Confusion, sometimes of a risqué variety

Here are some of the words that confuse me in Italian due to their similarity.

It can be a risky business, most notably with…

scroprire (past participle scoperto) – to discover, to find, to uncover
scopare (past participle scopato) – to sweep, but also to fuck

I’ve blundered with these two many a time, to a point where it seems like my brain is simply being bloody-minded and refusing to learn the difference. Maybe my brain thinks it’s funny. It’s so risky, I have to try and use workarounds, for example avoiding scroprire and using trovare (to discover), and using spazzolare, to sweep, to brush.

This is another very risky one, which I’ve messed up a few times in the rudimentary exchanges that generously could be called my attempts at “conversation”:
fido – loyal, faithful, also overdraft and I trust (fidare, to trust)
fida – he/she trusts (fidare)
sfida – challenge
fico – fig, but also cool, kewl
figo – as above
fica – slang term for vagina, which could be translated by that most harsh of Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s probably closer to the US English appropriation of a once-cute name for a cat. also insists it can be used like the English word “babe”, but I’ve not heard that myself so can’t confirm.
figa – variation on the above.
sfiga – bad luck, as in Che sfiga!, What bad luck! Adding an s in front of words varies their meaning in Italian, though I can’t quite get the logic here.

This is a real minefield, especially in plurals, where fico becomes fichi, okay, but also fiche (according to This is problematic as fica also becomes fiche. So I’m really not sure how one could safely ask for some figs on the market… And it’s fig season now too.

Now, I enjoy idiomatic expressions, especially old ones in English, such as “I don’t care a fig” as a tame way of saying “I don’t give a damn”. Apparently Italian has similar expressions, such as Non me ne importa un fico! or Non vale un fico! (It’s not worth a fig!).

What makes this interesting is how easily the anodyne expression, which presumably evolved to avoid using any Christian cussing, can become something really rather rude, with the adjustment of one letter.

Here’s a tamer one, but still ripe for comedy value:
tetto – roof
tetta – tit (at least this noun has the decency – and logic – to be feminine)
Just think of how wrongly I could say “I’m going up on the roof.”
Note the plurals too – tetti (roofs), tette (tits).

And now, just to get beyond my confusion/obsession with rude words and general turpiloquio (my teacher would be so proud), here are some more ordinary words I’m just trying to clarify for my own sake:

menta – mint (but also the first person present subjunctive conjugations of mentire, to lie)
mente – mind
mento – chin

detergente – detergent, washing up liquid
detersivo – detergent, washing powder

I think the difference between this two is loosely liquid vs powder, but don’t quote me on that.

I’ll add to this page as and when I encounter similarly confusing words.

Oh, and just a quick note – what I’m talking about here is standard Italian, a language that arguably doesn’t really exist. Most Italians speak dialects apparently. The mind boggles about the variables therein.

Addendum 1:

Here’s a classic confusing thing you may encounter in an Italian restaurant.

ostriche – oysters, not ostriches, in case you were wondering if they were doing ostriche state. (Singular ostrica. Ostrich in Italian is struzzo. In taxonomy, their family is Struthionidae, genus Struthio, which hints at the origins of the Italian word.)

And a few other similar words:
astice – lobster (also aragosta; taxonomically, the lobster infraorder is Astacidea.)
istrice – porucpine (also porcospino, literally spiny pig, a name that’s used for hedgehogs too. Naturally. I wish I’d studied both biology and Latin more as both are very handy for making guesses at the names of animals and plants in Italian: the Latin name for the family of Old World porcupines is Hystricidae).
strisce – stripes. (Singular striscia.) I’m enjoying an Italian beer at the moment called Stelle e strisce – stars and stripes. I imagine it’s inspired by a US ale.

Addendum 2:

Just learning this one yesterday, 10 March 2013. We were on the Aventine hill, and discussing the keyhole of the Knights of Malta compound, with its famous view of St Peters.
toppa – keyhole.
topa – slang word for vagina. Learning the pronunciation nuance of a single versus a double letter in Italian is a real challenge…
topo – mouse.


Filed under Learning Italian, Main thread

2 responses to “Confusion, sometimes of a risqué variety

  1. Oh my God. I’m doomed. I’m just going to point a lot. Somebody help me

  2. You’ll be fine. Making mistakes is a good way to learn… or something. Just hope that when you make the really rude mistakes you’re not in too polite company!

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