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Italian expression of the day: ‘Dare del filo da torcere’

Don't let this Italian phrase give you a hard time.

Italian expression of the day dare del filo da torcere
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If in English we talk about ‘giving someone a hard time’, Italians have an altogether more poetic way of getting the same idea across.

Dare (del) filo da torcere – literally, ‘to give a thread to twist’ – means to give someone a run for their money, to make their life difficult, to put up a fight, or to generally get on their case.

“…davamo per scontato che se fossimo tornate senza braccialetto ci avrebbe dato filo da torcere.”
“…we took it as read that if we returned without the bracelet she’d give us a hard time.”
(From Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Lying Lives of Adults’)

Hanno dato del filo da torcere all’altra squadra.
They put up a good fight against the other team.

Vediamo se riusciamo a dare del filo da torcere a questo truffatore.
Let’s see if we can’t give this scammer a run for his money.

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Note the del is optional – it can be left out without changing the meaning.

So where did this phrase originate?

Back when fabric was made entirely by hand, the fibres first had to be spun into yarn, which involved torcitura, or twisting – without which the thread would be too weak to form properly.

This process was notoriously difficult, as it was very easy to break the yarn as you were twisting it into being.

One source even claims the women who performed the task had to keep their hands continually moisturised and would have them checked regularly by supervisors for smoothness, as rough skin alone could tear the fibres.

Because the job was such an arduous and complicated one, over time ‘giving someone a thread to twist’ came to mean making things very difficult for them.

It’s a phrase that works by degrees; for example, you can give someone molto filo da torcere (a very hard time – literally, a lot of thread to twist), or un po’ di filo da torcere (a bit of a hard time/ a bit of thread to twist).

La professoressa le ha dato molto filo da torcere quando è arrivata in ritardo l’altro giorno.
The teacher gave her a really hard time when she arrived late the other day.

Che ne dici di dare un po’ di filo da torcere a questi cretini?
How about giving these jerks a bit of a run for their money?

Filo da torcere is also, incidentally, the Italian title of the film Every Which Way but Loose, a 1978 offbeat comedy starring Clint Eastwood that became a surprise commercial hit despite being critically panned.

Now you’ve mastered this phrase, see if you can’t give the best student in your Italian language class a run for their money the next time you meet.

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 expression of the day: ‘A meno che’

You might want some help mastering this phrase, unless your Italian is already advanced.

Italian expression of the day: 'A meno che'

It’s always helpful to have a little caveat up your sleeve when making plans – just in case something crops up and you need to change course.

In English, there’s a pretty simple way to express this idea: we just use the word ‘unless’ followed by the present simple.

Italian, however, is a bit more complicated. We need to add a non after a meno che – something that can trip up anglophones – and then follow this with a subjunctive, since we’re talking about a hypothetical situation.

Potremmo andare a fare un giro in bicicletta, a meno che tu non abbia da fare?
We could go for a bike ride, unless you’re busy?

La festa si terrà all’aperto, a meno che non piova.
She’ll have the party outdoors unless it rains.

To wrap your head around this addition of a negative, it can help to think of the Italian translation less as “unless XYZ is the case” so much as something along the lines of “as long as XYZ weren’t the case.”

A meno che is the most common variant you’ll hear, but if you want to mix things up a bit, you could instead use any of salvo che, tranne che, or eccetto che.

Il rimborso sarà effettuato entro 24 ore, signora, salvo che Lei non cambi idea prima di allora.
The refund will be processed within 24 hours, madam, unless you change your mind before then.

L’intervento chirurgico non è necessario, tranne che i sintomi non causino dolore.
Surgery isn’t necessary unless the symptoms are causing you any pain.

Unless you’ve been watching TV throughout this explainer, we’re sure you’ll be confidently using a meno che and its equivalents in no time.

Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.