Italian word of the day: ‘Manovra’

You'll need to work this word into your vocabulary if you want to follow the Italian news.

Italian word of the day: 'Manovra'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

This is a word you may have seen in the headlines in Italy recently.

As you might guess, manovra can be translated simply as ‘manoeuvre’, a word we’ve borrowed ito English from French to describe a tricky or artful movement.

It has several uses in Italian, the most obvious being the same as in English:

C’era ampi spazi di manovra

There was ample space to manoeuvre

The verb in the infinitive in manovrare, and you can follow the standard grammar rules when using it.

lui manovra la barca abilmente

He manouvres the boat skilfully

But often you’ll need to add the verb fare (to do). 

fare manovra

to manoeuvre (a car)

fare manovra di parcheggio

To park – literally ‘to do a parking manouvre’

Una volta ho fatto la manovra di Heimlich a mia sorella

I once did the Heimlich manouvre on my sister

So far, so easy to talk about tricky movements.

But then it all gets a little bit murky when you realise that manovra as a verb also translates as ‘manipulate’, ‘steer’ or ‘influence’; and as a noun, ‘measure’ ‘ruse’, ‘tactic’ or ‘ploy’.

No wonder then that it’s used so often in a political context.

Especially as it can be used to talk about la nuova manovra fiscal, or new fiscale measures. Meanwhile, a manovra finanziaria describes a financial plan, or the budget – which has dominated headlines lately.

And while it’s close enough to the meaning in English, it doesn’t always translate exactly:

Il presidente ha manovrato il Congresso per far passare il programma.

Literally: The president manoeuvred congress in order to pass the bill.

It’s all in the context. This word can have many shades of meaning, but by using it and noticing it you should, in time, gain an understanding of what exactly the speaker or writer means in different contexts.

This is always a useful word to know, whether for describing your latest hair-raising Italian driving incident or following political conversations between Italian friends.

And as you can see, finding ways to use this word in a sentence doesn’t have to be una manovra difficile.

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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.