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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian expression of the day: ‘Buon lavoro’

As Italy gets back to work after the holidays, here’s a nice phrase which you can use with everyone from Italian colleagues to restaurant staff.

Italian expression of the day: 'Buon lavoro'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If an Italian says “buon lavoro!” to you, they’re not praising you for a job well done. While this phrase literally translates as “good work”, it doesn’t refer to a task completed, but to work yet to be carried out.

Buon lavoro is a parting greeting used to wish someone a good day or afternoon at work. But it means far more than a simple “Have a good day at the office”. There’s no exact English equivalent, and you’ll need to be careful how you use it.

It’s quite similar to ‘buona giornata‘, another parting greeting which means “have a nice day”. 

But on top of that, buon lavoro acknowledges the hard work and effort to come, and the fact that this means the day may not be particularly ‘good’ or enjoyable, while expressing the hope that it all goes as well as possible.

All of that in just two words.

You could say it to shop or restaurant staff, or to anyone who has to work on a hot summer’s day. Waiters may say it to you if they assume you’re on your way back to the office after lunch. You’d say it to Italian colleagues who have an insane workload, or to a friend studying for an exam. Your Italian boss or colleague might say it, whether ruefully or with a hint of irony, after dumping a pile of work on your desk.

 
While there are lots of similar greetings in Italian – buona serata, buona domenica, buon pranzo – wishing someone a good evening, Sunday or lunch is pretty straightforward and doesn’t have any hidden layers of meaning or etiquette to get your head around. You’d usually expect those things to be enjoyable, after all.

Buon lavoro is a bit different. It’s not just a parting salute, it’s recognition, appreciation and solidarity. But it might not always be well received, depending on the person you’re talking to.

Do be careful not to say it to people who do certain types of work: firefighters, ER nurses and other emergency services workers are among those who don’t wish each other ‘buon lavoro’ – as it would obviously be preferable if nothing happened that would require their attention.

Buono studio is similar, though this is of course used only when the effort being made involves studying.

So how do you say “good work”, then, when you want to praise someone’s accomplishments?

There is of course bravo, and you could add ben fatto: literally “well done”, but here used as an adjective used to describe something done with skill. 

– Bravo! E un lavoro ben fatto 

– Well done! It’s a job well done 

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

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Avere un diavolo per capello’

No need to blow your top about this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Avere un diavolo per capello'

At one point or another, we’ve all had un diavolo per capello – ‘a devil by the hair’.

This isn’t a devil on your shoulder – the little voice encouraging you do so something bad or mischievous.

The demon is this phrase isn’t devious but seething, making the person whose locks it is clutching furious, enraged, or extremely irritable.

State attenti alla signora Russo, ha un diavolo per capello stamattina. 
Watch out for Mrs. Russo, she’s in a foul mood this morning.

Ha abbandonato la riunione con un diavolo per capello.
He walked out of the meeting in a fury.

You might picture someone tearing their hair out in rage, or a furious djinn perched on someone’s head directing their movements.

Angry Inside Out GIF by Disney Pixar

Another common Italian expression involving the devil is fare il diavolo a quattro.

This phrase can mean any of raising hell – either by causing a ruckus or kicking up a fuss – or going to great lengths to get something.

Ha fatto il diavolo a quattro quando le hanno detto che l’orario di visita era finito e non l’hanno fatta entrare.
She screamed blue murder when they told her visiting hours were over and wouldn’t let her in.

Ho fatto il diavolo a quattro per ottenere quel permesso.
I fought like hell to get that permit.

It’s unclear quite how a phrase which literally translates as something along the lines of ‘doing the devil by four’ came to have its current meaning – according to the Treccani dictionary, there are a couple of explanations.

One is that in some profane medieval art that involved religious imagery, the devil was often depicted along with the number four.

Another is that when the devil was represented on stage, he had so many different guises that four actors were required to play him in order to avoid having too long a time between costume changes.

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

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