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Italian expression of the day: 'Quattro gatti'

Jessica Phelan
Jessica Phelan - [email protected]
Italian expression of the day: 'Quattro gatti'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why don't you want 'four cats' turning up to your party?


Italians love to talk about cats. Kitties turn up in all sorts of sayings (along with other members of the animal kingdom).

That suits me – a die-hard gattara, or 'cat lady' – just fine. So when an Italian reader drew my attention to yet another cat-themed expression, I couldn't resist sharing it.

Quattro gatti, or 'four cats', sound like great company to me. But if they show up in Italian, it means no one else has. 

The expression essentially means 'barely anyone' or 'very few people'. No one but a handful of felines, in fact.

C’erano quattro gatti.
There was hardly anyone there (literally: there were four cats).

In the UK, where canines arguably have the lead over cats, we might say 'one man and his dog' to similar effect.

You aren't confined to using quattro gatti to describe an (almost) empty place; you can also say it of a group when you want to emphasize how very small it is.


In such cases, referring to people, you'd usually say in quattro gatti ('like four cats', meaning 'few').

Siamo rimasti in quattro gatti.
There were only a few of us left.

Alla riunione eravamo in quattro gatti.
Very few people came to the meeting.

I'll leave you with one last cat fact: in Italy, cats proverbially have seven lives instead of nine. So really, it's only sensible to keep extras.

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