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Italian Lesson – July 2024


The lazy hazy days of summer are upon us. This month, instead of vocabulary requiring concentration and time to study, we offer you an informative, easy-to-absorb lesson which we hope brings back memories of growing up Italian in this country. What are some words people think are Italian but are not? For learners of Italian in the United States, let us first note that the “Italian” spoken by Italians and their descendants here has often morphed into what some refer to as Italianese. This way of communicating is a mixture of Italian dialects, some proper Italian and made-up vocabulary English words that have been “Italianized” A student learning Italian here in the U.S., especially those who practice with “Italian” speakers living here for decades or those learning from their grandparents, may actually be picking up words and expressions that won’t help them pass their final Italian exam. However, these language changes are an integral part of Italian assimilation in our country. Here are some common examples of this “Italianese” which was often used by “nonno” or “nonna.” The “Italianese” words below are spelled as they would sound.

Italianese English Italian

Bisinisso business – affari

Bosso boss – padrone

Checca cake – torta

Cenciarella ginger – ale spuma

Chizze kids – ragazzini

Fresce fresh – scostumato (a “fresh” person)

Giobba job – impiego

Sanguiccio sandwich – tramezzino

Scianiare to shine – lustrare

Sciumecco shoemaker – calzolaio

Troboli troubles – guai

There are words that are Italian, which are heard here, that come from Italian, but derive from a variety of southern dialects. These 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, which are often misused but are familiar to 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 commonly say for dining outside. In Italian, it means in prison. Al fresco 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 in a literal way by English speakers, as it can refer to a person’s looks. However, if said in a sarcastic manner it could change to the expressions cattiva figura, grama figura, magra figura, figura di merda (vulgar), or figuraccia. In this context it is not flattering by any means. A figuraccia is when one underperforms leaving the other dissatisfied or commits a blunder. It could be that you are invited to a party and overdress when all the others show up in jeans and tees. You may be referred to as a magra when you inadvertently cause the other discomfort, mistake, or forget a name, anything that causes you and the other to feel embarrassed.

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 shop. In Italy, a drug store is defined by one word, Farmacia, which of course means pharmacy.

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