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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

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’
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

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.

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ITALIAN LANGUAGE

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.

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