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Italian expression of the day: ‘Mai una gioia’

Here's an ironic Italian phrase that doesn't disappoint.

Italian expression of the day: 'Mai una gioia'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Readers who live or work with Italian teenagers will no doubt already be familiar with today’s phrase.

Mai una gioia is an informal expression that has become increasingly popular in recent years. While it’s not one you’re likely to find in an Italian language textbook, it’s all over social media – mainly in the form of memes and ironic commentary. It’s often abbreviated to mai ‘na gioia in writing as well as speech.

It literally translates as ‘never a joy’, and while there’s no direct English equivalent it’s easy enough to understand the meaning from the contexts in which you’ll hear it used.

It’s the sort of ironic phrase you might use when you’re having one of those days where you wake up late, can’t find your keys, spill your coffee and then miss your train – all before 9am.

And it’s one of the more polite phrases you might feel like using when dealing with Italian bureaucracy at the comune, particularly after being told your paperwork has been lost for the second time.

That is, if you can still see the funny side: Mai una gioia is used in a lighthearted way, poking fun at the absurdity of the situation you’re in – and at your own rotten luck.

It implies that, no matter how hard you try, things just aren’t going your way.

Suggested equivalent phrases in English include “just my luck” or, to quote the Rolling Stones: “I can’t get no satisfaction”.

It’s no surprise that this expression was widely used during 2020, when pandemic-related restrictions put a stop to everything from holidays and sports clubs to meeting up with friends.

Here’s hoping you won’t have too many occasions to use this phrase. But when everything else is going wrong, at least your Italian language skills won’t let you down.

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: ‘Può darsi’

This might be just the Italian phrase you need.

Italian expression of the day: 'Può darsi'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s expression is one I learned courtesy of my Italian in-laws, who frequently use it as a non-committal response to my suggestions.

This isn’t a phrase that ever came up in Italian class, and at first I wasn’t sure what they were saying. But from the context it was obvious that it meant something like “perhaps” or “possibly”.

– Forse sono in ritardo a causa del traffico

– Può darsi

– Maybe they’re late because of the traffic

– Possibly

When può darsi is used alone as a response, it’s not always clear just how likely the speaker thinks something is.

In fact, it can mean anything from “maybe” to “probably”.

Literally translated, the phrase doesn’t make much sense to English speakers. It’s a combination of può (the third-person singular form of the verb potere, ‘to be able‘) and darsi (the reflexive form of the verb dare ‘to give‘). It could be translated literally as “it can be given”.

As well as being used alone, this phrase can be used within sentences instead of forse (maybe) or magari, which is altogether more complicated.

With può darsi you’ll need to pay more attention to the grammar. But it’s worth mastering, as the phrase is very commonly used in spoken Italian.

Unlike forse and magari, sentences using può darsi need to be constructed in a particular way.

The formula you’ll need is può darsi + che + a verb in its subjunctive form.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

– Può darsi che Gianni sia in ritardo.

– Maybe/it’s possible that Gianni is late

Compare that to the simpler structure of:

– Forse Gianni è in ritardo.

– Maybe Gianni is late

Both sentences effectively mean the same thing.

In the first example, the form of the verb ‘to be’ used is sia because we’re speaking in the subjunctive.

Understandably, language learners often want to run for the hills when they start hearing about the subjunctive mood (congiuntivo). But it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Put very simply, it’s used whenever you’re not stating a fact. It expresses doubt, possibility, or uncertainty. It may also be used to talk about emotions, or when making suggestions – so for most normal everyday conversations, then.

So, while this is often taught as a more ‘advanced’ bit of grammar, you may want to get on friendly terms with it ASAP in order to partake in everyday chit-chat with Italians. Read a more detailed explanation of it here.

It pays to remember that with può darsi you don’t need to use the verb in the subjunctive form if you’re speaking in the future or conditional tense.

For example, you could also say:

Può darsi che Gianni sarà in ritardo

– Maybe Gianni will be late

Here, the verb refers to the future, so we used sarà – the future simple form of essere (to be).

And once you’ve got the hang of that, you can take things a step further by inserting the word anche (also) in between può and darsi to add emphasis.

Può anche darsi che sia un disastro totale.

– It may well be a total disaster

As mentioned earlier, this phrase is used for things you think are possible or likely.

If you’re a bit more certain about something, it would be better to use probabilmente or è molto probabile (‘probably’ or ‘it’s very likely’).

Will your Italian friends be impressed if you master the use of può darsi?

Sì, è molto probabile!

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