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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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For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Fare una filippica’

When your best Italian mate is giving you an earful for being a couple of minutes late, tell him to quit the ‘philippic’.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Fare una filippica’

As far as idioms go, fare una filippica is one of the most popular ones used in Italian television and print media. Presenters and journalists use it every day as a way to give colour and panache to their reports.

But what is a filippica (literally, ‘philippic’ in English) and, above all, what does it mean to make one?

In Italian, the word filippica is generally used to describe a very impassioned invective: a tongue-lashing, if you will, aimed at a political adversary or any other opponent.

So fare una filippica means having a go at someone, and in a rather ferocious and hostile way.

Let’s have a look at some examples:

Il capo dell’opposizione ha fatto una filippica contro l’immobilità del governo nei confronti delle famiglie a basso reddito.

The head of the opposition harshly criticised the government’s inertia towards low-income families.

Or:

L’allenatore ha fatto una filippica contro i tifosi della squadra ospite per il loro comportamento sugli spalti.

The coach condemned the away side’s fans for their behaviour on the stands.

As you can see, on most occasions, the expression is followed by contro (‘against’) plus the person or people the invective is directed at. 

As previously mentioned, the expression is widely used in broadcast and print media. However, it is also frequently used in colloquial Italian as a way to mock someone who is being overly dramatic or getting unreasonably upset about trivial matters.

For instance:

Sei sempre in ritardo. Sei insopportabile.
Sono solo due minuti. Non farmi una filippica…

You’re always late. You’re insufferable.
It’s just a couple of minutes. Don’t you dare have a go at me…

So, now that you have a basic grasp of how (and when) to use the idiom, you may also be interested in knowing where it comes from. 

Like most Italian idioms, fare una filippica originated in the classical age.

Notably the expression dates back to 351 BC, when the independence of Athens, the richest and most technologically advanced city-state in ancient Greece, was being threatened by the expansionist designs of Philip II, king of Macedon.

Being conscious of the risks Macedon posed to his city’s autonomy, Athenian intellectual and statesman Demosthenes famously gave a number of fervid political speeches aimed at rallying his fellow citizens against Philip II and calling for a mobilisation of Athens’ military forces.

Such orations, whose eloquence and rhetoric are admired to this very day, were known as ‘philippics’ (‘filippiche’ in Italian), hence the very peculiar expression which, through the centuries, has made it all the way into modern Italian.

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

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