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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Scaramanzia’

Touch wood you won't have much cause to use this word.

Italian word of the day scaramanzia
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

The Corriere della Sera newspaper’s online dictionary defines scaramanzia as a spell or charm, and when spoken out loud the word itself – ‘ska-ra-man-zee-a’ – almost sounds like an incantation in its own right. 

But the word also means superstition – and in day to day life, scaramanzia tends to have much more to do with this than to any actual spell-casting.

If you do something per scaramanzia it’s for luck or to ward off bad luck, while if you *don’t* do something per scaramanzia it’s because you don’t want to jinx yourself.

Incrocia le dita per scaramanzia.
Cross your fingers for good luck.

La diciassettesima sedia è stata rimossa per scaramanzia.
The seventeenth seat has been removed for good luck.

(In Italy seventeen, rather than thirteen, is considered an unlucky number).

Non gli ho detto niente ancora per scaramanzia.
I haven’t told them anything yet because I don’t want to jinx it.

A common gesture to ward off bad luck in Italian is fare la corna – sticking out your index and little finger in imitation of a pair of bull’s horns.

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The idea is that the gesture will fight off the evil eye, or malocchio, with the strength of a bull; in the south it’s performed with your fingers pointing towards the ground, as making it the other way around implies the person you’re gesturing towards is being cheated on.

Holding the highest office in the land doesn’t prevent you from being susceptible to a little scaramanzia – in the 70’s, Italian president Giovanni Leone was repeatedly photographed making the sign behind his back, including during a visit to patients suffering from a cholera outbreak in Naples.

As well as being an abstract concept, a scaramanzia can also be a physical object: namely a good luck charm.

As with the hand gesture, the corna, or horn, remains a favoured symbol for good luck, and in Naples in particular it often takes the shape of a twisted object resembling a red chilli pepper, known as a cornicello (little horn).

If you’re wandering the streets of downtown Naples as a tourist, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to buy one in the form of a keychain, Christmas ornament or dashboard decoration.

Fingers crossed you won’t need it.

Is there an Italian word of expression 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: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase all about?

Italian expression of the day: 'Si tratta di'

Today’s expression is one you’ll hear a lot in spoken Italian.

It’s also a tricky one for anglophones to wrap our heads around, because although it appears simple – ‘si tratta di’ basically means something along the lines of ‘it concerns/discusses/deals with/is about’ – it actually doesn’t translate very cleanly into English most of the time.

Let’s start with the use that’s easiest for us to grasp: asking and answering what something’s about/what it concerns.

– Pronto, sono l’ispettore Jackson, posso parlare con la signora Hoffman?
– Sì, sono io – posso chiedere di cosa si tratta?

– Hello, this is Inspector Jackson speaking, can I speak with Mrs. Hoffman?
– Yes, this is she – may I ask what this is concerning?

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We can also use the phrase to say that something is ‘a matter of’ or ‘a question of’:

Se si tratta di qualche ora, rimarremo qui ad aspettarla.
If it’s a question of hours, we’ll stay here and wait for her.

Ora si tratta solo di scoprire dove ha lasciato le chiavi.
Now it’s a just a matter of figuring out where she left the keys.

And si tratta di can also be as a translation for ‘when it comes to’.

Adoro mangiare bene, ma quando si tratta di cucinare sono una frana.
I love eating well, but when it comes to cooking I suck.

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Where things start to get a bit more complicated is that you’ll often see the phrase used where the English translation doesn’t require anything.

For example, you might hear the following exchange at work:

– Michela non viene al lavoro oggi perché la sua bambina è malata.
– Spero che non si tratti di nulla di grave.

– Michela’s not coming into work today because her little girl’s sick.
– I hope it’s nothing serious.

You could say ‘I hope it doesn’t consist of anything serious’, which would get you closer to a direct translation – but in English this would sound oddly formal and overblown (in the above example we use tratti rather than tratta because spero che requires the subjunctive).

What if you want to say that a certain thing – a song, a book, a film, a speech – discusses or ‘deals with’ certain themes or issues?

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Firstly, note that impersonal si there. It’s standing in for a subject, which means we can’t have both the subject and the si in the same sentence together – one of them has to go.

You can say, for example, ‘Il suo terzo libro tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘her third book deals with ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom.’

Or you can say, ‘Nel suo terzo libro, si tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘In her third book, she discusses ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom” (a more literal translation would be ‘in her third book, ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom are discussed’, which sounds a bit awkward in English).

You could ask:

Di cosa tratta il libro?
What does the book discuss?

or

Di cosa si tratta nel libro?
What’s discussed in the book?

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What you can’t do is say, ‘Il libro si tratta di…’ or ask ‘Di cosa si tratta il libro?’. Neither of these constructions work because you can’t have both the impersonal si and the subject (in this case, il libro) together.

What if you want to say, for example, ‘the book/film is about…’?

The easiest way to do that is either to just say ‘il film parla di…‘ – ‘the film talks about…’ ; or ‘il film racconta la storia di…’ – ‘the film tells the story of…’:

Il film parla di un robot che vuole distruggere la razza umana.
The film’s about a robot who wants to destroy the human race.

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Il libro racconta la storia di un ragazzo che scopre di essere un mago.
The book tells the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what this phrase is all about!

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

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