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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘A quattro palmenti’

The phrase you'll need to describe a true staple of Italian summer.

Italian expression of the day: ‘A quattro palmenti’
Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If you’re lucky enough to be spending your summer holidays somewhere in Italy, don’t kid yourself: there’s going to be a lot of eating – or overeating – involved.

Today’s expression might at least help you describe it.

Mangiare a quattro palmenti’ is a popular expression used to describe the act of eating in a particularly fast and greedy manner.

Just think of the way all diets and semblances of self-constraint are generally dashed out of the window as soon as a plate of hot panzerotti is placed at the centre of the table.

The phrase could be considered the Italian equivalent of English expressions of the likes of ‘wolfing down’, ‘scoffing’, ‘gobbling’, ‘scarfing down’ and so on.

Oh, Luca, puoi per una volta provare a non mangiare a quattro palmenti?

Scusa, avevo tanta fame.

Oh, Luca, can you please try not to wolf down [all of your food] for a change?

Sorry, I was hungry.

Le sfogliatelle che fa mia nonna sono buone da morire. Le mangio a quattro palmenti ogni volta che le cucina.

My grandma’s sfogliatelle are to die for. I scarf them down every single time she makes them.  

But, while the action may be familiar to almost anyone, the idiom’s literal translation is likely to be tough for Italian learners to crack.

In fact, the word ‘palmenti’, which is the plural of ‘palmento’, isn’t used in any social context other than the one mentioned above and it would be practically impossible to glean its meaning by simply analysing the structure of the noun.

So, what is a ‘palmento’? Though the word might remind you of palm trees (‘palme’ in Italian) or the palms of one’s hands (‘palmi’), it’s got nothing to do with either.

A ‘palmento’ is one of the two fundamental elements allowing for the correct functioning of a water mill, namely the millstone – naturally, the other one is the water wheel. 

A millstone’s main job is that of rotating on a stationary base so as to grind and crush wheat or other grains, thus producing flour. Does that remind you of something?

Living up to their repuation as highly imaginative people, at the start of last century, but possibly even before then, Italian speakers started associating the laborious grinding of millstones to the chewing motions of human jaws and the expression ‘a quattro palmenti’ (‘with four millstones’) became a way to describe people greedily chomping on their food.

It isn’t quite clear why exactly four ‘palmenti’ were used here, though the number must have been seen as exaggerated and hyperbolic. 

Hai veramente intenzione di mangiare tutto quello che c’è a tavola a quattro palmenti?

Si, quello era il piano…

Are you really going to scoff everything that’s on the table?

Yeah, that was my plan…

The expression ‘mangiare a due palmenti’ also exists, though it’s hardly ever used nowadays, so feel free to stick with the ‘four-millstone’ version.

Do you have an 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 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.

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