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Italian expression of the day: ‘Ai ferri corti’

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

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 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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Italian expression of the day: ‘A meno che’

You might want some help mastering this phrase, unless your Italian is already advanced.

Italian expression of the day: 'A meno che'

It’s always helpful to have a little caveat up your sleeve when making plans – just in case something crops up and you need to change course.

In English, there’s a pretty simple way to express this idea: we just use the word ‘unless’ followed by the present simple.

Italian, however, is a bit more complicated. We need to add a non after a meno che – something that can trip up anglophones – and then follow this with a subjunctive, since we’re talking about a hypothetical situation.

Potremmo andare a fare un giro in bicicletta, a meno che tu non abbia da fare?
We could go for a bike ride, unless you’re busy?

La festa si terrà all’aperto, a meno che non piova.
She’ll have the party outdoors unless it rains.

To wrap your head around this addition of a negative, it can help to think of the Italian translation less as “unless XYZ is the case” so much as something along the lines of “as long as XYZ weren’t the case.”

A meno che is the most common variant you’ll hear, but if you want to mix things up a bit, you could instead use any of salvo che, tranne che, or eccetto che.

Il rimborso sarà effettuato entro 24 ore, signora, salvo che Lei non cambi idea prima di allora.
The refund will be processed within 24 hours, madam, unless you change your mind before then.

L’intervento chirurgico non è necessario, tranne che i sintomi non causino dolore.
Surgery isn’t necessary unless the symptoms are causing you any pain.

Unless you’ve been watching TV throughout this explainer, we’re sure you’ll be confidently using a meno che and its equivalents in no time.

Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.