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Italian expression of the day: ‘Arrampicarsi sugli specchi’

Found yourself climbing on any mirrors lately?

Italian expression of the day arrampicarsi sugli specchi
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

In English we ‘clutch at straws’, but Italy has an altogether different take on desperation.

If you engage in a hopeless attempt to fix a seemingly impossible situation in Italian you arrampicarsi sugli specchi – literally, climb on, or up, mirrors.

Con tutto il rispetto, ispettore, si sta arrampicando sugli specchi.
With all due respect, detective, you’re grasping at straws.

Vuoi continuare ad arrampicarti sugli specchi?
You want to continue fumbling about?

Scratching The Pet Collective GIF - Scratching The Pet Collective Confused GIFs

It’s clear where the idea behind clutching at straws comes from: they are weak and liable to break at any moment, plunging you into whatever pit you were trying to climb out of.

Mirrors, of course, have a smooth and shiny surface, so anyone other than Spiderman is unlikely to have much success scaling one.

Why mirrors were chosen and not simply glass or windows, which you would imagine are just as slippery, is slightly unclear.

Perhaps it’s to underscore just how pointless an enterprise it is – you might have a legitimate reason for climbing a glass-fronted building, but there’s no obvious motive for climbing a mirror.

A little different to clutching at straws, arrampicarsi sugli specchi can also mean to try and talk yourself out of an embarrassing or unpleasant situation through unconvincing arguments that everyone can see through. In this situation it’s implied you’re fooling no one, and perhaps making a bit of a fool of yourself.

In English we might talk about ‘arguing that black is white’ or ‘pleading a lost cause’.

Il ministro si è arrampicato sugli specchi per giustificare il ritardo.
The minister clutched at straws in attempting to justify the delay.

Mi sono arrampicata sugli specchi per spiegare al mio capo perché ho perso la riunione.
I grasped at straws to explain to my boss why I missed the meeting.

Csaba Dalla Zorza Bugie GIF - Csaba Dalla Zorza Bugie Cortesie Per Gli Ospiti GIFs

As you go about your day, may you have no cause to climb a mirror.

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

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For members


Italian word of the day: ‘Inciucio’

Here's a word you'll need to deal with ahead of Italy's elections.

Italian word of the day: 'Inciucio'

With two days to go until Sunday’s general election, there’s talk of a potential ’inciucio’ everywhere from the pages of newspapers to the heated conversations at sports bars up and down the country.

So what is an ‘inciucio’ and why does the word seem to be on everyone’s lips whenever Italy faces elections?

Briefly, ‘inciucio’ is political jargon that describes any type of dubious agreement or, if you will, compromise reached by two or more political parties generally holding opposite views and ideals.

There’s no direct translation into English, though a native speaker would probably refer to it as something of a dodgy backroom deal.

Non c’è una maggioranza chiara. 

Eh, figurati. Faranno il solito inciucio.

There isn’t a clear-cut majority.

Oh, that’s not new. They’ll go for the usual deal.

Such an agreement is usually necessary when forming a large coalition government, with terms largely assumed to be based on the “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” principle. 

READ ALSO: Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

With that definition in mind, it’s hard not to see why ‘inciucio’ is such a commonly-used word in Italy, a country whose political class has historically been partial to improbable alliances with their previously hated rivals. 

Cosa pensi delle prossime elezioni?

Preferisco non pensare. Ne ho avuto abbastanza di questi inciuci. 

What do you think of the next elections?

I’d rather not think. I’ve had enough of these political deals.

Purtroppo, con questa legge elettorale, l’inciucio tra partiti è l’unica via per avere un governo…

Fammi un piacere. Gli inciuci esistevano anche 60 anni fa, molto prima di questa legge elettorale.

Sadly, with the current electoral system, a compromise between different parties is the only way to form a new government.

Do me a favour. These types of agreements existed 60 years ago, well before the present electoral system.

While the noble art of the inciucio goes back a long way in the history of republican Italy, the term itself was only coined in 1995 by Massimo D’Alema, then secretary of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). 

The expression only rose to popularity a couple of years later, when the founder of the term thought it fit to put the word to good use and reached a ‘non-aggression pact’ with the then-leaders of Italy’s right-wing coalition – the agreement went down in history as the patto della crostata or ‘pie pact’ – but we’ll keep that story for another time.

Ever since then, the term ‘inciucio’ has been regularly used by political commentators as well as the wider public to discuss the various power plays of the country’s major political forces.

For instance, the most classic of inciuci was at the foundation of Giuseppe Conte’s first cabinet back in 2018, when Matteo Salvini’s League and Luigi Di Maio’s Five-Star Movement unexpectedly found sufficient common ground to form a coalition government.

So, will we see another inciucio this time around?

Given the unpredictable nature of Italian politics, you’ll forgive us for not ruling out the possibility of another inciucio just yet.