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Italian word of the day: ‘Scaramanzia’

Fingers crossed you won't have much cause to use this Italian word.

Italian word of the day scaramanzia
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

The Corriere della Sera newspaper’s online dictionary defines scaramanzia as a spell or charm, and when spoken out loud the word itself – ‘ska-ra-man-zee-a’ – almost sounds like an incantation in its own right. 

But the word also means superstition – and in day to day life, scaramanzia tends to have much more to do with this than to any actual spell-casting.

If you do something per scaramanzia it’s for luck or to ward off bad luck, while if you *don’t* do something per scaramanzia it’s because you don’t want to jinx yourself.

Incrocia le dita per scaramanzia.
Cross your fingers for good luck.

La diciassettesima sedia è stata rimossa per scaramanzia.
The seventeenth seat has been removed for good luck.

(In Italy seventeen, rather than thirteen, is considered an unlucky number).

Non gli ho detto ancora niente per scaramanzia.
I haven’t told him anything yet because I don’t want to jinx it.

And where English speakers may ‘touch wood’ in order to avoid tempting fate, Italians would touch iron: toccare ferro.

This comes from toccare un ferro di cavallo – the more widely recognised auspicious practice of touching a horseshoe.

Another common gesture to ward off bad luck in Italian is fare la corna – sticking out your index and little finger in imitation of a pair of bull’s horns.

Scaramanzia Scaramantico Scaramantica Gesto Scaramantico Corna Facendo Corna Totò GIF - Fare Le Corna Porta Male Portare Male GIFs

The idea is that the gesture will fight off the evil eye, or malocchio, with the strength of a bull. In the south it’s performed with your fingers pointing towards the ground, as making it the other way around implies the person you’re gesturing towards is being cheated on.

Holding the highest office in the land doesn’t prevent you from being susceptible to scaramanzia. In the 70s, Italian president Giovanni Leone was repeatedly photographed making the sign behind his back, including during a visit to patients suffering from a cholera outbreak in Naples.

As well as being an abstract concept, a scaramanzia can also be a physical object, namely a good luck charm.

As with the hand gesture, the corna, or horn, remains a favoured symbol for good luck, and in Naples in particular it often takes the shape of a twisted object resembling a red chilli pepper, known as a cornicello (‘little horn’).

If you’re wandering the streets of downtown Naples as a tourist, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to buy one in the form of a keychain, Christmas ornament or dashboard decoration.

Touch wood – or iron – you won’t need it.

Is there an Italian word of expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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For members


Italian word of the day: ‘Spendaccione’

Spend a little time with this Italian word.

Italian word of the day: 'Spendaccione'

Chances are you know someone who today’s word would describe perfectly.

Helpfully enough for English speakers, the Italian verb spendere means what it sounds like: ‘to spend’.

And the noun spendaccione (hear it pronounced here) is used to describe a person who does just that, with reckless abandon.

The term could be literally translated as ‘big spender’, as the Italian suffix –one (pronounced oh-neh) makes any noun into a bigger version of itself.

But spendaccione isn’t a word you’d use to describe lavish displays of generosity from someone wealthy enough to afford it.

It’s more fitting for the flatmate who can never pay their share of the rent on time, but has no shortage of cash for new clothes and nights out. It’s the family member who always seems to be struggling to pay their credit card bill despite earning a decent salary.

Where does all their money go? Boh.

– Non posso permettermi di essere uno spendaccione come il mio amico Marco, che spende soldi senza pensarci due volte per cose frivole e inutili.

– I can’t let myself be a spendthrift like my friend Marco, who spends money without a second thought on frivolous and useless things.

As you can see, the term carries connotations of financial recklessness and irresponsibility – this person definitely isn’t spending within their means.

Italians might even say this person has le mani bucate, or ‘holes in their hands’. The money just seems to slip right through.

For the most hopeless spendthrifts of all, the harsher description of scialacquatore might apply, which literally sounds like ‘water spiller’ but means something like “waster” or “squanderer”.

– ha scialacquato tutto il suo

– he squandered everything he had

The person who’s the polar opposite of a spendaccione meanwhile could be described as being tirchio (tight-fisted) or having le braccine corte: literally ‘short arms’.

Like the English phrase “short arms and deep pockets”, it’s used to describe those people who are seemingly physically unable to reach their wallets when it’s time to pay for anything.

Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.