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Italian expression of the day: ‘Di fretta’

When learning this Italian phrase, take the time to make sure you get it right

Italian expression of the day: 'Di fretta'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Dashing around in a panic after drinking three cups of coffee and forgetting the time. Speeding towards a traffic light that’s just about to turn red. Arriving at an office to file paperwork a few minutes before it closes for lunch. D any of these scenes sound familiar?

I don’t know about you, but today’s phrase, di fretta, is one I’d use to describe how the Italians in my life often do things.

It sounds a bit like the English verb “fret”, meaning worry. Fittingly so, since even if doing things in this last-minute, disorganised manner isn’t making you stressed, it’s probably making other people feel like tearing their hair out.

Di fretta (pronounced ‘dee fret-tah’) is an adverbial phrase meaning “hastily”, “rushed” or “in a hurry”. It’s a synonym of the more formal precipitosamente.

– Un lavoro fatto di fretta 

– A rushed job

In other words, it’s the opposite of piano piano, or con calma.

You could use the phrase to describe yourself:

– Non posso fermarmi a chiacchierare con te: sono di fretta!

– I can’t stop and chat with you, I’m in a rush! 

(This is not something I ever hear people say in southern Italy.)

But be careful.

The similar adverbial phrase in fretta looks like it means the same thing at first. However, you can’t use it in exactly the same way. That little preposition makes a big difference.

Put simply: Di fretta means hastily, in a rush

In fretta means quickly, rapidly

For example:

– Vado di fretta

– I’m in a rush (at the moment).

– Vado in fretta

– Literally “I go quickly” – I’m a fast walker/driver, generally speaking.

Confusion arises because in fretta can also be used when talking about someone rushing, or going too quickly – although in that case you’d usually add troppo:

– Parli troppo in fretta

– You speak too quickly (in general, and possibly also right now)

It’s easy to use the wrong one. Even Italian native speakers themselves can make the mistake of saying “sono in fretta”, which dictionaries agree is not grammatically correct.

Sono di fretta is the right way to tell someone you’re in a rush.

And once Italian habits start rubbing off on you, no doubt you’ll be using this one a lot.

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: ‘Con le mani nel sacco’

Make sure you don't get caught out by this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Con le mani nel sacco’

Whether at school, at work or in some other everyday setting, we’ve all had to deal with people who don’t seem to know how to keep their hands off other peoples’ belongings.

From the cheeky coworker who’s been pilfering your sandwiches to those with more sinister motives, perhaps some of us have even put an early end to someone’s budding criminal career by catching them in the act.

In the English-speaking world, expressions suited to such situations abound, from ‘catching someone red-handed’ to ‘having someone dead to rights’.

But have you ever wondered what Italians say when they catch someone in flagrante?

The most popular Italian expression for the aforementioned circumstance is ‘cogliere con le mani nel sacco’. A literal translation of this idiom would be ‘catching [someone] with their hands in the bag’, which, as you might have guessed, stems from thieves’ unshakeable propensity to sneak their paws inside various receptacles.

In American English, you might say someone was ‘caught with their hand in the cookie jar’.

It’s a little different from the British English expression ‘being caught with your hand in the till’, which is specifically used to talk about the theft of money from an employer – whether or not it’s been taken from an actual cash register.

Note that native Italian speakers use the expression ‘cogliere con le mani nel sacco’ for all types of criminals, not just thieves.

Here are some examples:

Q – Hai sentito della tentata rapina in Via Verdi ieri notte?
A – Si. A quanto pare, la polizia ha colto i ladri con le mani nel sacco!
Q – Have you heard about the attempted burglary on Via Verdi last night?
A – Yeah. It seems the police caught the thieves in the act!

Q – Per quale motivo è in galera?
A – Bracconaggio. Le guardie forestali lo hanno colto con le mani nel sacco lo scorso ottobre.
Q – What’s he in jail for?
A – Poaching. Park rangers caught him red-handed last October.

As you can see, the verb ‘cogliere’ (‘to catch’ in English) must be declined in accordance with its subject (i.e. the person doing the catching). This is followed immediately by the object: the person (or people) being caught. This construction is followed by the phrase ‘con le mani nel sacco’.

While the expression is generally used in serious contexts and conversations, it may also be employed in a light-hearted way, as in:

Q – Ma tu non eri a dieta? Perche’ stai mangiando dei biscotti?

A – Diamine. Mi hai colto con le mani nel sacco.

Q – Weren’t you supposed to be on a diet? Why are you having cookies?
A – Damn. You caught me red-handed.

Bear in mind that alternative versions of the idiom exist.

For instance, in some areas locals may use the verbs ‘prendere’ or ‘beccare’ instead of the more common ‘cogliere’. But the overall meaning of the expression doesn’t change.

Regardless of the verb you end up using, next time you sneak up on someone who’s not exactly abiding by the law of the land, tell them that you’ve caught them ‘con le mani nel sacco’.

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