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Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day qualcosa non torna
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

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

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For members


Italian expression of the day: ‘Alle prime armi’

Here’s an Italian expression for the ‘uninitiated’.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Alle prime armi’

At the risk of being chastised for resorting to well-worn clichés, if each Italian teenager had a cent for every time they were scorned on account of them being ‘alle prime armi’, Italy’s youth unemployment would likely be less of a cause for concern right now.

But, what does ‘alle prime armi’ mean and why are youngsters the most likely (and most unfortunate) targets of this peculiar expression? 

Well, as some of you might have already guessed from the presence of the word ‘armi’ (weapons), the expression comes from the military world and refers, in its original meaning, to any young recruit being handed their weapons at the start of their training in the forces. 

As such, the idiom’s literal rendition into English would be something along the lines of ‘[someone] holding their weapons for the first time’.

But, nowadays, the expression is hardly ever used in its first intended meaning as its scope has extended to encompass practically anyone who’s recently started a new job or craft and has little to none experience in the relevant field. 

So, in its more recent interpretation, the idiom would actually correspond to English adjectives such as ‘fledgling’, ‘inexperienced’ or ‘green’, or expressions like ‘wet behind the ears’.

Alternatively, the Italian expression could also be replaced by nouns such as ‘beginner’, ‘rookie’ or ‘novice’. 

Here are some examples of how Italians use ‘alle prime armi’:

Cosa ne pensa del mio lavoro di oggi?
Penso che sia proprio il lavoro di uno alle prime armi.

What do you think of my work today?
I think it’s the work of a novice.

Questo progetto di bilancio è un disastro. Si vede che sei alle prime armi. 
This draft budget is a mess. It’s evident that you’re inexperienced.

Il vino non va aperto così. Sei proprio alle prime armi, ragazzo.
You don’t open bottles of wine like that. You really are green, boy.

As you can see from the above examples, the expression is often used in a rather patronising, slightly demoralising way, which, take it from an Italian born and bred, is sadly the default attitude of most Italian people over the age of 50, regardless of whether they are family members, long-time friends or just your superiors at work.

But, if it’s any comfort, you should know that this is just one of those hard and fast aspects of Italian culture that have been there from time immemorial and most people using the expression actually mean well. 

But, should you feel particularly disinclined to be described as a person ‘alle prime armi’, you’ll find no shortage of witty comebacks in the Italian language.