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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Ottimo’

We think this word is just great.

Italian word of the day: 'Ottimo'
Photo: DepositPhotos

One of the things I love about speaking Italian is that you can use words whose direct English equivalents rarely get an airing.

Ottimo is a perfect example: while its closest English relative is ‘optimum’, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve ever said that word aloud.

Ottimo, however, I say – and hear – just about every day. Italians use it much like we say ‘great’.

La cena è stata ottima, grazie.
Dinner was great, thank you.

Ottimo lavoro!
Great work!

In fact, ottimo is not just ‘great’ but, well, ‘optimum’: it means that something is the very best it could be.

Be careful not to confuse it with the words meglio or migliore, though: those are the ones you should reach for when you’re making a comparison, whereas ottimo is more general. You use it to say not that something is ‘better’ or ‘best’ out of two specific examples, but that it’s best of all: ‘the best possible’ or even ‘perfect’.

Ho un’ottima salute.
I’m in perfect health.

Esige l’ottimo da tutti i suoi dipendenti.
She demands the best from all her employees.

That’s why, when you’re talking about exams, un’ottimo is another way of saying ‘top marks’ or ‘A+’ – it’s the best grade you can get.

Merita un’ottimo.
He deserves an A+.

More often, though, you’ll hear ottimo as a simple expression of approval: like ‘Great!’ or ‘Wonderful!’

– Allora siamo tutti d’accordo.
– Ottimo!

– So we all agree.
– Great! 

And that is, quite frankly, optimum.

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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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Con le mani nel sacco’

Make sure you don't get caught out by this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Con le mani nel sacco’

Whether at school, at work or in some other everyday setting, we’ve all had to deal with people who don’t seem to know how to keep their hands off other peoples’ belongings.

From the cheeky coworker who’s been pilfering your sandwiches to those with more sinister motives, perhaps some of us have even put an early end to someone’s budding criminal career by catching them in the act.

In the English-speaking world, expressions suited to such situations abound, from ‘catching someone red-handed’ to ‘having someone dead to rights’.

But have you ever wondered what Italians say when they catch someone in flagrante?

The most popular Italian expression for the aforementioned circumstance is ‘cogliere con le mani nel sacco’. A literal translation of this idiom would be ‘catching [someone] with their hands in the bag’, which, as you might have guessed, stems from thieves’ unshakeable propensity to sneak their paws inside various receptacles.

In American English, you might say someone was ‘caught with their hand in the cookie jar’.

It’s a little different from the British English expression ‘being caught with your hand in the till’, which is specifically used to talk about the theft of money from an employer – whether or not it’s been taken from an actual cash register.

Note that native Italian speakers use the expression ‘cogliere con le mani nel sacco’ for all types of criminals, not just thieves.

Here are some examples:

Q – Hai sentito della tentata rapina in Via Verdi ieri notte?
A – Si. A quanto pare, la polizia ha colto i ladri con le mani nel sacco!
Q – Have you heard about the attempted burglary on Via Verdi last night?
A – Yeah. It seems the police caught the thieves in the act!

Q – Per quale motivo è in galera?
A – Bracconaggio. Le guardie forestali lo hanno colto con le mani nel sacco lo scorso ottobre.
Q – What’s he in jail for?
A – Poaching. Park rangers caught him red-handed last October.

As you can see, the verb ‘cogliere’ (‘to catch’ in English) must be declined in accordance with its subject (i.e. the person doing the catching). This is followed immediately by the object: the person (or people) being caught. This construction is followed by the phrase ‘con le mani nel sacco’.

While the expression is generally used in serious contexts and conversations, it may also be employed in a light-hearted way, as in:

Q – Ma tu non eri a dieta? Perche’ stai mangiando dei biscotti?

A – Diamine. Mi hai colto con le mani nel sacco.

Q – Weren’t you supposed to be on a diet? Why are you having cookies?
A – Damn. You caught me red-handed.

Bear in mind that alternative versions of the idiom exist.

For instance, in some areas locals may use the verbs ‘prendere’ or ‘beccare’ instead of the more common ‘cogliere’. But the overall meaning of the expression doesn’t change.

Regardless of the verb you end up using, next time you sneak up on someone who’s not exactly abiding by the law of the land, tell them that you’ve caught them ‘con le mani nel sacco’.

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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