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Italian expression of the day: ‘Mi sa’

We reckon you’ll get the hang of this phrase no problem.

Italian expression of the day: 'Mi sa'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Ever get a hunch, a feeling, a firm sense that something is the case?

Italian has an expression for that: mi sa.

The sa comes from the verb sapere, but it's the sense of the word that means “to taste/smell” rather than “to know”.

– Questo palazzo sa di limoni.
– This building smells of lemons.

We can also employ this use of sapere figuratively, to say that something immaterial “has the flavour” of something or “lacks flavour”.

– Il suo nuovo romanzo non sa di niente.
– His new novel is bland. (or “doesn't taste of anything”)

This is where today's expression comes in. When we add the object pronoun mi to say mi sa, you’re literally saying “it smells to me like…” to say you’ve been given a certain impression.

It’s similar to the English “It sounds/looks like…”, but is more poetic, because this is after all the language of Dante and Petrarch we’re talking about (and in).

Mi sa che si sta ammalando.
– I think she’s coming down with something.

– Mi sa di fregatura.
– It sounds dodgy to me.

You can also use the phrase to make a prediction.

– Non verrà con noi ’sto weekend, mi sa. Ha troppo da fare.
– I don’t reckon he’ll come with us this weekend. He’s got too much to do.

Or to inform someone about a situation no one has any control over, in the way in English you tell someone you’re “afraid” something is the case (whether or not that's true).

– Mi sa di non essermi spiegato bene.
– I'm afraid I haven't explained myself well.

– Mi sa che dovrai farmi entrare allora.
– I’m afraid you’ll have to let me in now.

Mi sa is synonymous with mi sembra (‘it seems to me’), and pretty much interchangeable with penso or credo (I think/believe), right down to its use as a way of answering yes or no in response to a question.

Mi sa di si/no.
I think so/I don’t think so.

The only real difference is mi sa suggests a little more certainty than penso or credo, as well as allowing you to bring some implied objectivity to what is really just your own opinion.

– Mi sa che tocca a te lavare i piatti.
– Pretty sure it’s your turn to do the dishes.

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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For members


Italian word of the day: ‘Inciucio’

Here's a word you'll need to deal with ahead of Italy's elections.

Italian word of the day: 'Inciucio'

With two days to go until Sunday’s general election, there’s talk of a potential ’inciucio’ everywhere from the pages of newspapers to the heated conversations at sports bars up and down the country.

So what is an ‘inciucio’ and why does the word seem to be on everyone’s lips whenever Italy faces elections?

Briefly, ‘inciucio’ is political jargon that describes any type of dubious agreement or, if you will, compromise reached by two or more political parties generally holding opposite views and ideals.

There’s no direct translation into English, though a native speaker would probably refer to it as something of a dodgy backroom deal.

Non c’è una maggioranza chiara. 

Eh, figurati. Faranno il solito inciucio.

There isn’t a clear-cut majority.

Oh, that’s not new. They’ll go for the usual deal.

Such an agreement is usually necessary when forming a large coalition government, with terms largely assumed to be based on the “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” principle. 

READ ALSO: Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

With that definition in mind, it’s hard not to see why ‘inciucio’ is such a commonly-used word in Italy, a country whose political class has historically been partial to improbable alliances with their previously hated rivals. 

Cosa pensi delle prossime elezioni?

Preferisco non pensare. Ne ho avuto abbastanza di questi inciuci. 

What do you think of the next elections?

I’d rather not think. I’ve had enough of these political deals.

Purtroppo, con questa legge elettorale, l’inciucio tra partiti è l’unica via per avere un governo…

Fammi un piacere. Gli inciuci esistevano anche 60 anni fa, molto prima di questa legge elettorale.

Sadly, with the current electoral system, a compromise between different parties is the only way to form a new government.

Do me a favour. These types of agreements existed 60 years ago, well before the present electoral system.

While the noble art of the inciucio goes back a long way in the history of republican Italy, the term itself was only coined in 1995 by Massimo D’Alema, then secretary of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). 

The expression only rose to popularity a couple of years later, when the founder of the term thought it fit to put the word to good use and reached a ‘non-aggression pact’ with the then-leaders of Italy’s right-wing coalition – the agreement went down in history as the patto della crostata or ‘pie pact’ – but we’ll keep that story for another time.

Ever since then, the term ‘inciucio’ has been regularly used by political commentators as well as the wider public to discuss the various power plays of the country’s major political forces.

For instance, the most classic of inciuci was at the foundation of Giuseppe Conte’s first cabinet back in 2018, when Matteo Salvini’s League and Luigi Di Maio’s Five-Star Movement unexpectedly found sufficient common ground to form a coalition government.

So, will we see another inciucio this time around?

Given the unpredictable nature of Italian politics, you’ll forgive us for not ruling out the possibility of another inciucio just yet.