SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Essere al verde’

If one of your Italian pals claims to be ‘at the green’ during your next night out, prepare to pay for their drinks

Italian word of the day: 'Essere al verde'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Who hasn’t at least once in their life opened their online banking app and stared with absolute dread at the balance, wondering how on earth they managed to squander away their savings in the space of a week?

If it’s any comfort, it happens to the best of us and we are definitely not here to judge.

But let us not stray from the purpose of this article, which is to teach you the Italian way to say that you’re stone broke. So, the next time you’re as poor as a church mouse, you can share the news with linguistic richness, at least.

One of, if not the, most popular Italian idiom on the subject is ‘essere al verde’, which can be roughly translated to ‘being at the green’. Naturally, any possible use of the expression requires the speaker to properly conjugate the verb ‘to be’ (‘essere’), as in the following instances:

Q: Vuoi andare a cena fuori stasera?

A: Scusami. Sono al verde. Facciamo la prossima volta.

Q: Would you like to dine out tonight?

A: I’m sorry. I’m running low on funds. Next time.

Q: Riusciresti a prestarmi 20 euro?

A: No e non mi interessa se sei al verde.

Q: Could I borrow 20 euros from you?

A: No and I don’t care that you’re feeling the pinch.

As you can see from the above examples, the expression is mostly used in informal, ordinary conversations, though it is sometimes used in published pieces of work, especially in rather humorous and/or provocative newspaper articles and comic books.

– Di certo oggi i conti del Carroccio sono al verde. [From Italian newspaper La Repubblica, June 29th 2018]

– Surely, the Carroccio’s finances are strained at the moment.

Now that you have a basic grasp of how to use the expression, you might be wondering where ‘essere al verde’ came from.

You might actually be puzzled as to why Italians associate the colour green with being penniless seeing as, in the English-speaking world, the most popular hue for such delicate matters is red. 

Well, much like many other Italian idioms, ‘essere al verde’ originated from a pretty interesting ancient custom. In Renaissance-era Florence, wax candles whose bottom ends had been painted green were used to time public auctions. The latter were officially declared finished as soon as the candle would be ‘at the green’ (‘al verde’). 

Over time, the expression ‘al verde’ made its way out of Tuscan auction houses and became extremely popular all across the country as a way to say that someone was running low on something. For instance, if an army was ‘al verde di soldati’, it had very few soldiers left among its ranks. 

Eventually, the expression was also applied to personal finances – or, I should say, the dearth thereof. ‘Essere al verde di denari’ (i.e. ‘having little money left’) quickly became a widely used colloquial idiom and that’s precisely the lexical form that has made it all the way into modern Italian.

These days, native speakers are far more likely to use the shortened version of the expression (‘essere al verde’) rather than the full-length one (‘essere al verde di denari/soldi’) because, well, who likes to be long-winded when being strapped for cash?

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

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day ‘Peloso’

Here's why being 'hairy' in Italian isn't necessarily a good thing...

Italian word of the day 'Peloso'

You’d expect a dog or cat to be peloso/a – furry, fluffy or shaggy – but what about a human who’s peloso (pronunciation here)?

It might just refer to someone who’s hairy, or a hairy body part.

È una giornata fredda per fare un tuffo in mare ma Davide non deve preoccuparsi, guardate quant’è peloso!
It’s a cold day for a dip in the sea but Davide doesn’t need to worry, look how hairy he is!

Le mie sopracciglia pelose le ho prese da mia madre.
I got my furry eyebrows from my mother.

But it can also mean someone who’s artful and wily – the Treccani dictionary says the word defines someone who has their own interests at heart and lacks moral scruples.

Non fidatevi di Claudio, è la persona più pelosa e insincera che abbia mai conosciuto.
Don’t trust Claudio, he’s the most self-interested and insincere person I’ve ever met.

Where did the idea of a sly, self-serving person being ‘hairy’ come from?

A video explainer on the Repubblica news site offers some clues: it discusses the origins of the phrase carità pelosa, meaning a type of charity or help offered by a donor whose underlying motives are selfish.

According to presenter Stefano Massini, the expression refers all the way back to the 11th century, when William the Conqueror (often referred to as Giuliano/Gugliemo il Bastardo, ‘William the Bastard’, in Italian) sought the blessing of Pope Alexander II for his 1066 invasion of England.

Alexander agreed to support William’s military campaign, and was said to have sent the warrior a gold ring along with a few hairs from the beard of St. Peter as a token of his approval.

The invasion was – famously – successful, and to thank to the pope, William sent him a vast array of riches plundered from his new kingdom, worth far more than Alexander’s initial gift of a piece of jewellery and a few hairs.

While we can’t know that Alexander II expected such a high return on investment, these days any charitable donor hoping for similar repayment – or just any giver whose motives are unclear – is said to be offering carità pelosa.

Meanwhile, avere il pelo sullo stomaco – literally, ‘to have hair on your stomach/heart’ means to be completely lacking in scruples and conscience, while avere il pelo/i peli sul cuore – ‘to have hairs on your heart’ means to be cold and insensitive.

One obvious interpretation is that having a body part insulated by hair makes it unfeeling and impervious to any criticism or insults.

Another is that various ancient Greek figures, including Aristomenes of Messene – who fought the Spartans – and the Greek rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus, were reputed to have been found with large and hairy hearts in their bodies when they died.

The theory is that at the time this was considered a sign of courage and admirable toughness, but over the course of centuries it came to stand for insensitivity and meanness.

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

SHOW COMMENTS