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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Ai ferri corti’

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

Italian expression of the day ai ferri corti
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If you’re on the outs with someone 17th century style, you’ll want to make sure you have your dagger to 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’ with someone.

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 spitting (or 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.

The origins of ‘at loggerheads’ are unclear. Loggerhead started out as a Shakespearean insult, then became the name of a long rod-like implement with a bulb on the end used for melting pitch.

It’s been speculated that the phrase ‘at loggerheads’ originates from people waving these sticks at each other in a duel-like fashion, though another theory is that the expression simply refers to fighters locking their heads together like stags or bulls.

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

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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 irons 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 knife, if you’re in 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.

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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.

That’s all we’ve got for you today: try to keep it locked up in that memoria di ferro of yours.

And keep your dagger close by.

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.

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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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