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Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day qualcosa non torna
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

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

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For members


Italian word of the day: ‘Pippone’

Allow us to engage in a little discourse on the meaning of this Italian word.

Italian word of the day: ‘Pippone’

Have you ever found yourself in the company of someone holding forth for many minutes at a time, wondering how you ended up in this situation and when you can make your exit?

Then you’ve experienced a pippone (pronunciation available here): a relentless and self-indulgent monologue from which listeners can’t easily escape.

The pippone-dispenser might be lecturing you because of something you’ve done, or just sounding off on a favourite subject. If they regularly try to corner you for this purpose, they might be an attaccabottoni.

The word originates from Roman dialect – more on its origins directly below – but is used and understood throughout Italy.

Preparatevi ad un bel pippone.
Get ready to be buttonholed.

Ce la fate a risparmiarmi il pippone sul non bere e fumare?
Could you spare me the lecture about not drinking and smoking?

A word of warning to new users: you’ll want to be careful about exactly how you deploy the term, as it comes from the word pippa, i.e. the act of male masturbation.

Adding ‘-one’ (OH-neh) on to the end of a noun makes it a bigger version of itself (see nasone), so you can get a pretty good idea of the broader connotations of pippone.

The Italian language site Italiano Semplice points out that if you want to talk about someone launching into a speech, you should use the phrase attaccare un pippone rather than iniziare un pippone.

Non Attaccàer Pippone Per Favore Marco Giallini GIF - Non Attaccàer Pippone Per Favore Marco Giallini Boris GIFs

That’s because while the former clearly refers to someone giving a speech, the latter could be mistaken for something more vulgar.

Mi ha attaccato un pippone allucinante.
He gave me such a horrendous lecture.

So che ti sto attaccando un pippone, ma ti volevo dare quante più informazioni possibili.
I know I’m giving you a bit of a speech, but I wanted to provide as much information as possible.

Note that this is the formulation you’ll to use when talking about delivering a pippone; the verb pippare refers neither to speechifying nor self-pleasure, but the act of snorting drugs like cocaine.

That’s enough of a pippone for one day.

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