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Italian expression of the day: ‘Prendere il sopravvento’

Italian expression of the day prendere il sopravvento
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
You may never man a battle ship, but this naval expression can still come in handy.

Whether you’re locked in an arm wrestle or engaged in hand to hand combat, in any contest there’s always a pivotal moment when one party starts to gain an advantage over the other.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the fight is over, but you can begin to see which way it’s likely to go.

While in English we refer to such a manoeuvre as ‘gaining the upper hand’, Italian employs a nautical metaphor: you prende il sopravvento, or literally ‘take the upwind’.

Se le lasci prendere il sopravvento, ti ritroverai nei guai.
If you let her get the upper hand, you’ll find yourself in trouble.

Il nemico ha preso il sopravvento.
The enemy has gained the upper hand.

Why would taking the upwind be advantageous?

The expression harks back to the age of naval warfare.

To sail upwind is to sail into or against the wind, which is obviously a very difficult task and not something you want to have to do most of the time as a captain.

But once you are upwind in relation to other vessels, you can manoeuvre downwind towards them at will, meaning you can suddenly turn and launch a surprise attack.

This move, known as the ‘weather gage’ or ‘nautical gage’, was apparently a particular favourite of French warships in their battles against Nelson’s navy – but was clearly a popular enough tactic across 18th century Europe that it entered into everyday Italian speech.

‘Gaining the upper hand’ sounds like it ought to be self-explanatory – if your weapon (which may just be your hand itself) is physically above that of your opponent, then you’re at a clear advantage thanks to gravity – but its provenance is unclear.

Some say it relates to the American baseball tradition of starting a game by having the captains place their hands above each other all the way up the length of the bat, with the person whose hand gets to the top of the handle getting to pick their team. Others argue it dates back centuries earlier.

Aside from gaining the upper hand, prendere il sopravvento can also mean to ‘take over’ or ‘get the best of’, in which case prendere can sometimes be substituted with avere:

La paura ha avuto il sopravvento su di me.
Fear got the better of me.

La tecnologia sta prendendo il sopravvento, oramai.
Technology is taking over these days.

If you find yourself engaged in a contest today, seize the moment and prendere il sopravvento

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


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