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Italian expression of the day: ‘O la va, o la spacca’

Next time you throw caution to the wind and do something you might live to regret, you may want to say this first.

Italian word of the day: O la va, o la spacca
Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

We’ve all at least once in our lives been in a situation where success would likely earn us eternal glory among family or friends, while failure would inevitably result in overwhelming feelings of shame.

It is at such moments, when the line between assuming the status of living legend and becoming the village idiot is ever so fine, Italians resort to the expression ‘O la va, o la spacca’.

This is usually uttered (or often just whispered) right before doing the momentous deed. 

A literal translation of this idiom would be something along the lines of ‘Either it goes or it breaks’, but in the English you might use the sayings ‘make or break’ or ‘do or die’.

Here are a couple of examples of how the expression is used:

Q – Quella ragazza è fuori dalla tua portata. Hai una possibilità su un milione di farcela…

A – Lo so. O la va, o la spacca.

Q – That girl is out of your league. It’s one chance in a million…

A – I know. It’s a make-or-break situation.

Q – E’ un salto troppo lungo. Cadrai nell’acqua.

A – Tieni il mio telefono. O la va, o la spacca.

Q – It’s too big a jump. You’ll fall into the water.

A – Hold my phone. It’s make or break at this point.

As you can see, this idiom is used in situations where the outcome is going to be either very good or very bad, with little to no middle ground.

But keep in mind that locals use the expression in a pretty ironic and light-hearted way, so you’d never hear an Italian use this in a really dangerous situation. 

O la va, o la spacca‘ is a very popular saying in spoken Italian and it is cherished by most native speakers, so using it at the right place and time will surely score you some brownie points with your Italian acquaintances.

And many believe the idiom to have inherent auspicious powers. It’s thought that simply uttering the expression prior to undertaking whatever action or challenge one is faced with will increase their odds of being successful. Clearly we have no way to verify that, so we’ll let you judge for yourself.

As for the origin of the idiom, it’s unfortunately unknown, though the most convincing hypothesis is that it might derive from an old carpentry-related saying native to the Marche region: ‘O bbocca lo chiodo, o spacco la tavoletta’.

This could be roughly translated to ‘Either the nail goes in or I break the board’, hence the belief it might be the forebear of today’s ‘O la va, o la spacca’.

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For members


Italian expression of the day: ‘Può darsi’

This might be just the Italian phrase you need.

Italian expression of the day: 'Può darsi'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s expression is one I learned courtesy of my Italian in-laws, who frequently use it as a non-committal response to my suggestions.

This isn’t a phrase that ever came up in Italian class, and at first I wasn’t sure what they were saying. But from the context it was obvious that it meant something like “perhaps” or “possibly”.

– Forse sono in ritardo a causa del traffico

– Può darsi

– Maybe they’re late because of the traffic

– Possibly

When può darsi is used alone as a response, it’s not always clear just how likely the speaker thinks something is.

In fact, it can mean anything from “maybe” to “probably”.

Literally translated, the phrase doesn’t make much sense to English speakers. It’s a combination of può (the third-person singular form of the verb potere, ‘to be able‘) and darsi (the reflexive form of the verb dare ‘to give‘). It could be translated literally as “it can be given”.

As well as being used alone, this phrase can be used within sentences instead of forse (maybe) or magari, which is altogether more complicated.

With può darsi you’ll need to pay more attention to the grammar. But it’s worth mastering, as the phrase is very commonly used in spoken Italian.

Unlike forse and magari, sentences using può darsi need to be constructed in a particular way.

The formula you’ll need is può darsi + che + a verb in its subjunctive form.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

– Può darsi che Gianni sia in ritardo.

– Maybe/it’s possible that Gianni is late

Compare that to the simpler structure of:

– Forse Gianni è in ritardo.

– Maybe Gianni is late

Both sentences effectively mean the same thing.

In the first example, the form of the verb ‘to be’ used is sia because we’re speaking in the subjunctive.

Understandably, language learners often want to run for the hills when they start hearing about the subjunctive mood (congiuntivo). But it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Put very simply, it’s used whenever you’re not stating a fact. It expresses doubt, possibility, or uncertainty. It may also be used to talk about emotions, or when making suggestions – so for most normal everyday conversations, then.

So, while this is often taught as a more ‘advanced’ bit of grammar, you may want to get on friendly terms with it ASAP in order to partake in everyday chit-chat with Italians. Read a more detailed explanation of it here.

It pays to remember that with può darsi you don’t need to use the verb in the subjunctive form if you’re speaking in the future or conditional tense.

For example, you could also say:

Può darsi che Gianni sarà in ritardo

– Maybe Gianni will be late

Here, the verb refers to the future, so we used sarà – the future simple form of essere (to be).

And once you’ve got the hang of that, you can take things a step further by inserting the word anche (also) in between può and darsi to add emphasis.

Può anche darsi che sia un disastro totale.

– It may well be a total disaster

As mentioned earlier, this phrase is used for things you think are possible or likely.

If you’re a bit more certain about something, it would be better to use probabilmente or è molto probabile (‘probably’ or ‘it’s very likely’).

Will your Italian friends be impressed if you master the use of può darsi?

Sì, è molto probabile!

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