The lazy hazy days of summer are upon us. So, we thought rather than a lesson requiring deep thought and time to study, we make it informative, easy to absorb yet a learning tool for our readers. What are some words people think are Italian but are not? There are several reasons why this occurs. We begin with learners of Italian outside of Italy. A perfect example occurs here in America. The “Italian” spoken by Italians and their descendants, sometimes referred to as Italianese is a conglomerate of Italian dialects, some proper Italian and made-up vocabulary of Italianized English words.
Let’s begin with a sampling of commonly used words that are Italianized English words that many readers might remember hearing nonno or nonna using, some lingering even into today.
There are words that are Italian, which are heard here, that derive from a variety of southern dialects, and are now in common usage.
Here’s an example: Paisà or paisan. The correct Italian word is compaesano or paesano, which means a person who comes from the same village. Today, in the two aforementioned colloquial forms, they more commonly can be heard here than in modern-day Italy.
Lastly, there are Italian words that are often misused or misunderstood by non-speaking Italians or even Italian Americans who never really studied their heritage language in depth.
Let’s begin with al fresco, which English speakers use for dining outside. In Italian, it means in prison. “Let’s have dinner al fresco” is used for having dinner in a garden or in any event not indoors. In Italy, it means having a meal in jail, something not very desirable. Al fresco literally means in a cool place, and it is used because in the old times prisons had no heating.
Bella figura, which translates as being beautiful or elegant, is used this literal way by English speakers, as it relates mainly to a person’s looks. In Italian, the term is equivalent to cattiva figura, grama figura, magra figura, figura di merda (vulgar), or figuraccia. This array of expressions clearly indicates bella figura in its proper Italian usage is not endearing or flattering by any means. A figuraccia is when one underperforms leaving the other dissatisfied or commits a blunder. You may make a magra when you inadvertently cause the other discomfort, mistake or forget a name, anything that causes you and the other to feel embarrassed. A figuraccia is therefore if you invite a friend over for dinner and burn the food, or if you are invited for a party and overdress when all others show up in jeans and tees. Bella figura is the opposite meaning a bad impression.
Finally, there are the words we feature in our monthly lessons, falsi amici, false friends. These words look similar to English, but are not cognates. Let’s look at one now. Drogheria, not a drug store in Italian. In Italian drogheria is a grocery store. In Italy, a drug store is defined by one word, farmacia, which of course means pharmacy.