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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Totoministri’

Open any Italian newspaper today and you're likely to spot this word among the headlines. But what does it mean?

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

It doesn't have anything to do with Italian comic treasure Totò – more's the pity – but it often has elements of farce.

You'll hear the toto~ prefix whipped out whenever speculation is rife: it comes from gambling, specifically the football pools.

Named Totalizzatore calcistico ('Football Totalizator') or Totocalcio for short, it's a sort of sweep that allows players to bet on the results of several upcoming matches in exchange for a small fixed fee.


Totocalcio signs outside a newsagent's shop in Italy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Journalists adopted the term as a catch-all phrase for making more or less informed guesses about an uncertain outcome, especially in politics and especially when you're talking about multiple outcomes at once.

That's why toto~ crops up in newspaper-speak in neologisms such as totonomine ('nomination sweep'), totopoltrone ('parliamentary seat sweep') or totocolle (literally 'hill sweep', using another piece of journalistic shorthand for the official residence of the president, which is located on Rome's Quirinal Hill – thus the term means 'president sweep').

This week, though, there's already a lot of speculation about the totoministri: or 'minister sweep' – who'll make the cabinet in Italy's new government, which may not be formed for weeks yet.

“Government crisis, from the possible premier to the minister sweep: who's in and who's out”. Headline on Sky TG24 news from February 1st, 2021.

You're unlikely to hear the term used in conversation, but it will definitely come in handy for making sense of Italian headlines between now and then.

Making sense of Italy's infamously tumultuous politics, on the other hand… we're working on it.

You can find all The Local's latest political news reports here.

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

An earlier version of this article was originally published in 2019.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

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.

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