Italian word of the day: ‘Paperone’

How did an American cartoon character end up giving Italians a whole new word?

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

Strange as it sounds, in Italian one way to say someone's got more money than they know what to do with is to call them 'a big goose' – un paperone

Even stranger, we have Disney to thank for the expression.

It all goes back to the early 1950s, when Italian translators were adapting the first cartoons featuring Donald Duck's wealthy uncle – a Scottish, miserly businessman known to Anglophones as Scrooge McDuck.

The Italian name needed to match Donald's, who had already made his debut in Italy. Incidentally Italians see Donald as a goose rather than a duck, which is why they based his surname on the word papero – a 'gander' or a 'gosling' – combined with the diminutive suffix ~ino

[NB: while the Italian dictionary defines a papero as a goose, some readers have told us they use the word to describe a duck. As ever in Italy, you'll find words used differently in different places.]

The result was that Donald Duck became Paolino Paperino ('Pauly Goosey') in Italy, matching his friend Topolino ('Little Mousey', or Mickey Mouse).

Paperino's uncle needed a more imposing name, so translators attached the augmentative suffix ~one to turn a little goose into a big one. Wanting to highlight his descent from a long line of Scottish ducks (or geese), they added a noble-sounding surname, giving us Paperon de' Paperoni – roughly 'Big Goose of the Big Geese' (or if you prefer, 'Goosey McGooseface').

To his nephew and great-nephews, of course, he's known simply as Zio Paperone – 'Uncle Big Goose' or Uncle Scrooge. 

The character was so successful in Italy that his name became shorthand for anyone with a lot of money, the equivalent of calling someone 'a moneybags'.

Non sono un paperone, ma non posso lamentarmi delle mie finanze.
I'm no moneybags, but I can't complain about my finances.

And like the name Scrooge, paperone often carries an implication of miserliness.

Luca è un paperone non tanto per il denaro che possiede, che non è molto, quanto per la sua avarizia.
Luca is a Scrooge not so much because of his wealth, which isn't huge, but because of his greed.

Calling a billionaire a 'big goose'? After all, it's no stranger than saying they're a 'fat cat'.

Do you have an Italian phrase 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.

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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.