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Staying on the Straight and Narrow with Retto and Retta

The word “right” has several different meanings, and some interesting history. See this entry about its etymology. It stands to reason that if we look at some of the words that mean “right” in Italian, like retto/rettadestro/destradiritto/dirittaritto/ritta, it will be just as interesting. As a matter of fact, both the English “right” and the Italian retto come from the Latin recto/rectum.



Let’s start where “right” and retto meet most clearly: in geometry. Quite simply, un angolo retto is a right angle, made of two perpendicular straight lines (so the fact that retto in Italian, and recto in Latin mean “straight” makes sense). In fact, “rectangle” in older English meant “right angle.” In modern usage, a rectangle is made of 4 right angles. Rettangolo when used as an adjective refers to a right-angled triangle, but when it’s a noun—un rettangolo—it’s a rectangle!


And, since retto is an adjective, the ending changes to agree with the noun it’s modifying (angolo is masculine). Retto is commonly found with its feminine ending, as in la linea retta (the straight line). 


Puoi viaggiare in tondo oppure andare in linea retta

You can travel in a circle or go in a straight line

Caption 45, Radici nel Cemento - La Bicicletta

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It can even be used by itself as a noun: una retta (a straight line).


Rettilineo is another way of saying “straight,” or “rectilinear,” and can be used (in racing, or referring to maps) as a noun—il rettilineo meaning “the straight road” (as in “homestretch”).


When referring to “left” and “right,” we use sinistra and destra, and here too there’s a connection because, in Renaissance Italy, destro (right) also meant retto (straight).


When we’re referring to the opposite of sbagliato (wrong), we use giusto to mean “right” or “correct,” but a less common way to say giusto is retto.


One way of doing things right is seguire la retta via (to follow the straight and narrow).


The real reason for all this etymology is to make sense of the expression dare retta (to pay attention, to listen to, to obey, to heed). If you think about asking someone to agree you’re “right” about something, (and then to do as you say), it makes sense. There’s no one right way to translate dare retta, but hopefully these examples will give you the idea.


Se vuoi essere felice come un tempo dammi retta

If you want to live happily like in the past, do as I say!

Caption 43, Radici nel Cemento - La Bicicletta

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E va be', però non bisogna dar sempre retta alle chiacchiere.

And OK, but you shouldn't always believe the gossip.

Caption 68, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP5 - Il Raggio Verde

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If your child, dog, or horse doesn’t do as you ask, you might say:

Non mi dà retta.
He doesn’t listen to me (he doesn’t obey me).


Please see WordReference or some other dictionary for other (unrelated) meanings of nouns retto and retta. And note that retto is also the participle of reggere (to withstand, to hold up)!


As you saw at the beginning of this lesson, retto and retta are only two of the words connected with “right.” Retto isn’t far from ritto (erect, vertically straight) or diritto (straight, direct). But we’ll save that for another lesson.


In a nutshell:
Retto is used as an adjective (changing its ending according to what’s being modified):

retto (straight)
un angolo retto (a right angle)
la retta via (the straight and narrow)
rettilineo (straight)

As a noun:

la retta (the straight line)
dare retta (to heed, to pay attention to, to obey)
il rettilineo (the straight line, the straight road)



Just for fun:

Per stare sulla retta via, cerco sempre di dare retta alla mamma. Porto a passeggio il mio cane, ma non mi  quasi mai retta. Lo porto sempre in una strada rettilinea, ma lui vorrebbe andare in tondo. Quando torno a casa, devo fare i compiti. Geometria! Devo ricordarmi che un triangolo rettangolo è fatto di un angolo retto, più una retta, ma che un rettangolo è fatto da quattro angoli retti. Faccio qualche disegno per aiutarmi, ma senza righello, non sono bravo a tracciare una retta. Tu riesci a disegnare una linea retta senza righello? Se do retta al mio istinto, dico che non sono portato per la geometria.

To stay on the straight and narrow, I always try to obey my mom. I take the dog for a walk, but he hardly ever does as I say. I always take him on a straight road, but he would like to go in a circle. When I get back home, I have to do my homework. Geometry! I have to remember that a right-angled triangle is made of a right angle plus a straight line, but that a rectangle is made of four right angles. I make a few drawings to help me, but without a ruler I’m not good at drawing a straight line. Can you draw a straight line without a ruler? If I listen to my own instincts, I’ll say I’m not cut out for geometry.


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