Italian word of the day: ‘Rocambolesco’

What adventures will this word lead you into?

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

As well as requests from language learners looking for guidance, we occasionally get emails from native speakers keen to share some of their favourite Italian words with an international audience.

One such suggestion gives us today's word: rocambolesco, meaning 'fantastic', 'extraordinary', 'daring' or 'improbable'.

In fact it's several words for the price of one, since you can also say it in English and French, which is where it comes from in the first place: Rocambole was the dashing protagonist of a series of adventure stories written by the French author Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail in the mid 19th century.

The character proved so popular around Europe that he was still popping up in spin-offs by other writers as recently as 2005. His exploits inspired multiple films, a TV series and not least, the adjective rocambolesque, which in several European languages has come to refer to any far-fetched turn of events – often escapes, heists and the like.

Un cane ha eseguito una fuga rocambolesca da uno studio veterinario.
A dog made an unlikely escape from the vet's office.

'Rocambolesco soccorso alle Cinque Terre: il mare mosso blocca ogni via di fuga ad un turista 45enne'
'Daring rescue in the Cinque Terre: rough sea blocks all ways out for 45-year-old tourist' – headline from a local paper in Liguria.

Italian also has the adverb rocambolescamente – 'in a rocambolesque fashion' – to describe the act of behaving in a such a way.

Un gruppo di ladri sono evasi rocambolescamente da un carcere speciale.
A group of thieves incredibly escaped from a special prison.

While Ponson du Terrail may have plucked the name Rocambole out of his imagination, it's possible he meant to invoke a type of wild onion known in French as ail rocambole (and in Italian as rocambola), which in turn comes from the German name Rockenbolle. Perhaps the moniker was supposed to invoke the plant's distinctive fiery taste as a preview of Rocambole's spicy adventures.

If Rocambole is a bit too rock'n'roll for you, you can also use the more generic romanzesco: it means 'novelesque' (a novel is un romanzo), i.e. worthy of fiction.

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.