Italian expression of the day: ‘Figuriamoci’

Italian expression of the day: 'Figuriamoci'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Having trouble figuring out this Italian phrase? It's no wonder.

Today's expression is a slippery customer: there isn't a single direct translation, it can serve different functions in a sentence, and sometimes it means exactly the opposite depending on the tone you say it in. 

But before we get into all that, let's explain what we're looking at: figuriamoci, which is the imperative 'we' form of the reflexive verb figurarsi ('to imagine' or 'to picture'), making it literally 'let's imagine'. 

Wait, you might be thinking, I know that verb! Isn't it the same one as figurati, that phrase I hear every other time I thank someone in Italy?

Yes – but of course you know it's not that simple. Figurati (the imperative 'you' form) is indeed a nice way to say 'don't mention it' or 'not at all' – essentially like saying 'I can't imagine not doing that thing for you' or 'of course there's no need to worry, it would be crazy to'. 

– Grazie mille dell'aiuto di ieri.
– Figurati!

– Thanks so much for your help yesterday.
– Don't mention it!

– Scusa, ti disturbo?
– No, figurati.

– Sorry, am I disturbing you?
– No, not at all.

But figuriamoci is rarely, if ever, used to say 'you're welcome' this way (it would be like saying 'we're welcome', which doesn't make a whole lot of sense).

Pronounced “fee-gou-ri-ah-mo-chi”, it's used either to confirm something emphatically, or – and here's where it gets confusing – to deny it just as emphatically. 

Basically you're saying that you're not surprised at all, or that you really would be surprised if something turned out to be the case. It's like using the same expression to mean 'of course it is!' and 'of course it isn't!' all at once.

It all comes down to tone. When someone suggests something you think has no chance of coming to pass, you can respond 'figuriamoci!' – 'can you imagine…?' or essentially: 'no way', 'fat chance'. 

– Hanno detto che pioverà più tardi.
– Figuriamoci! Non ho visto nemmeno una nuvola nel cielo tutta la mattina.

– They said it's going to rain later.
– No way! I haven't seen one cloud in the sky all morning.

– Credi che chiederà scusa?
– Figuriamoci! 
– Do you think she'll apologise?
– Fat chance!

When you answer a question this way, you're often implying that the answer should be obvious. It's the equivalent of responding, wryly: 'What do you think?'

– Mario ti ha telefonato?
– Figuriamoci!

– Has Mario called you?
– What do you think? (Of course he hasn't.)

You might hear Italian speakers start a sentence with figuriamoci se, meaning something like: 'Just imagine if…' What they mean is: 'There's no way this could actually happen'.

Figuriamoci se Daniele viene per le dieci, sono già le 9.30 e non è ancora uscito da casa.
There's no way Daniel's getting here for 10 o'clock, it's already 9.30 and he hasn't left home yet.

Figuriamoci se il capo mi darà un aumento.
There's no way my boss would give me a raise.

But if you're feeling sarcastic, you can use figuriamoci to show that things are in fact exactly what you'd expect. It's a bit like saying 'well well well, what a surprise' or 'who'd have thought it' (raised eyebrow optional). 

– Gabriella mi ha scritto che non può uscire stasera.
– Figuriamoci, non vuole mai uscire con noi.

– Gabriella wrote to me to say she can't come out tonight.
– What a surprise, she never wants to go out with us.

– Aspetta, non trovo la mia borsa, penso che l'abbia lasciata a casa.
– Eh, figuriamoci.

– Wait, I can't find my purse, I think I left it at home.
– Well well well, who'd have thought it.

Got it? Good, because there's one more meaning to get your head round: you can use figuriamoci in the middle of a sentence to mean 'let alone' or 'much less'.

It essentially adds another element that you think is even more unlikely (or unimaginable). 

Non sono riuscita a leggere il primo capitolo, figuriamoci il libro intero.
I didn't manage to get through the first chapter, let alone the whole book.

Non mi piace molto il pesce, figuriamoci quello crudo.
I don't really like fish, much less when it's raw.

Note that in many if not all of these examples, you could swap figuriamoci for figurati. But the 'we' form adds a more impersonal, generalised tone. Find examples of how to use figurati here.

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