of an initiation or learning experience. An intern is a tirocinante.

Tirocinio isn’t the only Italian word for internship: you’ll also hear people talk about a stage (pronounced the French way, like this, as it’s borrowed from French); an intern is a stagista.

That’s the title given to Alessandro, one of the main characters in the Italian comedy series Boris, who starts an internship on the set of the medical soap opera Eyes of the Heart 2 and is soon initiated into the bizarre and dysfunctional world of Roman TV production.

Ho dovuto lavorare presso la mia azienda per sei mesi come stagista prima che mi offrissero un lavoro.
I had to work at my company for six months as an intern before they offered me a job.

Domani inizierò il mio tirocinio – auguratemi buona fortuna!
I start my internship tomorrow – wish me luck!

If you do end up working as a tirocinante or stagista, hopefully it will be less surreal and better remunerated than that of Boris’s protagonist.

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