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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian expression of the day: ‘Una curiosità’

We were just wondering if you knew what this phrase might be used for?

Italian expression of the day: 'Una curiosità'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Language learners who like to ask questions (politely) will find the phrase una curiosità useful.

As you might guess, it literally translates as “a curiosity,” and can be used to describe something curious.

– Questo libro antico è una vera curiosità

– This antique book is a real curiosity

But it also turns out to be the perfect phrase to use when asking questions politely – but not too formally.

For example, I noticed a new restaurant had opened in our town and I wondered aloud if it would be open over the weekend as it was a holiday here in Italy.

My Italian husband, who loves nothing more than stopping strangers in the street for a chat, immediately asked a nearby person (who may or may not have had anything to do with the restaurant) the following question:

– Una curiosità, il ristorante sarà aperto domani sera?

Out of curiosity, will the restaurant be open tomorrow night?

This phrase has since proven invaluable in all kinds of situations; while shopping, at work, or even when completing paperwork at the town hall – the ultimate test of patience and politeness.

– Una curiosità, avete questo vestito in nero anche?

– Out of curiosity, do you also have this dress in black?

– Un’altra domanda, se mi permette una curiosità

– One more question, if you’ll humour me.

– Una curiosità, sarebbe possibile chiudere la finestra?

– Just wondering, would it be possible to close the window?

– Una curiosità, ho bisogno di completare questa parte del documento?

– Could you tell me, do I need to complete this part of the form?

We English speakers probably wouldn’t use the phrase “just out of curiosity” quite so often.

Personally, I’d only ever really say it in English if I wanted to make it very clear that I wasn’t questioning the truth of a statement, or if I was simply being nosy.

But as you can see, in Italian it’s a simple way to make your requests more polite in pretty much any situation.

I also like this variation, which means “tell me something”, “let me ask you a question”, or “humour me”.

– Toglimi una curiosità, Davide. Dove hai trovato il libro?

– Tell me something, Davide. Where did you find the book?

So while living in Italy may leave you with a head full of questions, at least you’ll be able to ask them politely.

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 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’

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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