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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

19 of your favourite Italian words (and some of ours)

We asked you to pick your favourite Italian words. Here’s what you chose.

19 of your favourite Italian words (and some of ours)
Photo: alexsalcedo/Depositphotos

Whether they bring back cherished memories of travelling in Italy or got you through dinners with Italian in-laws, a whole bunch of our readers can think of a whole bunch of words that for them, Italian does best.

From fireflies to little mice, letting off steam to taking things in your stride, satisfying curses to the world’s finest way to pause, here are a few of your favourite (Italian) things.

ALLORA: well, then, so

Let's start with the obvious. If this were a vote, allora would have won by a landslide.

Dozens of you suggested it: from those grateful for the thinking time it buys you when you don’t know what to say next, to those who have fun saying it, to others who – like Aziz Ansari in Master of None – just like the fact you can use it just about anytime, anywhere.

A special mention goes to Lisa Cherubini Diletti, who says she loves the word so much that she wanted to name one of her daughters “Allora”. (Her Italian husband nixed the idea.)

LUCCIOLA: firefly

This word brings back memories for Marie Miller: “One evening at my cousin’s home in Montefusco the darkness of the night suddenly lit up, I had never seen anything like it before,” she told The Local. “Beautiful. And I learned a new word. I love the way it rolls off the tongue.”


Photo: Narval/DepositPhotos.

Incidentally, “prendere lucciole per lanterne” (to take fireflies for lanterns) is an Italian expression that means “to get the wrong end of the stick”.

DIMENTICO: forgetful or oblivious

Jill Greco Bodnar likes this word because it’s not what you might expect.

“In English it’s the root for demented/dementia, mad or insane/severe memory loss,” she says. “Such a cute word in Italian but for us we’re going insane.”

SFOGARSI: to vent, unload

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This one was picked by Fiona Scull, who says it “sounds good, feels good to say and there is no really good English equivalent.

“Maybe ‘letting off steam’? … meh, it’s just not the same.”

PASSEGGIATA: stroll

“Passeggiata stems from the Italian verb ‘passeggiare,’ meaning to stroll or take a slow walk, emphasis on the slow, but it is SO MUCH more than that,” says Emmy Barraco, who has experienced Italians’ traditional evening amble many a time.


Photo: mihtiander/DepositPhotos

“I witnessed this time-old Italian custom in a tiny village I love where my relatives are from,” she told us. “Visits then became the most warming welcome each time I return.”

MASCALZONE: rascal, scoundrel

This cheeky Italian word always puts a smile on Pedro Francisco Hurtado Davila’s face.

He first heard it on TV as a kid and instantly cracked up, “because in Spanish it sounds like ‘más calzones’ (more underpants)”.

SGONFIATO: deflated

“Although it means deflated, I first heard it used at a restaurant outside of Florence, as the name of a chocolate lava cake,” says Savannah Woods.


Photo: sjenner13/DepositPhotos.

“And I love the sound of the word and the memory of the dessert cake!”

PARRUCCHIERE: hairdresser

Marion Antonellis chose this one “because it is funny and took me forever to figure out how to find a hairdresser in Italy”.

She’s right that the word doesn’t sound anything like hair (capelli): it comes from parrucca, the word for wig.


Photo: Marco Bertotrello/AFP.

ARRANGIARSI: to sort out, get by, manage

Michelle La Serra picked this practical verb because “Italians are resourceful and always work with what they have”.

Doreen Reis agrees: “It’s a good way to live and cope especially while traveling,” she wrote to us… from the airport.

ASCIUGAMANO: towel

This handy word is a portmanteau of dry (asciugare) and hand (mano), but Stephen Vara prefers to use it differently.

“I like to yell it,” he told The Local. “It sound like a curse.”

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LACRIMA: tear

“Odd, because no one likes crying, but I love the word lacrima,” says Lindsay Sinko. “It’s just beautiful to me.

“I always think of the first time I heard it, driving up to Mount Vesuvius. The conversation was to do with [the local wine] Lacryma Christi, which is probably also why I love it!”

A FANABLA: ‘go to hell’

Ok, so strictly speaking it’s not Italian. It’s short for “va fa Napoli” – go to Naples – which is either a sick burn on the city of the sun or a massive compliment: as the saying goes, “see Naples and die”.


Photo: lachris77/DepositPhotos.

Some say it’s more of an Italian-American expression than an Italian one, but Rita Guarnaccia told us she learned it from her mother, who comes from a small town near Naples.

“My mother used to say this all time when she got frustrated with me and my sister,” she says.

CURIOSARE: to look round or through

“To browse but much prettier” is how The Local’s Catherine Edwards defines her current favourite word.

You can curiosare in shops, through books, but also into other people’s business – in which case it’s more like snooping.


Photo: everett225/DepositPhotos.

SORELLINA: little sister

Maureen Nardone picked sorellina “because I am one but never had one!”

She says she also loves the sound and the –ino/ina suffix, which turns anything into a smaller version of itself. An Italian cat is a gatto, for example, while a kitten is just a little gattino.

TOPOLINO: little mouse


Photo: CreativeNature/DepositPhotos.

In the same vein, Inese Šlihta likes this term for tiny mice “because I have fancy rats and my Italian teacher said it sounds more lovely than ratti”.

We agree. Topolino is also what Italians call Mickey Mouse. If you call a child topolino, you’re saying they’re a scamp; while if you hear “la montagna ha partorito un topolino” (the mountain has brought forth a mouse), it means that something failed to lived up to expectations.

SCHIFOSO: disgusting, gross

“It’s so visceral,” Lucas Mennella, an American living in Rome, told The Local.

Try looking at your face when you say it, he recommends: just making the hard “ski” sound obliges you to pull your lips into a sneer.

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You won’t be sneering if you have “una fortuna schifosa”, though: the expression means “incredible luck”.

TESORO: treasure

Italians often use this word as a term of endearment, which is why Cynthia Chaplin loves it.

“That’s the best,” she says. “So evocative and emotional and passionate. Just like Italians themselves. Who else calls their lover, their child, their best friend a ‘treasure’??

“It’s simply a wonderful expression of the joy of special relationships. Yay Italy.”


Photo: juripozzi/DepositPhotos.

STICAZZI: ‘so what?’ or ‘no way!’

Yes, we realize those definitions are contradictory. But so are Italians’ understanding of this word. Say it around Rome and they’ll think you’re indifferent, but use it in the north and you’ll sound blown away.

The debate over which usage is correct is fierce and probably best avoided. But in the meantime you can enjoy all the various shades of sticazzi – like our Facebook follower Za Kab, who tells us “it is a word with diverse meanings ranging from surprise to irony to sarcasm… to happiness, to disappointment, AND as a curse.”

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A word of warning: the term is a contraction of “questi cazzi” (literally, “these d*cks”) and as such best avoided in front of your kids. Or your boss. Or your grandma. Or anyone else’s grandma.

SBAGLIARE: to make a mistake, mess up

This is my personal choice. There are many reasons I love it: to start with, that initial “sb” sound that doesn’t exist anywhere in English. Secondly, the fact it’s a widowed negative: in Italian that first “s” makes a word the contrary of something, but in this case we’re not sure of what. “Bagliare” no longer exists – the same way you can be discombobulated in English, but not combobulated.

Linguistics aside, I love sbagliare because I first learned it by watching this video of a very guilty Italian dog. Yes, Ettore, “hai sbagliato” (“you messed up”) – but all is forgiven.

For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day: ‘Spaghettata’

If you like your spaghetti, you'll love the 'spaghettata'.

Italian word of the day: 'Spaghettata'

You may have twirled and chomped your way through enough spaghetti to be ranked up there with the best of them – but if you’ve never lived in Italy, you’ve probably never experienced the spaghettata (‘spag-ett-TAH-tah’).

Garfield Spaghetti GIF - Garfield Spaghetti Pasta GIFs

Is it a party? Is it a meal? The best way we can describe it is as a fun, relaxed spaghetti feast eaten at home with friends.

Informal and often impromptu, a spaghettata typically lasts for several hours involves copious amounts of wine..

Ci ha invitati a casa sua per una spaghettata.
She’s invited us to her place for a spaghettata.

Whereas a traditional Italian meal would have pasta as a first course (primo), followed by a meat or fish secondo, the spaghettata is a meal unto itself.

Pasta is all that’s on the menu, and if you’re coming back for seconds or thirds, pasta is what you’ll get.

party spaghetti GIF by Isola dei Famosi

Because of its humble, cobbled-together nature, a typical spaghettata can be made with the kind of basic ingredients you might find in any Italian kitchen, such as garlic, olive oil and chilli flakes.

If you have Italian friends who are keen to show off their culinary skills, it can be a little more involved and they might want to show off a local or family recipe. In these cases, it can become more like a dinner party – but with multiple helpings of pasta, instead of multiple courses.

You can also expect to see regional or city-based variations on the spaghetti dishes involved. In Bari, for example, you might be invited to someone’s house so they can show off their recipe for spaghetti allassassina: lightly scorched, toasted spaghetti with tomato sauce.

One of the best things about the spaghettata, though, is the lack of rules; the meal’s improvisational origins mean really anything goes, provided you can source it at the last minute or dig it out of your pantry to feed a hungry crowd.

A meal also doesn’t need to be put on at any particular time of day to be a spaghettata: it might be a lunchtime affair, or it might happen on those long, lazy summer evenings and nights – in which case it becomes a spaghettata di mezzanotte (‘midnight spaghettata‘).

Facciamo una bella spaghettata di mezzanotte!
Let’s have a nice late night spaghettata!

While you’d normally have your spaghettata in the company of others, it can occasionally be used to describe a dish you whip up for yourself at the last minute – particularly if you come home after a night out and suddenly realise you’re a bit peckish.

Oddly enough, spaghettata di gelato (‘ice cream spaghettata’) is what Italians call the German dish spaghettieis.

That isn’t a meal consisting entirely of gelato (if only…), but a dessert deliberately designed to look like a plate of pasta, with vanilla ice cream ‘spaghetti’ and red or green ‘sauces’ made of things like berries or pistachio.

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You might think that given how alert Italians often are to the desecration of their culinary traditions, this would have sparked some discontent – but the dish appears to be quite popular in Italy, with numerous Italian websites offering recipes for the dessert (often simply known as spaghetti di gelato).

Maybe it’s that no one can resist a little novelty ice cream – or maybe the laid back associations of the spaghettata simply encourage everyone to be a bit more scialla.

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

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