Italian expression of the day: ‘Ai ferri corti’

If you’re on the outs with someone 17th century style, you’ll want to make sure you have your dagger to to hand in case you end up ai ferri corti.

A close – though archaic – English translation would be ‘at daggers drawn’; a more widely-used alternative would be to say you’re ‘at loggerheads’ with someone.

A ferro can be an old Italian word for a sword (among other things), and corto of course means short, so if you’re ai ferri corti you’re down to the short swords, the daggers.

In others words, the fighting isn’t happening at a distance – you’re up close and personal, within spitting (or stabbing) distance of your foe.

Prima o poi saranno di nuovo stati ai ferri corti.
Sooner or later they’ll be at each other’s throats again.

Io e Sara siamo ai ferri corti.
Sara and I are at loggerheads.

The origins of ‘at loggerheads’ are unclear. Loggerhead started out as a Shakespearean insult, then became the name of a long rod-like implement with a bulb on the end used for melting pitch.

It’s been speculated that the phrase ‘at loggerheads’ originates from people waving these sticks at each other in duel-like fashion, though another theory is that the expression simply refers to fighters locking their heads together like stags or bulls.

The first known written record of the phrase is apparently from Francis Kirkman’s ‘The English Rogue’ published in the 1680’s, and actually references Italians: specifically men fighting over “Sicilian wenches” who seemed “to be worth the going to Logger-heads for.”

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Ferro is a versatile word in Italian, and can also mean iron ore or the metal, an iron (for ironing – also called a ferro di stiro), a golf iron, a horseshoe, a tool, and irons when made plural (as in, “they clapped him in irons”).

It’s also used in a wide range of expressions, many of which directly translate to English.

You can be sotto i ferri – under the knife, if you’re in surgery. You can have a stomaco di ferro – an iron stomach – and a pugno di ferro – an iron fist – just like in English, and if you need to do something while the time’s right you should battere il ferro finché è caldo – strike while the iron is hot.

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You can also, however, have a memoria di ferro – an excellent memory; a salute di ferro – a strong constitution – and if in English we knock on wood for good luck, in Italian you should toccare ferro – touch iron.

That’s all we’ve got for you today: try to keep it locked up in that memoria di ferro of yours.

And keep your dagger close by.

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

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