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Italian expression of the day: 'Ai ferri corti'

The Local Italy
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Italian expression of the day: 'Ai ferri corti'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond"

Keep your dagger close at hand when learning this Italian phrase.


If you’re on the outs with someone 17th-century style, you’ll want to make sure you have your dagger to hand in case you end up ai ferri corti.

A close, though archaic, English translation would be ‘at daggers drawn’; a more widely-used alternative would be to say you’re ‘at loggerheads’. 

A ferro can be an old Italian word for a sword (among other things), and corto of course means short, so if you’re ai ferri corti you’re down to the short swords - the daggers.


In others words, the fighting isn’t happening at a distance – you’re up close and personal, within stabbing distance of your foe.

Prima o poi saranno di nuovo ai ferri corti.
Sooner or later they’ll be at each other’s throats again.

Io e Sara siamo ai ferri corti.
Sara and I are at loggerheads.

It's similar to when we say in English that "the knives are out" - an idiom meaning that there's open hostility, though it's usually used to describe nastiness or blame directed at one person, rather than two people or parties fighting.

As a curious aside, 'Loggerhead' started out as a Shakespearean insult, and it's not known exactly when the phrase 'being at loggerheads' was coined.

The first known written record of the phrase is apparently from Francis Kirkman's ‘The English Rogue’ published in the 1680s. It references Italians: specifically men fighting over “Sicilian wenches” who were said “to be worth the going to Logger-heads for."

Ferro is a versatile word in Italian, and can also mean iron ore or the metal, an iron (for ironing – also called a ferro di stiro), a golf iron, a horseshoe, a tool, and chains when made plural (as in, “they clapped him in irons”).

It’s also used in a wide range of expressions, many of which directly translate to English.

You can be sotto i ferri – 'under the knives', if you’re having surgery. You can have a stomaco di ferro (an iron stomach) and a pugno di ferro (an iron fist) just like in English, and if you need to do something while the time’s right you should battere il ferro finché è caldo – strike while the iron is hot.

You can also, however, have a memoria di ferro (an excellent memory); a salute di ferro (a strong constitution); and if in English we knock on wood for good luck, in Italian you should toccare ferro - touch iron.

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


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Anonymous 2021/09/17 18:28
Ferri: knitting needles too!

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