Italian word of the day: ‘Posso’

Can you get to grips with this extremely common term?

Italian word of the day: 'Posso'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s word is just one form of a fundamental Italian verb: potere, ‘to be able to’ or ‘can’. 

You’ll need to master potere in all its forms and tenses, but let’s concentrate for now on the first-person present tense: posso, ‘I can’.

Posso parlare tre lingue.
I can speak three languages.

Non posso venire.
I can’t come.

As well as indicating what you are and aren’t capable of doing, posso can be a question: ‘Can I?’ or more politely, ‘May I?’

Naturally, you can specify what you’re asking permission to do…

Posso entrare?
Can I come in?

Posso parlarti?
May I have a word with you?

… or you can just leave the whole thing up to context.

You might hear a waiter ask, simply, “Posso?” when he wants to know if he can clear your plate, and it’s all you need to say as you point to a seat on the train if you want to check that you’re free to sit down.

In this respect it’s a handy complement to permesso, another polite term for asking for permission. 

The two are similar, but while permesso tends to have a more limited application – chiefly, when you’re checking it’s ok to enter a space or move around it – posso clears you to do things as well. Such as help yourself to that second serving of pasta.

See our complete Word of the Day archive here.

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

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Italian expression of the day: ‘A quattro palmenti’

The phrase you'll need to describe a true staple of Italian summer.

Italian expression of the day: ‘A quattro palmenti’

If you’re lucky enough to be spending your summer holidays somewhere in Italy, don’t kid yourself: there’s going to be a lot of eating – or overeating – involved.

Today’s expression might at least help you describe it.

Mangiare a quattro palmenti’ is a popular expression used to describe the act of eating in a particularly fast and greedy manner.

Just think of the way all diets and semblances of self-constraint are generally dashed out of the window as soon as a plate of hot panzerotti is placed at the centre of the table.

The phrase could be considered the Italian equivalent of English expressions of the likes of ‘wolfing down’, ‘scoffing’, ‘gobbling’, ‘scarfing down’ and so on.

Oh, Luca, puoi per una volta provare a non mangiare a quattro palmenti?

Scusa, avevo tanta fame.

Oh, Luca, can you please try not to wolf down [all of your food] for a change?

Sorry, I was hungry.

Le sfogliatelle che fa mia nonna sono buone da morire. Le mangio a quattro palmenti ogni volta che le cucina.

My grandma’s sfogliatelle are to die for. I scarf them down every single time she makes them.  

But, while the action may be familiar to almost anyone, the idiom’s literal translation is likely to be tough for Italian learners to crack.

In fact, the word ‘palmenti’, which is the plural of ‘palmento’, isn’t used in any social context other than the one mentioned above and it would be practically impossible to glean its meaning by simply analysing the structure of the noun.

So, what is a ‘palmento’? Though the word might remind you of palm trees (‘palme’ in Italian) or the palms of one’s hands (‘palmi’), it’s got nothing to do with either.

A ‘palmento’ is one of the two fundamental elements allowing for the correct functioning of a water mill, namely the millstone – naturally, the other one is the water wheel. 

A millstone’s main job is that of rotating on a stationary base so as to grind and crush wheat or other grains, thus producing flour. Does that remind you of something?

Living up to their repuation as highly imaginative people, at the start of last century, but possibly even before then, Italian speakers started associating the laborious grinding of millstones to the chewing motions of human jaws and the expression ‘a quattro palmenti’ (‘with four millstones’) became a way to describe people greedily chomping on their food.

It isn’t quite clear why exactly four ‘palmenti’ were used here, though the number must have been seen as exaggerated and hyperbolic. 

Hai veramente intenzione di mangiare tutto quello che c’è a tavola a quattro palmenti?

Si, quello era il piano…

Are you really going to scoff everything that’s on the table?

Yeah, that was my plan…

The expression ‘mangiare a due palmenti’ also exists, though it’s hardly ever used nowadays, so feel free to stick with the ‘four-millstone’ version.

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