The Italian language is a fascinating mix of words and expressions that represent its culture and history. Think of food, opera, design, fashion, and the arts. Simply sit back and reflect on the astonishing influence Italian culture has had on music, opera, and literature. Mozart composed most of his operas in Italian, rather than German. Not surprising when you consider that the most important composers of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were Italian and most musical terminology is still in their language.

Each language has unique words which often reflect its culture. Italian is no exception as we will see from the list of 17 words which cannot really be directly translated into English.

1. Culaccino

Italian cuisine has a fine reputation which is widely recognized. Many food words reflect this. “Culaccino” is used to describe the mark left by a glass on the tablecloth, because it is wet or stained.

2. Abbiocco

Still on food. Have you ever felt rather drowsy after a full meal? When you succumb to that sleepy feeling, you have the “abbiocco”. Just mutter it as you drift into that snooze.

3. Boh!

This is the most wonderful word of all and takes up so little space and time. It has various nuances which wander aimlessly between “I don’t know” to “I have no idea” or “I don’t know and what kind of idiot are you to ask me why/how I would know the answer to that!”

4. Ciofeca

How on earth can you describe a poor quality and badly prepared drink, such as coffee? Italians will have none of this and their word “ciofeca” sums all that up in one word. Why on earth would you want to spend more words in describing a lousy coffee? It sounds horrible and it is!

5. Furbo

This can be roughly translated as person who is crafty, sly or devious. But there is something missing. The Italian word contains an element of criticism or warning but also reflects a certain admiration in how they manage to carry it off, be successful and get away with it!

6. Pantofolaio

Imagine trying to find one English word which describes a person who loafs around at home and rarely goes out? “Pantofolaio” describes this person perfectly as “pantofole” is the Italian word for slippers.

7. Salapuzio

Do you ever meet a rather short man who happens to be a know-it-all? He may be rather unpleasant and may even be lewd. “Salapuzio” is the word you need. This word comes from the Latin word “salaputium.”

8. Faloppone

Think of a person who never finishes anything, is self-important, and is full of empty promises. The Italian word “faloppone” expresses this very neatly. Now, I wonder why Italians often use this word to describe politicians?

9. Gattara

This can be roughly translated as a cat lady but that does not go far enough. Cat lady may simply refer to a cat lover who has one or more cats at home. This Italian word usually means an older lady who wanders the streets, looks after stray cats, and spends most of her time, energy and money on looking after them.

10. Rocambolesco

This is really a borrowed word from the French one, rocambolesque. The word comes from a character called Rocambole who was a daring adventurer, invented by the author Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail. When you want to describe an adventure or event that was daring, epic, fantastic, gripping, and incredible, then “rocambolesco” is perfect.

11. Meriggiare

This word suits the Italian climate perfectly. “Meriggiare” means to rest in the shade on a very hot day. It is actually the title of the poem, Meriggiare by Eugenio Montale.

12. Magari

A wonderful word with many uses and meanings. It can mean a banal “I wish” but is more often used to express the idea of hope, longing and wishful thinking in the sense “If only it were true” as one dreams of fortune, wealth, and happiness. It is also used to introduce diplomatic advice so you use it at the beginning of the sentence when suggesting a little more or less pepper would have made the pasta ideal. Its origin is from the ancient Greek word “makarie” which means those lucky people who can.

13. Menfreghista

This word is used for those people who couldn’t give a damn about anything or anyone else. The Italian expression for “I don’t care” is “Non me ne frega.” So, when you want to describe a person who has this awful attitude, he or she is a “menefreghista.” There is nothing as neat as that in English.

14. Qualunquismo

Perhaps this is the negative version of whatever, but refers to an attitude of distrust, scepticism and apathy in politics. Its origin is traced back to a political movement (Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque) founded after World War II in Italy. It was supposedly apolitical and proposed an alternative to left and right political policies at the time.

15. Cornuto

This is a word which means having horns and is used to describe a horned animal. But its use in contemporary Italian more often refers to a person who is being cheated on. The nearest English equivalent is the rather Shakespearian word “cuckolded” but nobody uses that now.

16. Gibigianna

If you say this word softly, it helps you to visualize its meaning – the flash of reflected light on water. Just one word to convey that beautiful scene. It also has a figurative meaning as in a woman who wants to flaunt her charms or dazzle you with her elegance.

17. Apericena

When you have an aperitif you whet your appetite before a meal, Why not go one step further and enjoy some delicious samples of food in readiness for dinner (cena)? This is an “apericena” and many bars offer them free of charge, maybe in the hope you will order a second drink.

Featured photo credit: ho visto nina volare/ via Flickr via

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