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Italian expression of the day: ‘Buonanotte al secchio’

Sometimes you just need to know when to say “goodnight to the bucket”.

Italian expression of the day buonanotte al seccio
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Buonanotte al secchio (BWOH-na NOTT-eh al SEKK-yo) – literally, ‘goodnight to the bucket’, is a useful phrase to know for those close to reaching the end of their tether.

It means something is impossible or hopeless, that you wave a white flag and surrender because there’s nothing more to be done.

The saying most likely comes from the days long before running water, when people relied on wells for washing and drinking.

If the rope tying your pail to the top of the well broke, the bucket would plunge into its depths, and you weren’t going to see it again any time soon: you could “say goodnight to the bucket”.

It came to mean it’s all over, you can forget about it.

Va bene il tuo piano – ma se Marta vede la tua macchina, buonanotte al secchio.
Your plan’s OK – but if Marta sees your car, it’s all over.

Alla fine – nonostante tutti i nostri sforzi – abbiamo dovuto cancellare l’evento, buonanotte al secchio.
In the end – despite all our efforts – we had to cancel the event, it’s done.

With a slightly different nuance, the expression can also mean ‘and that’s that’ – you’ve done all you can, and that’s the end of it.

Faccio quest’ultimo pezzo di lavoro e buonanotte al secchio.
I’m doing this last piece of work and that’s that, I’m finished.

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And in some parts of the country it can be used to mean something more like ‘that’s never going to happen’.

– Dove vai? Mi hai detto che mi avresti aiutato in cucina stasera.
– Sì si, lo farò quando torno.
– Sì, buonanotte al secchio…

– Where are you going? You said you’d help me with the cooking this evening.
– Yes yes, I’ll do it when I get back.
– Sure you will…

Buonanotte al secchio is relatively old fashioned, and in some parts of Italy you might hear younger people reference it without actually using the whole phrase, with just buonanotte or even bona.

A twist on the saying is buonanotte ai suonatori – ‘good night to the musicians/ players’.

In and around Naples in particular, the expression has negative connotations similar to those of buonanotte al secchio.

Avevo appena fatto addormentare la bambina quando la festa dei vicini l’ha svegliata e ora è svegliatissima, buonanotte ai suonatori.
I’d just got the baby down to sleep when the neighbours’ party woke her up and now she’s wide awake, forget about it.

But buonanotte ai suonatori can have the broader, less out-and-out negative meaning of “and that’s the end of that,” to simply say something is final and the matter is concluded.

Se ti piace, chiederle di uscire e buonanotte ai suonatori!
If you like her, ask her out and have done with it!

It’s thought to refer back to the days when events and dinners were regularly accompanied by live music, through to the end of the night. When the players left, that signalled that things were really wrapping up and it was time for everyone to go home.

The saying was popularised when the Italian pop band Pooh released an album titled Buonanotte ai suonatori in 1995.

Lasciamo qui gli ultimi pensieri, buonanotte ai sognatori agli amori nati ieri – ‘let’s leave behind here the final thoughts, good night to the dreamers, to the loves born yesterday’, concludes the final verse of the title track.

Buonanotte a chi farà una buonanotte
anche ai lupi solitari
a chi scrive contro i muri
e alla fine… buonanotte ai suonatori.

Good night to those who will have a good night
to the lone wolves too
to those who write on walls
and finally… good night to the players.

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

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase all about?

Italian expression of the day: 'Si tratta di'

Today’s expression is one you’ll hear a lot in spoken Italian.

It’s also a tricky one for anglophones to wrap our heads around, because although it appears simple – ‘si tratta di’ basically means something along the lines of ‘it concerns/discusses/deals with/is about’ – it actually doesn’t translate very cleanly into English most of the time.

Let’s start with the use that’s easiest for us to grasp: asking and answering what something’s about/what it concerns.

– Pronto, sono l’ispettore Jackson, posso parlare con la signora Hoffman?
– Sì, sono io – posso chiedere di cosa si tratta?

– Hello, this is Inspector Jackson speaking, can I speak with Mrs. Hoffman?
– Yes, this is she – may I ask what this is concerning?

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We can also use the phrase to say that something is ‘a matter of’ or ‘a question of’:

Se si tratta di qualche ora, rimarremo qui ad aspettarla.
If it’s a question of hours, we’ll stay here and wait for her.

Ora si tratta solo di scoprire dove ha lasciato le chiavi.
Now it’s a just a matter of figuring out where she left the keys.

And si tratta di can also be as a translation for ‘when it comes to’.

Adoro mangiare bene, ma quando si tratta di cucinare sono una frana.
I love eating well, but when it comes to cooking I suck.

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Where things start to get a bit more complicated is that you’ll often see the phrase used where the English translation doesn’t require anything.

For example, you might hear the following exchange at work:

– Michela non viene al lavoro oggi perché la sua bambina è malata.
– Spero che non si tratti di nulla di grave.

– Michela’s not coming into work today because her little girl’s sick.
– I hope it’s nothing serious.

You could say ‘I hope it doesn’t consist of anything serious’, which would get you closer to a direct translation – but in English this would sound oddly formal and overblown (in the above example we use tratti rather than tratta because spero che requires the subjunctive).

What if you want to say that a certain thing – a song, a book, a film, a speech – discusses or ‘deals with’ certain themes or issues?

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Firstly, note that impersonal si there. It’s standing in for a subject, which means we can’t have both the subject and the si in the same sentence together – one of them has to go.

You can say, for example, ‘Il suo terzo libro tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘her third book deals with ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom.’

Or you can say, ‘Nel suo terzo libro, si tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘In her third book, she discusses ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom” (a more literal translation would be ‘in her third book, ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom are discussed’, which sounds a bit awkward in English).

You could ask:

Di cosa tratta il libro?
What does the book discuss?


Di cosa si tratta nel libro?
What’s discussed in the book?

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What you can’t do is say, ‘Il libro si tratta di…’ or ask ‘Di cosa si tratta il libro?’. Neither of these constructions work because you can’t have both the impersonal si and the subject (in this case, il libro) together.

What if you want to say, for example, ‘the book/film is about…’?

The easiest way to do that is either to just say ‘il film parla di…‘ – ‘the film talks about…’ ; or ‘il film racconta la storia di…’ – ‘the film tells the story of…’:

Il film parla di un robot che vuole distruggere la razza umana.
The film’s about a robot who wants to destroy the human race.

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Il libro racconta la storia di un ragazzo che scopre di essere un mago.
The book tells the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what this phrase is all about!

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