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Italian expression of the day: ‘Parlare a braccio’

Talk... to the arm?

Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/<a href=Nicolas Raymond" srcset=" 631w, 300w, 80w, 108w, 640w" sizes="(max-width: 631px) 100vw, 631px"/>
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If you have any kind of job that involves giving presentations or talking to groups from time to time, you’re likely to have found yourself at some point needing to parlare a braccio.

In this situation the preposition ‘a‘ doesn’t mean ‘to’ or ‘at’ but more ‘in the manner of’ or ‘by’ the arm.

But wait a minute before you start knowingly waving your fist about in imitation of the pinched fingers emoji – it doesn’t literally mean to speak with your arms (though a little gesticulation definitely can’t hurt if you want to get your point across). It’s figurative, meaning to extemporise or improvise, to say something “off the top of your head”:

Non ho preparato nulla per il dibattito, dovrò parlare a braccio.
I haven’t prepared anything for the debate, I’m going to have to ad-lib.

Ti prego, non parlare a braccio, l’ultima volta hai combinato un pasticcio
I’m begging you, please don’t improvise, the last time you made a real mess of things…

Anglophones reading these examples might be reminded of another similar sounding English equivalent: to talk off the cuff.

That expression refers to actors or politicians who hadn’t memorised their lines or speeches reading from notes hastily scrawled on their sleeves.

It’s possible the practice started in the mid to late 1800s, when it briefly became popular to buy disposable paper shirt cuffs and collars to avoid soiling your clothes, turning your sleeve into a convenient notepad. 

Historians have noted that the very earliest written record of the phrase is from the late 1920s, though, many years after people had moved on from the disposable cuffs fad, which does raise the question of whether the idiom was in use for several decades for before someone wrote it down, wasn’t coined till long after the practice that originated it died out, or people were just scribbling on their actual clothing by that point.

I see, you might be thinking: so the Italian and English expressions have the same origin, with slightly different phrasings (see gettare la spugna).

But actually, no…

Arms were used as a form of measurement for clothes and fabrics for many centuries in parts of Italy, until the metric system came into use – so you would misurare a braccio, or measure by the arm

READ ALSO: Italian expression of the day: ‘Braccine corte’

As an arm is not a standardised unit of measurement, undertaking an action a braccio came to mean doing something approximately, without precision. Parlare a braccio, therefore: to speak off the top of your head, making things up as you go along.

Monty Python | GIFGlobe

In this way English and Italian seem to have arrived at two very similar expressions with entirely different origins that mean the same thing. One of the universe’s many odd coincidences.

A braccio isn’t just used with parlare – it can also be combined with the verb andare to make the phrase andare a braccio (to play things by ear, or improvise your plans).

A lei piace sempre andare a braccio.
She always likes to play it by ear.

Non ho un piano, sto andando a braccio.
I don’t have a plan, I’m making it up as I go along.

Sometimes, you just have to wing it.

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: ‘Tirocinio’

Let us offer you some (unpaid) experience with this Italian word.

Italian word of the day: 'Tirocinio'

If you’re entering the world of work in Italy, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ll be offered a tirocinio (pronunciation available here). Should you accept?

That all depends on whether you think you’ll get enough benefit (and money – in the unlikely event there is any) out of an internship, which is what this slightly odd-sounding word means.

According to the Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s oldest linguistic academy and the guardians of the Italian language, it comes from the Latin word tirocinium, which has two components.

The first part of the word comes from tirone, the name for a recruit to the Roman military (tirare means – among others things – ‘to shoot’ in Italian).

The second, cinium, comes from canere, meaning ‘to sound’ (a horn) or ‘to play’ (music); a tubicinium was a horn or trumpet player.

Joined together, the two words meant something like ‘a rousing of the recruits’, in the sense of an initiation or learning experience. An intern is a tirocinante.

Tirocinio isn’t the only Italian word for internship: you’ll also hear people talk about a stage (pronounced the French way, like this, as it’s borrowed from French); an intern is a stagista.

That’s the title given to Alessandro, one of the main characters in the Italian comedy series Boris, who starts an internship on the set of the medical soap opera Eyes of the Heart 2 and is soon initiated into the bizarre and dysfunctional world of Roman TV production.

Ho dovuto lavorare presso la mia azienda per sei mesi come stagista prima che mi offrissero un lavoro.
I had to work at my company for six months as an intern before they offered me a job.

Domani inizierò il mio tirocinio – auguratemi buona fortuna!
I start my internship tomorrow – wish me luck!

If you do end up working as a tirocinante or stagista, hopefully it will be less surreal and better remunerated than that of Boris’s protagonist.

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