Italian word of the day: ‘Cattivo’

Bad, naughty, or something worse? Let's take a closer look at how we should be using this tricky Italian adjective.

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

Cattivo is an adjective that basically means ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’.

It might appear to be the kind of word that passes a moral judgement on all it describes. And it does, sometimes – but not always. Which is why it’s so important to know how to use it correctly.

You’ll often hear it used like this:

– un bambino cattivo

– a naughty boy

It can also mean that something is defective or unpleasant.

– ha un cattivo odore

– It smells bad  (Or more Iiterally: It has a bad smell)

The meaning isn’t the only thing that trips Italian language students up.

Fittingly enough, this naughty word refuses to play by the rules – of grammar, that is. 

Cattivo is an irregular adjective, because in adverbial form it becomes the word male rather than taking the suffix ‘-mente‘, as most Italian adjectives do.

Instead, you’d say:

– La torta è riuscita male.

– The cake turned out badly.

– In quel ristorante mi sono trovata male.

– I didn’t like that restaurant (literally: ‘I didn’t find myself well in that restaurant’)

But cattivo sounds nothing like male. So why do we use it?

While the origins of male are easy to understand – it comes from the Latin malus, meaning ‘bad’ – cattivo has very different roots.

As cattivo sounds a lot like the English word ‘captive’, which has a Latin root (captivus), you might correctly guess that those two words are related. The Italian verb catturare (to capture) also derives from the same word.

But in modern Italian, the meaning has morphed over the years.

Cattivo was once used to descrbe prisoners, and it came to mean ‘bad’ not because prisoners themselves were associated with bad behaviour, but because of the expression in Latin Christian texts ‘captivus diaboli’ (prisoner of the devil), referring to damned souls and sinners.

You might have noticed that religion has had a huge influence on the development of the Italian language – no surprise, since most early texts were religious and most of the earliest writers were monks.

But does any of this matter to today’s language learners?

It actually does, because once you know where cattivo came from it’s a lot easier to figure out where it should go in a sentence.

Watch out for the word order

When it follows the noun, cattivo retains its original moral meaning (‘bad’ in the sense of ‘evil’)So if you describe someone as una persona cattiva, you’re saying this person is rotten to the core – they’re a “bad person”.

But if you describe an actor as un cattivo attore, they might be a morally good person, but hopeless at learning their lines – a rubbish actor.

When it precedes the noun, it has a more general meaning.

You can also say someone is in un cattivo umore, meaning a bad mood. Obviously their mood is not evil – just foul – which is why the adjective is before the noun here.

Meanwhile, farsi cattivo sangue, literally “to give yourself bad blood”, means to worry, stress yourself out, work yourself up, and generally get yourself into a state.

In cartoons or Disney films, i cattivi are the villains, the bad guys, or the baddies.

– e quindi i cattivi sono finiti in prigione

– and so the baddies ended up in prison


So now you know exactly how this word works, no one can say:

– lei ha una cattiva grammatica

 – She has bad grammar.

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

Business Guy Nbc GIF by Sunnyside

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.