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Italians know their chickens

Here's a great expression Italians use all the time. We can figure out the meaning easily, but finding a specific English equivalent is not all that straightforward. The important thing is to understand what Italians are trying to get across when they say it, and to be able to use it ourselves in Italian when the situation calls for it.

The expression itself:

When you know who you are dealing with and can predict an outcome based on how well you know that person or type of person, that's when you say:

 

Conosco i miei polli (I know my chickens).

E gli ha detto di farsi operare nella sua clinica privata. -E tu come lo sai? -Perché conosco i miei polli.

And he told him to have the operation in his private clinic. -And how do you know? -Because I know my chickens [I know who I'm dealing with].

Captions 24-25, La Ladra EP.11 Un esame importante - Part 4

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BANNER PLACEHOLDER

 

Some attribute this expression to Saint Francis of Assisi, who was a great lover of animals and nature, so it seems it goes way back to the 13th century as well as being alive and well today.

 

Italians are known for setting up orti (vegetable gardens) and pollai (chicken coops or henhouses) whenever and wherever they have the opportunity. So chickens, in many cases, are part of everyday life. These days, this is a less frequent phenomenon, but in the past, during the war, for example, raising chickens and having a little vegetable garden was a question of survival. 

 

Taking the expression apart:

Let's just mention that conoscere can have a few different nuances of meaning. Check out this lesson all about the verb conoscere. In the present case we are talking about knowing a person well, being familiar with their habits. It may be a friend who is always late, so you won't be surprised when they arrive with a 15 minute delay... It may be someone who never offers to pay, or always offers to pay. It may mean making an extra amount of pasta because you know your dinner guest is a good eater. It can be positive or negative, and can be said before someone does something, or as a justification afterwards. 

Ci butto un etto di pasta in più perché conosco i miei polli. Gianni è una buona forchetta.

I'll throw in one hundred grams more pasta because I know my chickens. Gianni is a big eater.

1) If you were to say this after the fact, to explain why you made so much pasta, what could you say?

 

Even if we are talking about one person, as in the video clip included above, the plural is generally used — it's a fixed expression. 

And this might be a good time to remember that we need the article before the possessive pronoun in Italian, but not in English. I miei polli. The singular would be il mio pollo

You can also use the expression in reference to someone else knowing their chickens.

Conosci i tuoi polli, eh? (you know who you're dealing with, I guess).

2) Let's say someone is telling you that they would always make more pasta than usual for this particular guest. How would you modify the question?

 

Practice:

As you go about your day, think of people you know and try predicting what they will say or do. As they prove you right, with a little chuckle, you can say to yourself, "Conosco i miei polli."

One more thing:

One more word about chickens. A chicken is young, and a hen is old. In English we can say "henhouse" or "chicken coop." In Italian, it's usually pollaio but naturally, the pollaio is full of both polli (chickens) and galline (hens). 

 

Another expression using galline describes people who go to bed early:

Alle otto se ne vanno a casa e non escono più, come le galline.

At eight o'clock they go home and don't go out again, like hens.

Caption 40, Il Commissario Manara S1EP3 - Rapsodia in Blu - Part 12

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3) What if the person were talking about one other person, not a group of people? What might he say?

 

The translation we have provided here is literal, and therefore "hens," but in English we would sooner say "chickens" when we want to be generic. The only time you really need to know the difference between galline and polli is when buying them to eat. We want pollo for most dishes, but Italians love broth and it's common to use certain cuts of beef plus a piece of gallina or fowl to make il brodo (the broth).

 

A proposito... (speaking of which...)

There's another famous expression in Italian, often referring to a woman of a certain age who might be feeling old. It's a compliment of sorts.

Gallina vecchia fa buon brodo ([An] old hen makes good broth).

 

More about brodo (broth) in this lesson.

 

And let's not forget the male member of this group of animali da cortile (barnyard animals) : il gallo (the rooster).

Ho provato ad immaginare il classico finale dove lei lascia tutto e si trasferisce in campagna, perché ha scoperto quanto è bello farsi svegliare dal gallo.

I tried to imagine the classic ending where she leaves everything and moves to the country, because she discovered how wonderful it is to be woken up by the rooster.

Captions 5-7, Sei mai stata sulla luna? film - Part 30

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BANNER PLACEHOLDER

1) C'ho buttato un etto di pasta in più perché conosco i miei polli. Gianni è una buona forchetta.

2) Conoscevi i tuoi polli, eh? 

3) Alle otto se ne va a casa e non esce più, come le galline.

4) Sto provando ad immaginare il classico finale dove lei lascia tutto e si trasferisce in campagna, perché ha scoperto quanto è bello farsi svegliare dal gallo.

Provavo ad immaginare il classico finale dove lei lascia tutto e si trasferisce in campagna, perché ha scoperto quanto è bello farsi svegliare dal gallo.

Proverò ad immaginare il classico finale dove lei lascia tutto e si trasferisce in campagna, perché ha scoperto quanto è bello farsi svegliare dal gallo.

Stavo provando ad immaginare il classico finale dove lei lascia tutto e si trasferisce in campagna, perché ha scoperto quanto è bello farsi svegliare dal gallo.

Provo ad immaginare il classico finale dove lei lascia tutto e si trasferisce in campagna, perché ha scoperto quanto è bello farsi svegliare dal gallo,

 

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