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Italian expression of the day: ‘Conosco i miei polli’

We know what we're dealing with with this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day conosco i miei polli
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

You don’t have to be a poultry farmer to go around telling people ‘conosco i miei polli’ – literally, ‘I know my chickens’ – in Italian.

There’s no perfect translation, but it means something along the lines of ‘I know who I’m dealing with/ what they can get up to/ what they’re like’; I know what to expect from them, for better or worse.

It usually implies slightly mischievously that the people or person being discussed could be troublemakers, and that the speaker has the necessary knowledge to deal with them effectively.

You might think of it as ‘I know what those little devils/rascals are like’ if referring to naughty children, or ‘I know how those jokers/b******s operate’ if discussing petty officials or difficult colleagues.

Saranno tornati entro la mattinata; fidati, conosco i miei polli.
They’ll be back by morning; trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

Conosco i miei polli; vedrete che arriveranno alla riunione con mezz’ora di ritardo e daranno la colpa al traffico.
I know them: you’ll see, they’ll get to the meeting half an hour late and blame it on the traffic.

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According to at least one source, the full original phrase is ‘conosco i miei polli alla calzetta‘, or ‘I know my chickens by their stockings’.

It refers back to a time when chickens roamed the streets or shared courtyards freely.

So they didn’t get mixed up, each bird had a little scrap of coloured cloth tied around their foot that allowed each owner to quickly spot their chicken.

The next time you’re dealing with some tricky characters, you’ll know just what to say.

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 occhio e croce’

It’ll take you roughly five minutes to master this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: ‘A occhio e croce’

Italians aren’t exactly sticklers for precision. 

In fact, it could be argued that most have a natural (and exceedingly irritating) inclination to be as vague as they possibly can when expressing times, sizes and other types of measurement. 

That’s a big part of the reason why the expression a occhio e croce is so popular in ordinary, day-to-day Italian.

A occhio e croce, which is literally translatable as ‘by eye and cross’, is essentially used to refer to any calculation or judgement the speaker is unsure of. Its most immediate English equivalents are: approximately, roughly, more or less and give or take. 

Quante persone c’erano alla festa ieri?

Mah, 30 persone, a occhio e croce.

How many people were at the party yesterday?

Hmm, 30 people, give or take.

Quanto è distante casa tua da qui?

Credo due chilometri, a occhio e croce.

How far’s your place from here?

Roughly two kilometres, I think.

As shown by the above examples, a occhio e croce generally follows the object the speaker is unsure of, though it can sometimes be used at the start of a sentence:

Quanta corda ti serve per la barca?

A occhio e croce, direi tre metri.

How much rope do you need for your boat?

At a rough guess, I’d say three metres.

In these cases, the expression is best translated as ‘at a guess’.

It’s also worth pointing out that some ‘lazy’ native speakers might sometimes remove the preposition a and only say occhio e croce. In such situations, the meaning remains the same.

That said, now that you more or less know how to use the expression, you might be wondering where it comes from. 

Briefly, the phrase is largely thought to have originated within Florence’s Silk Guild in the Late Middle Ages. 

There, whenever one or more threads would come unthreaded, workers would have to rethread them a occhio, meaning with the only support of their eyes, and a croce, that is by following a rough cross pattern. Hence the expression a occhio e croce.