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Italian expression of the day: ‘Alle prime armi’

Here’s an Italian expression for the ‘uninitiated’.

Italian word of the day: Alle prime armi.
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

At the risk of being chastised for resorting to well-worn clichés, if each Italian teenager had a cent for every time they were scorned on account of them being ‘alle prime armi’, Italy’s youth unemployment would likely be less of a cause for concern right now.

But, what does ‘alle prime armi’ mean and why are youngsters the most likely (and most unfortunate) targets of this peculiar expression? 

Well, as some of you might have already guessed from the presence of the word ‘armi’ (weapons), the expression comes from the military world and refers, in its original meaning, to any young recruit being handed their weapons at the start of their training in the forces. 

As such, the idiom’s literal rendition into English would be something along the lines of ‘[someone] holding their weapons for the first time’.

But, nowadays, the expression is hardly ever used in its first intended meaning as its scope has extended to encompass practically anyone who’s recently started a new job or craft and has little to none experience in the relevant field. 

So, in its more recent interpretation, the idiom would actually correspond to English adjectives such as ‘fledgling’, ‘inexperienced’ or ‘green’, or expressions like ‘wet behind the ears’.

Alternatively, the Italian expression could also be replaced by nouns such as ‘beginner’, ‘rookie’ or ‘novice’. 

Here are some examples of how Italians use ‘alle prime armi’:

Cosa ne pensa del mio lavoro di oggi?
Penso che sia proprio il lavoro di uno alle prime armi.

What do you think of my work today?
I think it’s the work of a novice.

Questo progetto di bilancio è un disastro. Si vede che sei alle prime armi. 
This draft budget is a mess. It’s evident that you’re inexperienced.

Il vino non va aperto così. Sei proprio alle prime armi, ragazzo.
You don’t open bottles of wine like that. You really are green, boy.

As you can see from the above examples, the expression is often used in a rather patronising, slightly demoralising way, which, take it from an Italian born and bred, is sadly the default attitude of most Italian people over the age of 50 regardless of whether they are family members, long-time friends or just your superiors at work.

If it’s any comfort, you should know that this is just one of those hard and fast aspects of Italian culture that have been there from time immemorial and most people using the expression actually mean well. 

And, if you’re not too happy about being described as a person ‘alle prime armi’, you’ll at least find no shortage of witty comebacks in the Italian language.

Do you have a favourite 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 ‘Peloso’

Here's why being 'hairy' in Italian isn't necessarily a good thing...

Italian word of the day 'Peloso'

You’d expect a dog or cat to be peloso/a – furry, fluffy or shaggy – but what about a human who’s peloso (pronunciation here)?

It might just refer to someone who’s hairy, or a hairy body part.

È una giornata fredda per fare un tuffo in mare ma Davide non deve preoccuparsi, guardate quant’è peloso!
It’s a cold day for a dip in the sea but Davide doesn’t need to worry, look how hairy he is!

Le mie sopracciglia pelose le ho prese da mia madre.
I got my furry eyebrows from my mother.

But it can also mean someone who’s artful and wily – the Treccani dictionary says the word defines someone who has their own interests at heart and lacks moral scruples.

Non fidatevi di Claudio, è la persona più pelosa e insincera che abbia mai conosciuto.
Don’t trust Claudio, he’s the most self-interested and insincere person I’ve ever met.

Where did the idea of a sly, self-serving person being ‘hairy’ come from?

A video explainer on the Repubblica news site offers some clues: it discusses the origins of the phrase carità pelosa, meaning a type of charity or help offered by a donor whose underlying motives are selfish.

According to presenter Stefano Massini, the expression refers all the way back to the 11th century, when William the Conqueror (often referred to as Giuliano/Gugliemo il Bastardo, ‘William the Bastard’, in Italian) sought the blessing of Pope Alexander II for his 1066 invasion of England.

Alexander agreed to support William’s military campaign, and was said to have sent the warrior a gold ring along with a few hairs from the beard of St. Peter as a token of his approval.

The invasion was – famously – successful, and to thank to the pope, William sent him a vast array of riches plundered from his new kingdom, worth far more than Alexander’s initial gift of a piece of jewellery and a few hairs.

While we can’t know that Alexander II expected such a high return on investment, these days any charitable donor hoping for similar repayment – or just any giver whose motives are unclear – is said to be offering carità pelosa.

Meanwhile, avere il pelo sullo stomaco – literally, ‘to have hair on your stomach/heart’ means to be completely lacking in scruples and conscience, while avere il pelo/i peli sul cuore – ‘to have hairs on your heart’ means to be cold and insensitive.

One obvious interpretation is that having a body part insulated by hair makes it unfeeling and impervious to any criticism or insults.

Another is that various ancient Greek figures, including Aristomenes of Messene – who fought the Spartans – and the Greek rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus, were reputed to have been found with large and hairy hearts in their bodies when they died.

The theory is that at the time this was considered a sign of courage and admirable toughness, but over the course of centuries it came to stand for insensitivity and meanness.

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