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‘Nanna’s gone for a quickie’: Readers reveal their funniest Italian language gaffes

'Nanna's gone for a quickie': Readers reveal their funniest Italian language gaffes
It's easy to slip up in Italian. Change one consonant by accident and you've said a rude word. Oops! Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash
We asked what mistakes you've made in Italian that have had you burning red with embarrassment or doubled over in fits of giggles. Here are the priceless language-learning gaffes you shared.

Learning Italian is not for the faint-hearted. And not just because of its complex conjugation or its number-gender agreement.

Italian is full of traps for the plucky language learner, who can easily slip up and accidentally say a rude word or utter a double entendre.

READ ALSO: The top ten Italian words that just don’t translate into English

It’s something we know all too well. So we asked readers of The Local Italy about Italian language blunders that have left them red-faced or nonplussed, and the responses were every bit as funny – and embarassing – as you’d expect.

Strawberry condom with your brioche, sir?

Preservatives in English mean jam, of course. But if you didn’t know the word in Italian and take a chance by guessing it must be similar to the English, expect giggles from Italians.

“I wanted a brioche with strawberry jam inside but couldn’t think of the word for jam. I thought it must be a derivative of the word ‘preserve’, being what I thought was Latin-based, so I asked for a brioche ‘con preservativo fragola dentro’. The reply was, ‘COSA?’. So, like any Irish man, instead of changing what I said I decided to shout it out louder.” – Peter Rowell, Trieste.

To save your blushes from asking for a condom with your breakfast, the Italian word is ‘conservante’. Or you can simply say, ‘marmellata‘.

READ ALSO: From beer to hairdryers: 10 Italian words that come from German

Preservatives don’t translate in Italian as you might think. Photo: Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash

Nanna’s gone for a quickie

“When invited to the first big family event of my Italian partner, a baptism, I was sat between the nonna (grandma) and zia (auntie) of my partner who was sat opposite me around a long table of 20 family members.

“Nonna had left the table 10 minutes before and zia asked where she had gone.

“I wanted to make a joke and say I think she has gone for a little lie down, ‘un pisolino‘, but instead ​I said, ‘I think she has gone for a una sveltina‘! Zia burst out laughing and I immediately realised what I had done.

“She proceeded to tell the person next to her and the joke spread around the table like a game of Chinese whispers.

“When nonna eventually came back, the whole table stood up in a round of applause. To this day it provokes hysterics if someone asks, ‘where is nonna?'” – Naomi, Bologna.

READ ALSO: Five easy Italian words with a curious history

People in San Francisco have got no boobs

“I was in an Italian class and trying to explain that there are a lot of homeless people in my home city of San Francisco.

“Thinking I was being a diligent Italian student, I assumed you would need to make ‘persone’ and ‘senzatetto’ agree, so I said, ‘Ci sono molte persone senzatette a San Francisco’.

“This of course actually means, ‘There are a lot of people without boobs in San Francisco!'” – Alex Barron, Bologna.

READ ALSO: Not just teaching: The jobs I you can do in Italy without speaking Italian

Forget to pronounce the second ‘n’ in penne and you’ve got a whole different kind of lunch. Photo: emy on Unsplash

Penis pasta, anyone?

“Talking to my neighbour about a pasta dish I’d made with penne, I didn’t pronounce the double ‘nn’. After laughing she proceeded to indicate the alternative.” – Kana Kanagendra, Radda in Chianti.

Fico is a fig and a fica is a…

Watch out for the gender of this word. A fig (fico) is masculine in Italian – but if you turn it into a feminine object, it’s likely to cause a snigger.

“One of the first few occasions I spent time with my now mother-in-law, we were outside admiring the fig trees together when I apparently expressed my great love for eating, well, a woman’s private parts.

“She is far too elegant to have reacted much but her slightly raised eyebrow told me I’d definitely said something wrong.” – Kara Scott, Padova.

READ ALSO: Popes, chickens and reheated soup: 15 everyday Italian idioms you need to know

“I was on a summer school in Tuscany, and we were staying with an 80-year-old former chef who couldn’t speak a word of English. She used to make the most wonderful cakes using fruit from the trees in her back garden. I’d learned that, in Italian, the tree is masculine and its fruit is feminine so I was practicing by asking her about her cakes.

“Then she showed me her fig tree, and so I asked if she had ever made a fig cake… Except I made the fig feminine. I still cringe to this day, but thankfully she had an excellent sense of humour!” – Michaela Miller – Wales.

The word for ‘fig’ is masculine in Italian – ‘il fico’. If you change the gender to female, it’s no longer a fruit. Photo: Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Just a little bite

“One time I was with my Napolitan friends and I wanted to say “a bite”, but wasn’t sure how.

“So I decided to try and guess the word and thought of something like, ‘little mouth’. So I went for it and said “bucchino” without knowing. My friends and I had a good laugh!” – Nora, Naples.

If you want to taste a little morsel of someone else’s dish, you might say you’d like a ‘boccone‘. Not to be confused with the similarly sounding ‘bucchino’, which is likely to cause choking fits of laughter.

That word does involve a mouth, but not for eating. We’ll let you chew on that.

Get going or get jiggy?

“I had just learned the word ‘scappare’ as a cool way to say ‘leave’ or ‘get going’. After dinner with a lovely family, my friend looked at his watch and said it was time for us to be leaving.

“Recognising a chance to use my new word, I tried to say, “Sì, dobbiamo scappare.” (Yes, we need to get going.)

“What I actually said (and learned a new word in the process) was, “Sì, dobbiamo scopare!”, (‘Yes, we have to f***!’). Awkward!” – Jay Johnson, England.

Fix my taps and I’ll give you a massage

“I was texting with my plumber about an issue and I told him I would send him a message (messaggio) him later, or so I thought. I actually told him I would massage (massaggio) him later! He didn’t reply.” Sharron Wallis, Puglia.

Plumbers get all the best jobs

“I was mending a hole in a friend’s roof to stop a leak. She wanted to explain she had a leaking roof, but actually, said she had leaking tits: ‘Le mie tette perdono acqua’.” – Rosalind Clare Baker, Cantalupo in Sabina.

READ ALSO: Here’s how to talk about love, sex, and dating in Italian

Toilet water for the lady, please

“When I first came to Italy in 1991 as a penniless English teacher, I thought I’d save some money by drinking tap water.

“Unfortunately I got confused and once ordered ‘acqua gabinetto‘ (toilet water) instead of ‘acqua rubinetto‘ (tap water) in a restaurant, and lived to tell the tale!” – Amanda Scott, Ostuni, Puglia.

Not a great name for a restaurant

“I pronounced the restaurant, ‘il gozzo’, (the crop), as ‘il cazzo’. – Heather Redka, Chicago

Mispronunciation is part of language learning – and in Italian, it can easily land you in hot water. Just so you know, ‘il cazzo‘, is a vulgar term for a man’s intimate parts. That one’s useful to remember.

Vegetable or animal? Food or pet? A consonant decides

“I was talking with some friends and I called a horse (cavallo) a cabbage, ‘cavolo’. They started laughing.” – Greg Hopkins, Colico.

“I was at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, beginner’s class, and the teacher asked us what we liked to eat. Someone said, ‘Mi piace insalata’, (I like salad), the guy next to me said, ‘Mi piace pesce’, (I like fish), and when it came to my turn, I said, ‘Mi piace carne’ (I like meat).

At least, that’s what I thought I said but, after everyone had finished laughing, the teacher told me that I’d in fact said, ‘Mi piace cane’, (I like dog). Sigh!” – Andrew Kelly, Modica, Sicily.

READ ALSO: 21 mildly interesting facts about the Italian language

A huge grazie to everyone who wrote in to tell us about their hilarious language mistakes. There were far too many responses to include here, but we read them all – and we feel your pain.

Find more articles for language learners in our Italian language section.


Member comments

  1. I made that mistake about figs when I invited my Italian dinner companion and friend of a friend to taste my prosciutto wrapped fig appetiser.
    It certainly made the meal more interesting. We’re getting married in August…

  2. At a beach bar in Le Marche I asked, for two days in a row, for ” un espresso e una zucca”. I wanted a coffee and a juice, not a pumpkin. Both days he just gave the me the coffee and a quizzical look,

  3. Years ago shopping at the greengrocers, I pointed at some persimmons ( cachi)and asked the young server if they were cacca( poop). He went very very red.

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