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Italian word of the day: ‘Morboso’

Don't get overly attached to this Italian word.

Italian word of the day: ‘Morboso’
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Most Italian adjectives have more than one single possible meaning and some of them can be used in completely different contexts and situations. 

Morboso (pronunciation available here) happens to fall under that category. 

As you might have already guessed, today’s adjective comes from the word ‘morbo’, which is generally used to indicate any type of contagious disease that is highly infectious and potentially lethal (cholera, plague, etc.).

So, in its primary meaning, morboso describes anything related to or caused by a contagious disease. As such, it’s generally rendered into English as ‘contagious’ or ‘infectious’.

Questi sono chiaramente i sintomi di una malattia morbosa.

These are clearly the symptoms of an infectious disease. 

But morboso is barely ever used in this way outside of the medical field and, even in that case, some native speakers might perceive the word as being too formal or somewhat archaic.

The adjective is far more popular in ordinary conversations when given its secondary and, if you will, less literal meaning. 

Italians also use morboso to refer to any emotion, feeling or behaviour that is considered excessive, especially in a way that might be seen as unhealthy or even pathological.

For instance: 

Marco ha sviluppato una ossessione morbosa nei confronti di lei.

Marco has developed an unhealthy obsession with her.

In this case, the Italian adjective might be translated into English as ‘unhealthy’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘disproportionate’ or, at times, even ‘morbid’.

But while the English ‘morbid’ only refers to an unnatural, excessive interest in disturbing or unpleasant things, especially death, the Italian ‘morboso’ has a much wider scope as it potentially refers to any over-the-top feeling or behaviour, even a positive one.

Ha un affetto morboso per la madre.

He has an unreasonable affection for his mother.

Finally – and this is perhaps the most common use of the adjective nowadays – morboso is also used to indicate people, and especially romantic partners, who are unbearably clingy.

So a ‘persona morbosa’ is a person who, for whatever reason, tends to be overly attached to someone else, depending on them emotionally or in some other way.

When intended in the above sense, the adjective may also be used jokingly:

Vedi che sei morboso?

Ma come morboso? Cosa stai dicendo?

Can you not see you’re being clingy?

Clingy how? What on earth are you talking about?

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Conosco i miei polli’

We know what we're dealing with with this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Conosco i miei polli'

You don’t have to be a poultry farmer to go around telling people ‘conosco i miei polli’ – literally, ‘I know my chickens’ – in Italian.

There’s no perfect translation, but it means something along the lines of ‘I know who I’m dealing with/ what they can get up to/ what they’re like’; I know what to expect from them, for better or worse.

It usually implies slightly mischievously that the people or person being discussed could be troublemakers, and that the speaker has the necessary knowledge to deal with them effectively.

You might think of it as ‘I know what those little devils/rascals are like’ if referring to naughty children, or ‘I know how those jokers/b******s operate’ if discussing petty officials or difficult colleagues.

Saranno tornati entro la mattinata; fidati, conosco i miei polli.
They’ll be back by morning; trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

Conosco i miei polli; vedrete che arriveranno alla riunione con mezz’ora di ritardo e daranno la colpa al traffico.
I know them: you’ll see, they’ll get to the meeting half an hour late and blame it on the traffic.

Business Guy Nbc GIF by Sunnyside

According to at least one source, the full original phrase is ‘conosco i miei polli alla calzetta‘, or ‘I know my chickens by their stockings’.

It refers back to a time when chickens roamed the streets or shared courtyards freely.

So they didn’t get mixed up, each bird had a little scrap of coloured cloth tied around their foot that allowed each owner to quickly spot their chicken.

The next time you’re dealing with some tricky characters, you’ll know just what to say.

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