When Hands Talk in the Italian Language

Sep 16, 2010

Blog mano


Italians do a lot more than speak with their hands (mani).  Like people everywhere, they may clasp their hands in prayer (a mani giunte), clap their hands (batter le mani), give a hand (dare un mano), hold hands (darsi la mano), end up empty-handed (a mani vuote), offer a handshake (stretta di mano) or twiddle their thumbs (stare con le mani in mano).  At times they may want to throw up their hands (mettersi le mani nei capelli, literally put their hands in their hair in despair or shock) or wash their hands (lavarsene le mani) of a frustrating situation.

Italians also may have le mani legate (their hands tied), le mani bucate (literally holes in their hands so they let money slip through their fingers),  or le mani lunghe (long hands or far-reaching influence). Someone with a finger in every pie has le mani in pasta. Mani pulite (clean hands) became famous as the name of a nationwide judicial investigation into political corruption in the 1990s. But politicians continue to sporcarsi le mani  (dirty the hands or be corrupted) by doing things sottomano (under hand, or on the sly–although the word can also mean "within reach").

A thief who is lesto di mano (light-fingered) may fare man bassa  (make  a low hand, or steal) but runs the risk of being caught con le mani nel sacco (with hands in the sack, or red-handed).  In anger some people may venire alle mani (come to blows).  Afterwards they may feel like kicking themselves (mordersi le mani, or bite one’s hands) in regret.

If you’re cordial and affable, you may be complimented for being  alla mano (at the hand). If you make good or lucky choices, you have la mano felice (the happy hand); if you're talented and creative,  yours are le mani d’oro (hands of gold).   I confess to having butterfingers (called mani di ricotta or mani di pastafrolla,  hands of cheese or hands of short pastry).

In Italian you can come to the rescue (dar manforte, or give strong hand), exaggerate or push too hard (forzare la mano) or take steps to prevent future misunderstandings (mettere le mani avanti, put one’s hands forward). In tough times you may need to be courageous (prendere il coraggio a due mani, take courage in both hands), even if you don’t know where to begin (non sapere dove metter le mani, not know where to put your hands). 

If you are absolutely sure of something, you would metterci la mano sul fuoco, (put your hand in the fire) to swear your allegiance. What may be most important is toccare con mano  (to touch with one’s hand, or see for yourself), prendere in mano la situazione (take charge of the situation) and speak col cuore in mano  (heart in hand, sincerely). Then you're likely to vincere a mani basse (win hands down) and, as the ancient Roman hand above seems to be indicating, become number-one.

Words and Expressions

dare l’ultima mano — give the last hand (finishing touch)
una mano lava l’altra – one hand washes the other 
fuori mano — out of the way, far, distant
perdere la mano –– lose one’s touch
sfuggire di mano — slip through one’s figners
chiedere la mano di una donna — to ask for a woman’s hand

Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 

Hear Puccini’s lilting ode to Mimi’s cold little hand in La Boheme by clicking below:
“Che gelida manina” (from Boheme) by Pavarotti

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