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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Avere la coda di paglia’

No need to get all fired up about this Italian expression.

Italian expression of the day: 'Avere la coda di paglia'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Are you quick to react? To get defensive in a conversation before any criticism has come your way?

If you’re having a tough day, it’s easy to snap back. It likely won’t help, then, that the person you’re speaking to may accuse you of having la coda di paglia (Av-ER-eh Lah CO-DAH dee PAL-YAH) if you do.

Which is sure to wind you up even further.

It literally means ‘having a tail of straw’, which as you can guess, is quick to ignite and set on fire.

Eh ma io non ti ho mai sparlato alle spalle. Quindi non capisco perché lo stai dicendo a me

But I’ve never talked behind your back. So I don’t understand why you’re saying this to me

No, be’, stavo facendo una considerazione generale. Non è che stavo parlando di te. Cos’è, hai la coda di paglia?

No, well, I was making a general remark. It’s not that I was talking about you. Why so touchy?

via GIPHY

You have a straw tail, then, if you feel obliged to justify yourself, even if nobody is accusing you of anything.

One said source of the expression comes from an Aesop fable about a fox whose tail was cut off by a trap.

The fox was ashamed of its newfound lack of elegance and so its animal friends decided to make it a convincingly real-looking straw tail.

But one day a cockerel let the secret slip and news of the fox with the straw tail reached the farmers.

Knowing the fox’s weak spot, they lit fires near the hen houses so that he could no longer steal their chickens. The fox knew that straw catches fire easily, and for fear of getting burned, he never went near the hen houses again.

Hence ‘having a straw tail’ means fearing any kind of criticism for a behaviour, or a defect.

Depending on the context, the expression is also used with the meaning of not having a clear conscience and always being suspicious of everything.

You know you’re at fault, so you’re shady and quick to defend.

A Tuscan proverb says, “Chi ha la coda di paglia ha sempre paura che gli pigli fuoco” (He who has a straw tail is always afraid that it will catch fire).

Accidenti, questa mattina mi hanno rubato il portafoglio!

Damn! This morning my wallet got stolen!

Io non sono stato, ero a casa mia questa mattina!

I didn’t do it, I was at home this morning!

Why would the initial reaction be to defend if you’re innocent?

Abbiamo un po’ la coda di paglia, no?

Does someone have a guilty conscience there? Or – overcompensating a bit, are we?

Certo, tranquillo, non ho detto questo. Però dentro di me penso che tu abbia la coda di paglia, perché io non ti ho accusato.

Sure, don’t worry, I didn’t say that. But inside me I think you have a straw tail (a guilty conscience), because I didn’t accuse you.

The phrase suggests an over-the-top or guilty reaction to something that was never a criticism or accusation.

Chi è stato a rompere il bicchiere?

Who broke the glass?

Io no, non c’ero, e se c’ero, non ho visto niente!

I wasn’t there, and if I was, I didn’t see anything!

Ah allora hai la coda di paglia!

Ah, someone’s being defensive!

Even if the person with a ‘straw tail’ didn’t actually do anything wrong, they could be regarded as oversensitive or prickly if they react in this way.

So the next time someone is pushing your buttons, keep your cool and don’t set fire to that straw tail.

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 word of the day: ‘Ciofeca’

Here’s a useful word for when you just can’t stomach your drink.

Italian word of the day: ‘Ciofeca’

Who hasn’t at least once in their lives experienced the feeling of utter disappointment and existential despair that comes with opening a drink at the end of a hard day at work and finding it absolutely undrinkable?

Though the English language has no shortage of nouns for undrinkable drinks (swill, slop, bilge water, etc.), Italians also have a number of words suited to the occasion.

While schifezza (crap) and porcheria (filth) are valuable options, today’s word, ciofeca (pronunciation available here) is the more specific word you might want to use in this scenario.

Ciofeca is generally used for any drink which tastes so bad it is undrinkable, especially bad coffee and bad wine

Perché stai facendo quella faccia?
‘Sto caffè è una ciofeca… 
Why are you making that face?
This coffee is swill…

Non ci tornerò mai in quel posto. Il vino che abbiamo preso l’ultima volta era una ciofeca. 
I’m not going back to that place. The wine we got last time was hogwash.

As for the word’s etymology, scholars have hypothesised that ciofeca might derive from the Arabic word šafaq’, which means ‘bad drink’, or from the Spanish ‘chufa’, the type of almond used to make syrup. 

What’s certain is that the Italian version of the word first appeared in Naples and then spread to the rest of the peninsula over time.

It’s also widely believed that the ‘nationalisation’ of the noun happened largely thanks to legendary comedian Totò, who used the word ciofeca in his sketches and movies.

Nowadays, the word is used all over Italy and, in some instances, its scope has been extended to indicate anything of poor quality, not just drinks.

In these cases, ‘ciofeca’ might be translated into English as ‘rubbish’ or ‘garbage’. 

Mi hanno regalato un aspirapolvere senza filo per il mio compleanno.
Ah, com’è?
E’ una ciofeca… 
They got me a cordless vacuum cleaner for my birthday.
Oh, how is it?
It’s rubbish…

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

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