Remember when I said I was going to spend the summer improving my Italian so that I’d leave bella Italia near-fluent by September? Yeah, that didn’t happen. But I have been working on it, completing my daily tasks on Duolingo, eavesdropping on my students when they think I don’t understand what they’re saying, observing conversations around the dinner table with host families, and collecting new and strange words like the language nerd that I am.
So, although I haven’t actually achieved the level of Italian that I wanted to these past three months, I have made some progress, the least of which is compiling a list of ten of my favourite Italian words that I’ve most enjoyed adding to my limited Italian vocabulary:
- 1. Boh!
This strange exclamation, often accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders or some good old-fashioned Italian wringing of the hands, simply means ‘I don’t know’. At first, I thought it sounded like a verbal burp, but after a while it becomes addictive to use. In Italy, you hear it all the time, especially if you’re teaching English to Italian kids…
- 2. Medusa
This is the Italian word for a… jellyfish! Think about it – Medusa as in the Ancient Greek mythological figure who had snakes for hair. Snakes for hair : stingy tentacles… get it?
- 3. Marsupio
This word has been my favourite etymological discovery this summer in Italy. It means BUMBAG (or, if you’re American, fanny-pack). And of course it does! Because marsupials carry their young in pockets around their bellies! Genius. And so much less offensive-sounding than bumbag or fanny-pack.
- 4. Cannuccia
Ok, this one is just fun to say. CAN-NOO-CHA! The English translation? A straw, as in a straw you drink through. Asking for a cannuccia is so much more fun to twist your tongue around than asking for a dull and monosyllabic straw.
- 5. Zanzara
Can you guess what this could be from the buzzing ‘z’ sounds? You guessed it – a mosquito! This is one of the first words I learned in Italian because I had to. If someone yells ‘zanzara!’ then that’s your cue to squint your eyes ready to hunt the buzzy bugger, cowboy showdown music starts playing in your head and you instinctively open your hands ready to clap the bitey bastard to death.
- 6. Tiramisu
‘Oh ho!’ I hear you cry, ‘We already use this word in English, Amy!’ And yes you’re right, we call tiramisu tiramisu just like we call pizza pizza and pasta pasta. But do you know what tiramisu literally means? The translation is ‘pick-me-up’ – literally: tira mi su! Is it called that because of the caffeinated or alcoholic ingredients? Perhaps both.
- 7. Gusto
Yep, yet another word we English-speakers also borrow from Italian. ‘Once more, with gusto!’ we say, because we need a word than conveys passion from those who do passion best – the Italians. The literal translation of gusto? Flavour. As in ‘Una coppetta piccola con due gusti – cioccolato e nocciola.’ (See previous post for more ice cream flavour discussion.)
- 8. Appiccicoso
After all that tiramisu and gelati, my fingers are feeling kind of… appiccicoso. Although it sounds a little bit like ‘a pepsi cola’, this is in fact the Italian word for sticky. It’s even more adorable when said by kindergarten-age students with lisps who are making a mess by sticking and gluing in class.
- 9. Basta!
‘What did you just call me?!’ – was my infuriated response the first time a child I was teaching yelled ‘basta!’ in my face. But although the word may sound like a rather ruder word in English, in Italian it’s simply a fun and informal way of saying ‘enough!’ Which, come to think of it, is still rather rude to yell at your English teacher…
- 10. In bocca al lupo
Ok, you caught me. This is a phrase rather than a word, but I promise it’s a goodie. ‘In bocca al lupo’ literally means ‘into the mouth of the wolf’, which is the Italian equivalent of ‘break a leg’ – in essence, a good long-winded way of saying good luck.
Ok, so maybe I just like it because I’m obsessed with wolves, but there is something satisfyingly dangerous about someone telling you to tackle a problem by going straight into the mouth of the wolf. Even more satisfying when you learn that the appropriate response to ‘in bocca al lupo’ is ‘crepi’ – I’ll kill the wolf!
Ahhh, languages. Alas, I’m still just a poor mono-linguist with a polyglot dream. But, one day I promise I’ll collect all of the words and become a master of Italian, like an even geekier (if that’s possible) version of Pokemon Go! Until that day, I’ll keep trudging on with my Duolingo lessons, and ordering cappuccinos badly in Italian cafes.
Wish me ‘In bocca al lupo’!