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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’
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

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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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day: ‘Nasone’

Have a little sip from our fount of knowledge with today's word.

Italian word of the day: 'Nasone'

Give in to the temptation to dip a toe in one of Rome’s historic fountains in the sweltering August heat, and you can expect to be hit with an eye-watering fine.

But there’s one form of relief that the city offers up to all without asking for a cent in return: its cold drinking water fontanelle (fountains) – informally and affectionately known as nasoni (nah-ZOH-nee).

The word’s origins are simple: a naso is a nose, and the suffix -one (pronounced ‘OH-neh’), makes a noun or adjective into a bigger version of itself.

mangione, for example, is a glutton, a mammone is an adult mama’s boy, and buffone – a buffoon or fool – comes from buffo, the medieval Latin word for ‘clown’ and the modern Italian word for ‘funny/silly/odd’.

nasone (nah-ZOH-neh), then, is a big nose. Had it ever occurred to you that the spouts on Rome’s fontanelle look a bit like oddly shaped noses? It will now.

Sneer Aardvark GIF by Comms Creatives
Cyril Sneer
Tourists fill their bottles from a 'nasone'.
A Roman ‘nasone’. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Un minuto che riempio la mia bottiglia dal nasone.
One minute while I fill my bottle from the fountain.

Nasone is a regular noun, which means the plural is nasoni. Aside from fountains, the word can also be applied to people with big noses – nasone for a man endowed with a large snout, nasona for a woman.

The water from nasoni is supplied by the utilities company Acea and is the same as that which is pumped into Roman’s homes, meaning it’s regularly tested and perfectly safe to drink.

There are more than 2,500 across the city, and the Nasoni a Roma app – despite being a little janky at times according to user reviews – is one of the most comprehensive when it comes to mapping out their locations.

The fountains were introduced to Rome shortly after Italian unification in the 1870s by mayor Luigi Pianciani, who decided to provide free drinking water to all the city’s residents.

The nasoni were shut off for several months when Rome experienced a severe drought in the summer of 2017, but the move was met with heavy criticism by the Italian Water Movements Forum (truly) who said it didn’t do much to help and unfairly penalised the homeless who were reliant on the fountains.

Since then, despite a dry spell in 2019 and Italy experiencing its worst drought in 70 years in 2022, the noses have – so far – stayed running.

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