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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Avere la coda di paglia’

No need to get all fired up about this phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Avere la coda di paglia'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Are you quick to react? To get defensive in a conversation before any criticism has come your way?

If you’re having a tough day, it’s easy to snap back. It likely won’t help, then, that the person you’re speaking to may accuse you of having la coda di paglia (Av-ER-eh Lah CO-DAH dee PAL-YAH) if you do.

Which is sure to wind you up even further.

It literally means ‘having a tail of straw’, which as you can guess, is quick to ignite and set on fire.

Eh ma io non ti ho mai sparlato alle spalle. Quindi non capisco perché lo stai dicendo a me

But I’ve never talked behind your back. So I don’t understand why you’re saying this to me

No, be’, stavo facendo una considerazione generale. Non è che stavo parlando di te. Cos’è, hai la coda di paglia?

No, well, I was making a general remark. It’s not that I was talking about you. Why so touchy?

via GIPHY

You have a straw tail, then, if you feel obliged to justify yourself, even if nobody is accusing you of anything.

One said source of the expression comes from an Aesop fable about a fox whose tail was cut off by a trap.

The fox was ashamed of its newfound lack of elegance and so its animal friends decided to make it a convincingly real-looking straw tail.

But one day a cockerel let the secret slip and news of the fox with the straw tail reached the farmers.

Knowing the fox’s weak spot, they lit fires near the hen houses so that he could no longer steal their chickens. The fox knew that straw catches fire easily, and for fear of getting burned, he never went near the hen houses again.

Hence ‘having a straw tail’ means fearing any kind of criticism for a behaviour, or a defect.

Depending on the context, the expression is also used with the meaning of not having a clear conscience and always being suspicious of everything.

You know you’re at fault, so you’re shady and quick to defend.

A Tuscan proverb says, “Chi ha la coda di paglia ha sempre paura che gli pigli fuoco” (He who has a straw tail is always afraid that it will catch fire).

Accidenti, questa mattina mi hanno rubato il portafoglio!

Damn! This morning my wallet got stolen!

Io non sono stato, ero a casa mia questa mattina!

I didn’t do it, I was at home this morning!

Why would the initial reaction be to defend if you’re innocent?

Abbiamo un po’ la coda di paglia, no?

Does someone have a guilty conscience there? Or – overcompensating a bit, are we?

Certo, tranquillo, non ho detto questo. Però dentro di me penso che tu abbia la coda di paglia, perché io non ti ho accusato.

Sure, don’t worry, I didn’t say that. But inside me I think you have a straw tail (a guilty conscience), because I didn’t accuse you.

The phrase suggests an over-the-top or guilty reaction to something that was never a criticism or accusation.

Chi è stato a rompere il bicchiere?

Who broke the glass?

Io no, non c’ero, e se c’ero, non ho visto niente!

I wasn’t there, and if I was, I didn’t see anything!

Ah allora hai la coda di paglia!

Ah, someone’s being defensive!

Even if the person with a ‘straw tail’ didn’t actually do anything wrong, they could be regarded as oversensitive or prickly if they react in this way.

So the next time someone is pushing your buttons, keep your cool and don’t set fire to that straw tail.

Do you have a favourite Italian word 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: ‘Per cortesia’

It would only be polite to master the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It usually doesn’t take long for foreign nationals residing or merely vacationing in the bel paese to realise that Italians have three different ways to express what in the English-speaking world is generally conveyed by means of a simple, unproblematic ‘please’.

Now, more often than not, the trio of expressions available in the Italian language – ‘per cortesia’, ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’ – creates a fair deal of confusion as to what form should be used and in what social circumstances.

Unfortunately, there is no official grammar rule on how to juggle the above-mentioned expressions and their use is mostly regulated by unwritten social rules and etiquette. So, to help you familiarise yourselves with the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian, here’s a breakdown of what each form is used for and, above all, on what occasions.

Of the three forms used by locals, ‘per cortesia’ is surely the most peculiar. The expression’s literal translation would be something along the lines of ‘as an act of courtesy’ or ‘as a kindness’, though, of course, it is generally rendered into English with the catch-all ‘please’.

According to tacit social rules, ‘per cortesia’ and its kin adverb ‘cortesemente’ are generally employed in formal settings, especially in interactions with people one is not acquainted with or does not know very well. So, for conversations with anyone that you might consider a stranger, this is the go-to expression.

Q: Mi scusi, ci potrebbe portare il conto, per cortesia?

A: Certo, arrivo subito.

Q: Excuse me, could you please get us the bill?

A: Sure, I’ll be right with you.

Q: Mi perdoni il disturbo, Dottor Rossi. Riuscirebbe a mandarmi i documenti in questione entro sera, per cortesia?

A: Certo. Provvedo subito a mandarli.

Q: I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr Rossi. Could you please send me the documents in question by this evening?

A: Sure. I’ll send them right away.

As you can see from the above examples, ‘per cortesia’ is usually placed at the end of a question and it is generally used together with the so-called ‘polite form’ (forma di cortesia), that is by addressing the person you’re communicating with as ‘Lei’ and conjugating verbs in the third person singular. 

The ‘polite form’ is usually scrapped in informal settings and so is ‘per cortesia’. Notably, in ordinary conversations with friends, family or other acquaintances, Italians switch to the use of ‘tu’ (i.e. they address the speaker with verbs in the second person singular) and simultaneously opt for either ‘per favore’ or ‘per piacere’.

The difference in meaning between the two expressions is somewhat negligible, so much so that they are often used interchangeably by most native speakers. 

However, for the sake of nitpicking, while both forms are used to ask something of people one knows very well, ‘per piacere’ is specifically used for fairly urgent and/or dramatic pleas. In other words, when you’re begging someone to do something, ‘per piacere’ is the right expression for the job at hand.

Q: Giampietro, la tua camera è un disastro. Puoi pulirla per piacere? Abbiamo ospiti a cena stasera.

Q: Giampietro, your bedroom is a mess. Can you please tidy up? We’re having people over for dinner tonight.

Q: Lo so che non ti piace come persona ma puoi fare uno sforzo e provare ad essere gentile, per favore?

Q: I know you don’t like her but can you please make an effort and try to be nice?

Q: Mi puoi prestare una penna, per favore? Mi sono dimenticato l’astuccio.

A: Ancora? Neanche per sogno! 

Q: Could you lend me a pen? I forgot to bring my pencil case.

A: Again? No way!

Hopefully, the above scenarios have given you an idea of the (very slight) difference between ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’. However, please bear in mind that the former will get the job done in almost any informal conversation, so, when in doubt, go for that and you’ll hardly ever go wrong.

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

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