10 May 2007
top 5 italian words you really don't want to mispronounce

This is a topic often batted around among those of us trying to get used to Italy--probably even more so than complaints about Italian bureaucracy.

And that's saying something.

Whether you're coming to Italy for your first or twenty-first time, ready to meet your future in-laws, trying to impress your new Italian amore, or just in the mood to laugh *with* us as we maneuver our way through the beautiful Italian language, I have compiled for you:

The Top 5 Italian Words
You Really Don't Want to Mispronounce

1. Fico: noun, fig. Succulent and sweet, we all love figs, right? Yeah, well, just be sure you keep this one in the masculine form (ending in "o") because once you change it to fica or figa, you've gone and referenced (in quite a vulgar way) a part of the female anatomy that rhymes with bagina. Incidentally, if you want to say a guy is attractive or if something is generally cool, you can say "figo." That's not obscene but the way I figure, why mess with it?

2. Penne: noun, can mean penne, as in the pasta, or pens (singular is penna). Some background: the Italian language has this funny thing whereby you must actually pronounce every letter that appears in a word. And so this word is "pen-ne." Our ears may not hear the difference between pronouncing the double consonant and not, but Italian ears sure do--especially in this word, which if pronounced "pene" means penis (or, if you prefer, a part of the male anatomy that rhymes with shmenis). Subtle difference in pronunciation and yet huge difference in meaning.

3. Pisolino: noun, nap. Speaking of man parts, be careful to pronounce this one exactly as written with that long "o" in the middle. If you get lazy, you might be saying "pisellino," which although literally means "small pea" and is what Popeye's Swee'Pea is called in Italian, is slang for a tiny pene. So, to sum up, take a nap, not a small penis.

4. Scappare: verb, to escape. Another example where you must be careful to pronounce the middle vowel clearly because if you say "devo scopare," you're telling someone that you have to go sweep (e.g., the floor). Not so bad, you say? Well, the other meaning for scopare is a slang term for, um, making love, and may not be something you'd like to share with, say, your mother-in-law.

5. Scoraggiare: verb, to discourage. Mispronounce this one so that you say "scoreggia" and you're referring to passing gas in a not so nice way (assuming there is a nice way). Many an English as a Foreign/Second Language teacher has probably done this one when trying to tell students not to be discouraged. Eh. This is how we show students it's OK to make mistakes while learning a language. Right? Right?

Believe you me, there are so many more (for great dictionaries of Italian slang, go here and here). But aside from all the ancient ruins, Renaissance artwork, processions and festivals, and olive, lemon, and orange groves, the challenge of the Italian language is just a small part of what makes life in Italy fun and exciting.

Kinda makes you want to come to Italy and learn Italian, doesn't it?

*This post is part of the Top 5 - Group Writing Project sponsored by ProBlogger, first seen by me at Scribbit.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

When describing a hot, humid day in German, be extra careful not to forget to pronounce the Umlaut - those 2 dots obove the "U", otherwise.....

schwül - muggy
schwul - gay/homosexual

This is the only one that comes to mind - obviously, the German language lacks much of the fun and humor that lies within the Italian language. So ist das Leben....


Blogger Rebecca said...

Good Lord...I will never again be able to eat Penne with a pure mind!!!!

Blogger Cherrye said...

Been there done MOST of that...man oh man...

Blogger Vanessa said...

Hee hee hee... I love this stuff... Remember my Spanish examples? Well another funny one is cojines/cojones... the former meaning cushions and the latter meaning, well, boll**ks (eek). And, yes, I know someome who whilst visiting her boss's house, upon entering the living room commented on his lovely "cojones"!
Still, first ever pollo/polla error was by far the most embarrassing for me ;)

Blogger Giulia said...

Ha Ha, we use "scoreggia" as the nicer way to say passing gas.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I howled reading your blog today!! It becomes even more complicated when u speak a dialect!! Thanks for making me smile!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love stuff like this! It DOES make me want to come to Italy and learn (more) Italian!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I made all of those mistakes when I lived there so learned the hard way. Great post though. Very helpful for people moving to Italy, already living there or just wanting to speak Italian. I wish I read it 6 years ago.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got a good one for you...I was invited to lunch one day at the home of my sister-in-law's parents. Anna had made a delicious spread of roasted meats and I wanted to compliment her on the meal. "Quanto mi piace questo cane!" You can imagine the horror on my face when she explained that we weren't eating the dog...

LOL. no comment.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

one of the guys at the language school used to practice his italian with the secretary. One day he wanted a new white board eraser and he asked her for una pugna instead of spugna. Not sure if i got the spelling right, but basically for a blow job instead of a wipe cloth!!!! vanessa

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, it makes me want to come to Italy, sit in the sun, and eat figs. :) (And I do really mean figs. Mmmm. I think I love them even better than strawberries.)

Blogger Annika said...

Something tells me that all these belong in the category "mistakes you only make once" ;D

Blogger all over the map said...

Yes I want to come to Italy again. I feel I know Italy in a much better way now, thanks to you and a few other expat bloggers in Italia.
I thoroughly enjoyed these and I don't think I will ever think of Popeye the same, thanks! :)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The good thing about those "verbal mispronounciations not to make in Italy" is that if made, they would be made in Italy. And that would not be a bad thing.

This list made me laugh, made me smile. Thank you for the information, the thoughts, the smile.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh - this is great.
I was in Spanish class in high school and mispronounced a word like this. I still remember my teachers face!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love this!! What a clever idea to tell us. Bad words with pasta?! Penne. Yikes!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Growing up in Brooklyn, I don't even pronounce most English words right. Now I'm terrified to use the little Italian I know!

Blogger somepinkflowers said...

very, very good!

one year ago today i was making my way around Rome giving the language my best shot.

everyone was so patient with me
and i had a most perfect time there in Italy for almost 6 weeks.

i wonder now what i must have said!

Blogger anna said...

Forgive me for nitpicking, but isn't it "pesolino"?

I never knew scopare meant to do the deed. Thanks for the lesson.

Blogger Scribbit said...

That's funny--and very creative. Love the list and good luck with the contest!

Wunschdenker, that's a tricky one! In Italian, the slang for a gay/homosexual man is "finocchio," and it's said exactly the same way as you'd say fennel. All about the context!

Rebecca, hey, as long as you're eating "penne" you've got no worries.

Cherrye, part of the initiation I'm afraid ;)

Vanessa, so Spanish is fun too!

Giulia, yes, scoreggia isn't all that bad so long as that's what you wanted to use.

Enza, excellent point about the dialect. I can't remember what I said just the other day, but by making it feminine, I turned it into a word in a dialect that meant something completely different--although not vulgar at least, and it was only with P. See how well I've learned? Now I can't even remember what it was!

Heather, glad you enjoyed it; come on over!

JDoe, I think most of us learn these the hard way even with the knowledge--it's like your brain *wants* to say the naughty word even when you know better ;)

Milva, I'm very happy you weren't eating the dog. I had to cover Luna's ears for that one ;)

NYC, "no comment" is probably the best way to go on this subject ;)

Vanessa, oh my. I have never heard that for that particular deed (pompino being the one I hear most)...learn something new everyday!

Sara, yes, figs. Plural. That's actually how I avoid saying "fico" in fact--I always use the plural "fichi" ;) Ah, I should have mentioned in the post that you can also say "fico" for something that is cool. But again, I wouldn't ;)

Annika, yes one would think....

Cheeky, oh, Swee'Pea is just as innocent as ever :)

Goodthomas, glad you enjoyed them, and that they made you smile :)

Kristen, funny how those memories stick out, eh?

TIC, thanks! Like I wrote, many of us have talked about this for a while, but it's useful to have it gathered up, I think. Maybe it'll save face for someone else someday ;)

Monkling, hah! You don't have to be afraid though--Italians love when you try to speak Italian. Sure some will laugh at you too, but it's all in good fun and part of the learning process.

Somepinkflowers, it's better *not* to wonder what you said...it can't go anywhere good at this point ;)

Anna, as far as I know, there's no "pesolino" in Italian. "Pisolino" is pronounced "pee-so-LEE-no" (you can click on the "pisolino" in red in the post and go to an online Italian-English dictionary); and I'm glad I've enlightened you on, um, sweeping.

Scribbit, thanks, and good luck to you as well :)

Blogger Elizabeth Abbot said...

Once at a business meeting I said that we certainly didn't want to "discourage" a certain employee...Well I got lots of surprised looks at that one when I exchange one vowel for another..

Blogger Gil said...

Things you don't learn taking Italian classes at Adult Ed. with a very dignified Italian lady from Veneto!! If the classes resume tis year I'll have some questions for her.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

haha, this is great. my best story is when my best friend came to visit me in rome, and mispronounced cacio e pepe when ordering in a restaurant. yes, she actually ordered a plate of "cazzo e pepe"! oh man, the waiter just started laughing and told me i should teach my friend a little italian lesson.

Blogger Karla said...

Since you are doing things in fives...I've tagged you for a top five places to eat locally meme. Don't hate me.

In Norwegian, the words for "shopping bag" and "hot dog" are very, very similar. Just a difference of the middle vowel. (Polser vs PØLSER) I can never say it right. Probably everyday I ask for a hot dog to put my groceries in. Or a grocery bag with ketchup. Luckily they understand that Iprobably don't want what I am asking for and give me the logical thing.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok now my Italian is very rusty but can't u also say fico when something is screwed up. I thought i remember my mother using fico in a very derrogatory manner, sort of like saying that's messed up or BS....maybe I have my words mixed up.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

OH MY!! Scratch what i said earlier. I asked my mom and she corrected me....and it's not nice at all!!

Blogger Stefanie said...

You definitely need to read Eat Pray Love. I think you'd really relate to and enjoy all the parts about her struggles with learning Italian. (Seriously, why haven't you picked that book up yet??) ;-)

Blogger Valerie said...

I recently learned that you don't want to confuse la fava with le fave in Toscana. So many subleties, so many opportunities to provide laughs to our listeners.
Thanks for the Top 5 heads-up! I squeaked in under the wire.

Great idea for the Top 5. I think I've mispronounced nearly every one of them at some time or another. I always have to make a riduculous exaggeration of the double consonants b/c I still have trouble distinguishing them, and I've pretty much given up on scoraggiare I've messed it up so many times.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great list! About the only Italian I know is what my grandmother yells but this list gave me a laugh because I can imagine some tourist in Rome offending half the city.

Elizabeth, well aside from discouraging, you probably wouldn't want to do the other thing to the employee either....

Gil, hmmm...don't use my name though, OK?

Anonymous, che figuraccia! All in good fun though :)

Karla, I don't hate you but it will be a toughie for me; we really don't eat out much. But I shall do my best. And thank goodness they don't give you hot dogs to take home your shopping. Although please post photos if it ever happens.

Enza, you had me thinking, and now I'm curious as to the real word/context....

Stefanie, it's really a fear of the Italian postal service that keeps me away--books in particular seem to have a tough time getting to me. Very, very sad.

Valerie, never heard that one before, but it is duly noted in case I find myself in Toscana ;)

Shelley, same here with the double consonants. Better safe than sorry!

Angela, well now you know a little more Italian--at least what *not* to use ;)

Blogger Erin said...

Doesn't sound like a very easy language to master! I'd still like to learn it one day, though.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOVE this post!!! I never really got the diff between penne and pene, so I NEVER ordered it! (But I got it now, thanks!)

-reader in California

p.s. Eat, Pray, Love? you're not missing out! (sorry stefanie) I'm a bigger fan of Tales of a Female Nomad

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haha Penne is going to be interesting to order from now on. I don't think I'll be able to stop giggling!

Blogger Thistlemoon said...

Wow, who knew that there were so many things to mispronounce! eek!
I know I will do something really bad at some point!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great! Not something I'd find in a guidebook.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haha, nice post! Made me laugh. :) I'd love to learn to speak a little Italian, so I'm bookmarking this!

Blogger Mandy said...

I vote for Eat Pray Love over Tales of a Female Nomad, but I think different people will like them for different reasons - the first is more spiritual, and I found the second to be (for my taste) too full of "our eyes met over the rice paddy as we shared a moment of cross-cultural understanding" stuff.

I love the clock as I've a friend in Italy right now!

Blogger Madelyne said...

When I was working for my parents a few years back they had a older Italian lady who used to encourage me to speak to her in Italian. I never heard her laugh so much when I told her I was going to quickly sweep( scopare presto). She told me the double meaning so now I'm careful.

Erin, Italian is a beautiful language, and I highly recommend learning it--the basics really aren't very difficult for English speakers at all, in my opinion...it's once you get into all the verb conjugations that things get a little tougher.

Anon in CA, thanks for another book recommendation; I've checked that out on Amazon, and I think I'd enjoy that as well...time to get going on my Wish List!

Zahra, yes, sometimes ignorance is bliss when ordering pasta ;)

Jenn, but now you are armed with knowledge! Anyway, Italians are very forgiving when it comes to butchering their language (at least they have been with me).

Joe, glad you enjoyed it :)

Learningnerd, you should definitely learn some Italian! Like I said, I don't think the basics are very hard, and now you even have a list of what *not* to say.

Mandy, thanks for your input on the two books; I have a feeling I'd like both of them for different reasons. Glad the clock can be of use!

Madelyne, too funny! I always use "pulire (il pavimento)" instead of "scopare" just to be on the safe side ;)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Timely advice and a great submission for the ProBlogger Group Writing Project. I think this is what I like best about projects like this, discovering all the blogs you might not ever visit otherwise. If you are interested here is a link to my submission, Top 5 Sins. It isn’t what you think :) but take a look you might like it.

While neither of us won I think it is definitely a great way to increase visibility and plan to participate in the future. Hope you enjoyed it as well and I can’t wait for next time.

Too funny! But I think that even worse is the (sadly) typical American who goes to other countries and expects everyone to speak English.

I have always found that people are delighted and eager to help when you make an attempt, no matter how badly you mangle their language.

Besides, there is no language more beautiful than Italian. (The people, too.) Sono Italiana in il mi cuore. (See? Mangled.)

Susan, funny that I just did something about the Seven Deadly Sins the other day...must be something in the air ;) Thanks for stopping by!

Hearts, yes, it is awfully American to expect everyone to speak English, although now the world seems to be trying to comply anyway. Still it's wonderful to be learning Italian, and I hope to move onto another European language once I feel secure in this one.

Anyway, your Italian? I wouldn't call it mangled at all! You got your point across, and that's what's important. Everyone learning/trying a new language should remember that communication is the ultimate goal, and if you've done that, you've succeeded. If you manage not to offend anyone, all the better ;)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

God the english language is so boring isn't it! You sure they don't make these things up to catch out foriegners?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

So funny! I just moved back from Spain - -lived there for almost 7 years...so I know about the mistakes you can make -- you never want to confuse "pene" in spanish either with "peine" which is comb -- don't want to comb your hair with that! I was always worried I would be telling people that!

Freelance Cynic, I like the conspiracy theory. I'm with you.

Rjlight, glad you can relate--sort of ;) Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to try #2 out on the Italian girl in my local cafe today and see how she reacts!

Harry, um, just don't tell her I sent you, OK? Let us know how it turns out though!

Blogger Emsk said...

Good Lord, you could really get 'scorragiare' and the other one in a muddle! Be careful about these ones - calzone (a kind of pizza that you fold in half) and cazzone (a part of the male body that tends to be on the larger size). I've already seen a post on a BBC site about a couple of girls who asked their waiter in Bologna 'vorrei un bel cazzone'.

Oh, and false friends! Last time I was in Bari I told my friend Bartolo's 75 year-old mother 'sono molte eccitata di tornare in Italia' and she gave a knowing laugh. It took me years to discover that 'eccitata' does mean excited, but of the love-making variety. Luckily she's a broad-mined Catholic lady (I use tu not Lei with her) and she just laughed.

In Japanese you need to be careful with the words 'kutsu' (shoes) and 'ketsu' (ass - and I don't mean no baby donkey!). I asked the ladies at yoga if they liked my new ass recently and they shrieked with laughter.

Emsk, you offer *excellent* advice. I'll probably just refrain from ordering calzone just to be on the safe side ;)

Your own blunders are hilarious--it's good to know the Japanese women just loved your new ass, isn't it?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this thread. Reminds me of when I took my brand-new bride away from her life of luxury in Pasadena, CA, and landed her in a dusty flat in Brindisi for three years. I came home from work one day to find her very upset about this man who kept making obscene phone calls to her (we had one of the few phones in our neighborhood - back in the 1980's). She could only understand that he wanted to do something to her figs, or so she thought. Not so happy was she when I explained the joke...next time, she answered the phone, "Hello?" instead of the usual "Pronto - chi parla?" and the prankster got so flustered that he hung up and never called again. Another time, I sent her to the dealer to pick up a part for our car, specifically, a windshield washer pump. She called me to tell me to do it myself, because she walked into the dealer and asked for a "pompa di spezzatore" and the parts guys couldn't stop laughing - then she asked our neighbour and found out why. Ah, the glories of cultural exchange!

Our next three years (this decade) in Italy went much smoother, but my teenage son kept ordering "pizzaroni" instead of "salumi", because he knew that he didn't want pepperoni, and thought he didn't want salami! Luckily, the pizzaiolo was a gentile, understanding guy...

*Cercando, hilarious! Love the language memories--and I love that we all have them (whether they're ours or someone else's) ;)

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