Category Archives: Learning Italian

The Unexpected Pharmaceutical

Even after a year and a half living in Rome, there are still many aspects of everyday life that confuse me. Any engagement with pharmacies, and even erboristerie (herbalists – places that basically sell a lot of the stuff that’s similar to what you’d find in health food shops), is one of these aspects. Unless I’m just buying some plasters (cerotti), the experience almost always yields unexpected results.

Pharmacies are ubiquitous in Rome, but we frequent the one nearest our flat. The staff know us now (we’re repeat and memorable visitors for sorry reasons I won’t go into now), and they’re friendly and helpful. But that doesn’t always mean you get quite what you want. And even if you do, broadly, get what you want, there’s bound to be something just plain weird about it.

So this week. Yesterday we visited both the pharmacy and the erboristeria. Fran needed something to sooth a cough that was keeping her (well, us) awake at night, I needed some cream for my hands. I’m working in a busy kitchen and the constant hand-washing with industrial strength soap is just simply wreaking havoc with my skin, darling.

Nothing too challenging or unusual there.Right?

We asked in both shops, they acted like they knew exactly what we wanted, we had a quick look, said ok, thanks, and made the purchases. Then we got home and looked a little closer. Fran said the cough mixture tasted weird. Cough mixture is always weird and full of unnecessary shit – like artificial sweeteners for example. Over-the-counter mainstream medicines have enough dodgy shit in them, so for me adding chemical sweeteners just seems like overkill. Plus medicine doesn’t need to taste sweet or nice, it’s not supposed to be a pleasant treat. The weirdness here? Vanilla and apricot flavourings. Vanilla? Is that really associated with cold rememdies?

As for my hand cream. It was okay, and when I tried it in the shop, its smell reminded me of our holiday on the Giglio last year as its primary ingredient is Helichrysum italicum, a herb that covers the island. But the weird factor was that the box says the cream is “Protective and Bleaching”. You what? Never mind the fact that something that bleaches is surely hardly good for you, why would you want a restorative skin cream to bleach your skin anyway? Perhaps it’s just a weird translation. Or not. The original Italian blurb is Protettrice e Sbiancante – protective and bleaching, or brightening, or blanching. It’s perturbing. I quite like my skin tone and don’t need it bleached or blanched thanks. A friend suggested it might be for old ladies wanting to bleach away liver spots. Thanks so much, lady in the shop, for lumping me with that demographic.

Other examples of this bewilderment include trying to buy some sort of basic antiseptic cream for small cuts, and being persuaded to buy something that, it transpired, contained antibiotics. Really, if I’m going to use antibiotics, I want to save them for when there’s a serious chance of serious infection, not when I’ve nicked my finger with a knife. We live in an era when antibiotics really really need to be used very selectively due to the rise of resistant “superbugs” and having them in an over-the-counter cream is arguably irresponsibly stupid.

Another friend also mentioned she’d asked for something for the flu. She came away with something, tried it, felt nothing, and only then discovered it was homeopathic. Whatever your feelings about homeopathy, when you’ve got a crappy flu, you really just want something a bit heavy duty than sugar water with unquantifiable magic vibrations.

Of course, the moral of the story is read the box closely before purchasing. But if you’re in a queue, or are dealing with a friendly pharmacist who behaves like they’re being very helpful and entirely understand your needs, or your Italian isn’t good enough for the medical blurb on the box, this can be tricky. Ultimately, sometimes all you want is something familiar. But tough – there ain’t no Lemsip in Italy.


Filed under Italy, Learning Italian, Rome

Italian names for fish and seafood

Since I moved to Rome in August 2011, I’ve been keeping a list of the names for fish and seafood I encounter on market stalls and restaurant menus. Then I try to learn the English name for said fish. It’s a challenge though. As not only do common names change from region to region in Italy, but the same names are often applied to different species, most notably merluzzo, which, according to Italian Wikipedia, can refer to 15 species.

Basically, I’ve been utilising both the English and Italian versions of Alan Davidson’s ‘Mediterranean Seafood’ (aka ‘Il Mare in Pentola’), the classic book that comprehensively tackles of the subject of seafood nomenclature. (Although I do occasionally carry ‘Il Mare in Pentola’ with me at the market, it’s not very convenient when I’m out and about and end up in a restaurant: this list, on the other hand, I can access through my phone.)

I’ve also been cross-referencing both the English and Italian language versions of Wikipedia. Say what you like about Wikipedia, but it is constantly peer-reviewed by a vast number of contributors, so it can’t be all wrong – plus Davidson’s first did his work in the 1960s and even with later imprints, the updating process just isn’t as dynamic as that on Wikipedia. I’m also using other sources, both online and offline (like a poster I bought of seasonal fish species).

Please note though, I’m doing this more for linguistic and bloody-minded reasons. I’m not doing it as an overt exercise in seafood ethics. That said, many of these species are not sustainable, and shouldn’t really be eaten these days. Seafood sustainability is an issue there just wasn’t much awareness of when Davidson first wrote his book in the 1960s, and it still doesn’t really get a look-in even in the 2002 English or 2005 Italian editions that I have.

Greenpeace produces a Red List of fish to avoid. It’s handy as it simply lists the fish. They are also US and NZ specific versions, among others. A more comprehensive Red List is produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It’s not as user-friendly for consumers as you have to search by specific name (preferably a Latin, scientific name). Their database does however provide very detailed information; look, for example, at the entry for Atlantic bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus.

Back to practicalities: I’m doing fish (including some of the fresh water varieties I encounter), crustaceans and cephalopods together alphabetically, not in any separate categories. And I’m not going to list all the regional, dialect names Davidson mentions, though if you search here they may well be included alongside the standard Italian name. I’m also including a few bits of terminology, just cos.

Italian names are given in the singular form. Though (very) generally in Italian masculine nous ending in –o are pluralised –i, and feminine nouns ending in –a are pluralised with –e, there are exceptions, so I’ve included some for clarity. Note, for example, pesce (“fish”) is masculine, and becomes pesci in the plural.

Caveat: This whole undertaking is a minefield, linguistically and ethically. This list isn’t comprehensive, expert or entirely accurate. It’s just me trying to learn the names of fish I see used in Rome, and relate them to common English names. I’m British, so I’m talking about relating them to British English common names (which are more standardised than Italian common names, though not entirely standardised). But I’m also giving the principle scientific name for species, which can then be utilised to find common names in say, American English.

Please do comment or contact me though if you see something that you really don’t agree with. This is an ongoing project and I plan to keep revising it and honing it.

acciuga (plural acciughe) – European achovy. See alice.
acqua dolce – “sweet water”, that is freshwater. So freshwater fish are called pesce d’acqua dolce.
alice (plural alici) – the European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus). Some of the regional names are more similar to the English word anchovy or our more generic word for small, oily forage fish sardine, such as the Veneto’s anchiò and sardon, though this is an area of potential confusion as Engraulis encrasicolus isn’t considered a sardine species.
alalunga – see tonno alalunga.
alletterato – see tonno alletterato.
allevato in un vivaio – bred in a hatcher, fish farm
aluzzo – European/Mediterranean barracuda (Sphyraena sphyraena) aka luccio marino, luccio di mare, luzzo.
anguilla – eel, or more specifically the European eel (Anguilla anguilla – gotta love those tautonyms). Saw a big tub of these, alive, on the market just the other day.
aragosta – spiny lobster (Palinurus elephas). Also know as aligusta, aliusta (Lazio, Marche, abruzzo); agosta, langusta, grillo de mar (Veneto); ravosta, rausta (Campania); arausta, ariusta, laustra (Sicilia).
argentina – argentine (Argentina sphyraena).
aringa (plural aringhe) – herring, or more specifically Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus). Not a Mediterranean fish, but here in Rome there are smoked (affumicata) herring fillets available in the supermarket and I’ve even seen kipper-like affairs in specialist food shops or on the market in certain seasons.
astice – European lobster, common lobster (Homarus gammarus). Also known commonly as elefante di mare, longobardo (Liguria); grillo de mar (“sea cricket”, as in grasshopper, not the daft/dull English game involving balls and sticks; Venezia Giulia); lupicante, lupocantero, lupo di mare (another “sea wolf”; Toscania).
azzurro, pesce – see pesce azzurro.

barracuda ­– barracuda. Refers to the Mediterranean barracuda or barracouta (Sphyraena viridensis), though possibly also the European barracuda (Sphyraena sphyraena), which is also found in the Med. See aluzzo.
barracuda boccagialla – Mediterranean barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis).
baccalà – salt cod, that is dried salted Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). See also stoccafisso. Note, Atlantic cod is categorised as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. Which is a problem for me, as traditional Roman trattorie frequently only have baccalà as the only alternative to red meat and offal. And I don’t much like red meat and offal.
bondella – see coregone.
boga – bogue, a type of seabream with one of the best tautonyms ever: Boops boops. It has a variety of cute regional names: buga, bacello, boba, boma, vopa, vova, vop, vopa, opa, uopa… you get the picture.
bottarga – related to fish roe, but I believe this is actually a product made from dried, compressed fish gonads, particularly from mullet (grey and red) and northern bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus). Used a kind of condiment, grated on certain pasta dishes.
bronzino – see spigola.
bianchetti – the young (fry) of certain oily fish; fish just past the larval stage. This name, and gianchetti, is more from the northwest, Liguria. Called neonata and muccu in Siciliano. Neonata means newborn. I’ve eaten polpette di neonate (the fishing of which is strictly seasonal) in a Sicilian restaurant and they were very much like whitebait fritters I ate in New Zealand.

calamaro (plural calamari) – European squid (Loligo vulgaris). According to Davidson, it’s also called totano in Liguria and Venezia-Giulia, but if you scroll down to totano, that’s primarily the name for Europoean flying squid (Todarodes sagittatus).
cannochia, cannocchia – a freaky looking mantis shrimp (Squilla mantis). I’ll let Italian Wikipedia provide the regional dialect names: “panocchia, pannocchia (Abruzzo); spernocchia, sparnocchia (Campania); canocia, canoccia (Friuli-Venezia Giulia); cicala di mare (Lazio); balestrin, sigà de maa (Liguria); cannocia, pannocchia (Marche); cannocchiella, cecala (Puglia); càmbara de fangu, solegianu de mari (Sardegna); astrea, cegala de mari (Sicilia); canocchia, cicala di mare (Toscana); canocia, canoccia (Veneto).” Though I’ve never personally seen cicala di mare (“sea cicada”) used in Rome.
cappasanta – scallop, pilgrim scallop (Pecten jacobaeus). See conchiglia.
conchiglia del pellegrino, or di San Giacomo, or di San Jacopo – scallop (Pecten jacobaeus). Has a lot of local names. I’ve seen cappasanta used here in Rome, and there are other variables on that and the general religious name (pellegrino = “pilgrim”) according to Davidson, such as: capa santa, santarela (Veneto); pellegrine (Liguria); cappa pellegrina (Marche), etc. Interesting story about scallops, and dubious fishing practices, here.
capone coccio – red or east Atlantic gurnard (Chelidonichthys cuculus). Coccio means “earthenware”, a reference to the red colour presumabloy. It’s a species I see a lot on the market, and also used to buy from the market back in England. I’ve seen it called the rather complimentary occhiobello (“beautiful eye”) in a restaurant in Toscana/Tuscany. According to Davidson, capone coccio is also used in Lazio for another member of the gurnard family: the piper (Trgila lyra).
capone gallinella – tub gurnard (Chelidonichthys lucerna / Trigla lucerna). Gallinella means “chick” (as in young chicken) and is also a Roman name for the salad crop lamb’s lettuce (Valerianella locusta). You know, just to add to the confusion. Also called cappone.
cappone – see capone gallinella.
cecinella – according to Norman Lewis in his superb account his wartime experiences in Italy, Naples ʼ44, this “tiny sand eels” eaten “fried in batter”.
cefalo – grey mullet (Mugli cephalus). In Lazio also known as mattarello, which also means “rolling pin”. Also muggine.
cefalopodo – cephalopod, ie those delicious molluscs in the Cephalopoda (“head-feet”) class that includes squid, cuttlefish and octopuses. I’m very sorry cephalopod populations but you provide some of my favourite seafood dishes.
cerino – literally “match”, “taper”, but also a name for a type of mullet. I’m not 100% sure, but possibly cefalo, grey mullet. Davidson says it’s also called cirinu in Sicilia, which is similar, and I think I’ve heard the pescivendolo use cerino and cefalo interchangeably at the market.
cernia – grouper, grouper family (Epinephelinae).
cernia bruna – dusky grouper (Epinephelus guaza). Also zerola (Lazio), according to Davidson, but again, I’ve only encountered cernia in Rome.
coccio – see capone coccio.
coda di rospo – what a great name. It literally means “tail of the toad” or “toad’s tail”. The other common name for this fish is rana pescatrice, “frog fisherwoman”. Slightly more prosaically, we call this type of monkfish “anglerfish” (Lophius piscatorius), though other English names are frog-themed. Some more colourful Italian names are: diavolo de mar (“sea-devil”, also a name used in English apparently), rospo di fango (“mud-toad”), pisatrice nera, etc. Novel names aside though, the angler is really one of the core species to not eat, and it’s been on the Greenpeace Red List since 2010.  Even the UK Marine Conservation society rates it as 4 (with 5 the worst).
coregone – name used for several species of freshwater fish, notably the bondella or coregone bianco (Coregonus macrophthalmus, which occurs in Lake Constance in the Alps). We encountered this word on a menu in a restaurant at Lake Bracciano, north of Rome, so it may also refer to other small lake fish.
cozza – mussel, or more specificalloy the Mediterranean mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis). Cozze (plural) is apparently the Lazio name. The more standard Italian name is mitilo,though of course there are numerous regional names including variations likes cozzica, cozzeca, cozzela, or peocio, peocchia and similar in northeast , etc.

dentice – generic name for the Dentex, but most commonly used to refer to the common dentex (Dentex dentex). The dentex family (Sparidae), is referred to as the seabream or porgy family and includes the sargus/sargo genus.

elefante di mare – see astice.

fasulari – another one from Norman Lewis’s Naples ʼ44, which he says are “bean-shaped bivalves” and a local speciality at Pozzuoli in the Bay of Naples.
fragolino – see pagello fragolino.
fellone – a name we encountered in Naples for a kind of crab; it turns out to be Eriphia verrucosa. Davidson says the full Campania name is rancio-fellone, while the standard Italian name is favallo.

gallinella – see capone gallinella.
gambarello – common prawn (Palaemon serratus). Presumably the serratus in the Latin name is related to the English word serrated, and another name for this one is gambero sega – where sega (politely) means “saw”.
gambero – prawn, shrimp. Can refer to several species, including the three below.
gamebero imperiale – see mazzancolla.
gambero rosa – red Mediterranean prawn (Parapenaeus longirostris). Rosa means “rose” or “pink”. It’s also called the gambero bianco, “white prawn”. This and the below don’t seem to have even vaguely specific English names (or at least nothing I’d use), but I suppose I’d use the French name, after eating a lot of them while on holidays in Brittany: crevettes.
gambero rosso chiaro – “red-clear shrimp” (Aristeus antennatus). Another one with confused colour-related naming, presumably on account of how it changes when cooked, it’s also called gambero viola (“violet shrimp”) in Italian.
ghiozzo paganello – goby, rock goby (Gobius paganellus).
gianchetti – see bianchetti.
granchio – crab; generic name but also used to refer to common shore crab (Carcinus maenas). Too many different regional names to mention them all, but some are: granso (Veneto), rancio (Campania), vranzi (Sicilia).

lanterna – see pesce prete (Uranoscopus scaber).
lanzardo – or sgombro cavalla is the Atlantic chub mackerel (Scomber colias). Also known as macarello (Lazio), a name it shares with Atlantic mackerel.
latte di pesce – “fish milk” literally, but referring to soft roe, milt. I bought some fish from our pescivondolo one day and, when gutting it, he told me how lucky I was to get the milt. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but for some people it’s a delicacy.
latterino – small fish from the order Atheriniformes, silversides or sand-smelt. If memory serves, I’ve seen small ones served deepfried in Rome (the Romans do love to deepfry).
leccia stella – doesn’t appear to have a British English name, but in American English is apprently (according to Davidson) the pompano (Trachinotus ovatus). In the English version of Mediterranean Seafood Davidson also mentions an older BE name: derbio. I’m sure I’ve heard them referred to here in Rome as simply “stelle”, but Davidson says they’re called leccia bastarda (Liguria), lissa (Veneto), pesce stella (“star fish”, Toscana), ricciola (Campania, just to confuse things with Seriola dumerili), sdofereo, cionare (Sicilia) etc etc.
luccio – pike, northern pike (Esox lucius). Traditionally eaten at Lake Bracciano,  north of Rome but it was a pretty sorry affair when I tried it, small and most unlike the formidable predator freshwater fish of lore. Presumably fished too young.
luccio marino – “pike of the sea”, see aluzzo.
lupino – small bivalve, described to us as in a restaurant as a “small vongole”, where vongole really is just a generic word for members of the Veneridae (Venus clam) family. Specifically Dosinia exoleta and similar.

maccarello – see scombro/sgombro and lanzardo.
marmora – striped bream (Lithognathus mormyrus). Also mormua, mormora, marmarozza, marmolo, mirmora and other names that, helpfully, don’t sound at all similiar.
mazzancolla – a type of king prawn (Melicertus kerathurus), also commonly known as Gambero imperiale (“imperial prawn”), spannocchio. Davidson says mazzancolla is the Lazio name, though it’s also used on Italian Wikipedia.
mazzone – see ghiozzo paganello.
melù – blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou). Davidson says it’s called stocco and stoccafisso in Tuscany, so perhaps this cod relative has a history of being used for “saltcod”. English Wikipedia says “The fish is usually not marketed fresh, but processed into fish meal and oil. However, in Russia and in southern Europe, blue whiting are sometimes sold as food fish.”
merluzzo – boy oh boy. This one is the one that’s quite possibly the trickiest. Just look at Italian Wikipedia and it says this generic word used to refer to 15 different species. Most commonly, it seems to refer to Atlantic cod, but also other cod, and other members of the wider cod family like hake (Merluccius merluccius; commonly called nasello in Italian) and also pollack (Pollachius pollachius; which isn’t common in the Med so is just legally known as pollack in Italy).
mitilo – mussel. See cozza.
moscardino – another type of octopus. It’s generally small when it’s sold or served, though my research seems to say it’s Eledone moschata ­–  a pretty large species (growing up to 74cm, compared to 24cm for the common octopus). So this is either wrong, or they get it when it’s young.
motella – shore rockling (Gaidropsarus mediterraneus). Davidson calls it the three-bearded rockling, but according to Wikipedia that’s a different species (Gaidropsarus vulgaris). It also says they’re “often confused.” Also known as mosella, moustella, mostella, musdea e’ funnale. Hence potential confusion with musdea.
muggine – see cefalo.
musdea, musdea bianca – forkbeard, greater forkbeard (Phycis blennoides). Some of its regional names are mostella, mustella gianca, mustia – which sound like motella and some of its regional names. The two species are in the same order (Gadiformes) and family (Gadidae; the true cod family) but not the same genus. My guess is that they live in similar rocky environments, so were, in days of yore, caught together and discussed together by twinkly eyed, rough-handed fishermen.

nasello – hake (Merluccius merluccius). One of the fish commonly called merluzzo, but has numerous dialect names, such as pesce lupo (“wolf fish”; Marche), mazzone, mazzune, nuzz (Puglia), mbarluzzu, milluzzu, miruzzu (Sicilia) etc etc.
neonata – see bianchetti.
novellame – a generic word for young fish, just past larval stage. Although it’s on Italian Wikipedia, I’ve run it past several Italians and they looked kinda blank, so it can’t be that common. See bianchetti.

orata – Sparus aurata, gilt-head bream

occhialone – see rovello.
occhi di canna – literally “eyes on stalks”, I saw this in a restaurant in Rome and it refers to small, young octopus, smaller than moscardini. Then I saw them on the market (pic below).Occhi di canna
ombrina – doesn’t have a British English name as far as I can see (presumably because it’s a Med fish, not one from the seas around the UK) but seems to be called the Shi Drum (Umbrina cirrosa) in various places online.
orata – gilt-head (sea) bream (Sparus aurata). In this picture, it says they’re pescate, meaning fished (in the wild) not farmed.
ostrica (plural ostriche) – oyster, European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis). Although the (Latin-derived) Italian word is not unlike the English word, it also sounds like ostrich. In Italian an ostrich is the entirely dissimilar struzzu. Clear? Good.

paganello – see ghiozzo paganello.
pagello fragolino – common pandora (Pagellus erythrinus), which is in the same family as sea bream (Sparidae). It’s a cute name though as fragola means “strawberry”, and fragolino is means little strawberry, or wild strawberry. It’s presumably named for its red-pink skin.
pannochia, pannocchia – see canocchia.
palamita – Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda), from the Scombridae family, that is related to mackerel and tuna. Despite the Latin name, not to be confused with sardines.
paranza – small fish such as ling and others. It literally means fishing boat, trawler. So small fish that’s trawled up and served up before its time.
palombo – a kind of houndshark, which Davison calls the Smooth hound. He says this can refer to the Mustelus asterias and Mustelus mustelus. The former is called the Starry smooth-hound on Wikipedia, the latter the Common smooth-hound. I often see fillets of palombo on the market, though have never tried it. Which is probably a good thing, as Mustelus mustelus is “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.  Such is the tragic irony of many species with “common” in the name.
passera – European flounder (Platichthys flesus).
pelagico – pelagic. Not a fish, but a word commonly used to describe oceanic species that shoal near the surface, such as mackerel. Handily it’s basically the same in English and Italian.
pesce azzurro –  a generic Italian term for the smaller species of marine oily fish, from anchovies to mackerel. But also used to refer specifically to pesce serra (Pomatomus saltatrix).
persico – generic name for perch, also used to refer specifically to the European perch. See persico reale, below.
persico reale – European perch (Perca fluviatilis).
pesce castagna – Atlantic pomfret or Ray’s bream (Brama brama).
pesce persico – see persico, persioc reale.
pesci piatti (plural) – “plate fishes”, generic name for flat fish.
pesce prete – literally “priest fish”. This is the Atlantic stargazer (Uranoscopus scaber). This is the fish that started me on this mission. I’d asked the pescivendolo for something to make a stew and he sold me these ugly buggers. Some posting of pictures on Facebook led to long discussions, with ultimately the more helpful identification input coming from the Sicilian friend of a friend and from a British friend who’s an experienced diver, and drew on his diving community’s knowledge. I’ve seen them also called pesce lanterna and Davidson says regional names include pesce lucerna and lumera, though even in English “lanternfish” is very generic. A few other nice regional names from Davidson: bocca in cielo from Abruzzo and Campania, boca in cao from the Veneto, and pappacocciula, which I’d hazard mean the same thing: “mouth in the sky” (cielo means “sky” or heaven in “standard Italian”).
pesce sciabola – see spatola.
pesce serra – bluefish, blue fish (Pomatomus saltatrix). Had this in a restaurant in Sorrento. The waiter said it was also known as bandira, though Davidson doesn’t mention this name.
pesce spada – swordfish (Xiphias gladius). Spada does indeed mean “sword”, despite how much it might sound like “spade”. Greenpeace includes swordfish on the Red List, sayingSwordfish stocks… are fully fished in the Mediterranean.”
The IUCN Re List also says, “Globally, this species has shown a 28% decline over three generation lengths (20 years). The only stock that is not considered to be well-managed is the Mediterranean”.   So really, the Med fisheries particularly need to pull their fingers out.
pezzogna – red (sea) bream or blackspot sea bream (Pagellus bogaraveo). Also known as rovello (see below).
platessa – this name, handily, directly relates to the Latin name Pleuronectes platessa, which is European plaice. Davidson says it is “not really a Mediterranean fish” and Italian Wikipedia says ” È rara nel Mediterraneo” (“it’s rare in the Mediterranean”) though I’ve seen it offered in restaurants here in Rome. Presumably not freshly caught. Or trawled to be specific: it’s also on the Greenpeace Red List, for the damaging bottom trawling, though the IUCN says ” A widespread species which is vulnerable to overfishing in the sea, but this is not currently thought to be causing a decline great enough  to qualify the species as threatened.”
polpessa – this octopus seems to have a lot of names in English too: Atlantic white-spotted octopus, white-spotted octopus, grass octopus or grass scuttle. Its Latin name is great: Octopus macropus. Other regional Italian regional names include vurpessa, pruppessa, vurpàscele etc.
polpo, polpo commune – common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). Also polipo, piovra, folpo, tolbo, tulbo, fulbo, fulpo, vurpe, pruppu….
potassolo – see melù.

razza – ray.
razza bianca – bottlenose skate, white skate (Raja alba/Rostroraja alba). The IUCN Red List categorises it as “Endangered”.
razza chiodata – thornback ray (Raja clavata). Davidson says it’s called Arzilla pietrosa in Lazio, but on my local market’s fish stall in Rome, ray is just ray, razza, they don’t make distinctions. This species is categorised as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List.
ricciola – greater amberjack (Seriola dumerili). Our first year in Italy, we asked the pescivondolo for something for Christmas Eve, when fish is traditionally eaten in Italy. They offered us a substantial ricciola, though we had no idea what it was. A white, very meaty fish it made a serious meal.
rombo – turbot; generic name for several species of flat fish (pesci piatti) not just Scophthalmus maximus; see below.
rombo liscio – “smooth turbot”, or brill (Scophthalmus rhombus). Also known as soarzo/soazo, rombo minore (Veneto); rombetto (Marche, Abruzzo); rombo d’arena, rombo piccolo (Lazio); linguata mascula (Sicilia).
rombo chiodato – “spiked turbot” (chiodo means “nail”, “spike”) turbot (Scophthalmus maximus, also Psetta maxima). Also known as rombo maggiore, rombo gigante, and several regional names like rombo di pietra (Lazio); rombo di sasso (Veneto); rummo petruso (Campania); romolo, rummulu pitrusu (Sicilia) and various names evoking stones and rocks (sasso, pietra, pitrusu etc). If it’s line or trap caught, it’s possibly okay to eaet, but frankly most vendors and restaurants won’t want to or be able to provide provenance information, and it’s likely it’ll be trawled. Trawling is not good.
rombo giallo – megrim, whiff (Lepidorhombus whiffiagonis).
rombo di rena –wide-eyed flounder (Bothus podas). Among the regional names are the delightful rumbo bastardo (Liguria) and quattr’occhio (Toscana). Inevitiably, variations on these names are used for different species in different regions.
rombo quattrocchi – “four-eyed turbot”, or four-spot megrim in English (Lepidorhombus boscii). Also known as suace, suacia etc.
rovello – another member of Sparidae (seabream, porgy) family: Pagellus bogaraveo, which seems to be known as red sea bream and blackspot sea bream (according to Wikipedia) and blue-spotted bream in English (according to Davidson). Also known as occhino, besugo, bezugo, mupo, mupa, occhialone, pampuni, pampini, pezzogna etc etc (Davidson gives many others). Even Italian Wikipedia concedes “anche se i vari nomi locali possono creare confusione tra le diverse specie di pagelli che si pescano nel mediterraneo” – that is, “the various local names can create confusion between the diverse species of the pagellus (genus) that are fished in the Mediterranean.”

salmone – salmon, Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). These days, most of the salmon you eat will be farmed. I avoid it, as although fish farming has its place, it can be dubious, particularly when it involves carnivorous species (like salmon and bass) that have to be fed with other fish, at an inefficient rate of exchange. So for example, for 1kg of salmon you have to process 4kg of wild fish.  Personally, I’d rather eat the wild sardines, anchovies etc than the salmon. Again, it’s a question of sense and sustainability.
sarago – generic name for Diplodus genus. Most commonly refers to Diplodus sargus, the white seabream or sargo, aka sargo maggiore.
sarago sparaglione – annular bream (Diplodus annularis). Here’s one where a  lot of the regional dialect names at least sound similar (ish): saragu, spareddu, saraghetto, sparleto, sparlotto, sbaro, sparinole, sparo etc etc.
sardina – sardine (smaller, younger), pilchard (larger, adult). As in English, a generic word for small oily fish, but also used to refer specifically to the European pilchard(Sardina pilchardus). Most European langauges call it some variation on “sardine”, and there are also many Italian dialect names like sardon, saraghina, sarducola, but there are also plenty that are completely different sounding, like palassiol, renga, falloppe, biancomangiare, sfiggiata, nunnata. The later is Sicilian and sounds like neonata (see bianchetti).
sargo maggiore – white seabream or sargo (Diplodus sargus). Among the many regional names are: cappuccino (“hooded”; Abruzzo, Marche); saricu monica (Calabria); saricu tunnu (Sicilia).
scampo (plural scampi) – the prawn family member most commonly cooked up and known as scampi in the UK (though monkfish tail has, illegally, also been served up as scampi). This is the Dublin bay prawn, langoustine or Norway lobster (Nephrops norvegicus). Italian regional names include: arancio, arganello, astracio, scampolo.
scombro/sgombro – mackerel, Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus). Also maccarello (Lazio; I see both names in Rome), lacerto (Liguria).
scombro cavallo – see lanzardo.
scorfano – scorpion fish. Refers to seveal species. I wrote my first investigations prompted by buying scorfano.
scorfano rosso – red scorpionfish (Scorpaena scrofa). Also called cappone in Toscana; cappone means “capon”, ie a castrated cockerel, but in the fishy world is also used for capone gallinella (tub gurnard).
seppia – cuttlefish or common European cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis). Regional names include sepa, seccia, siccia, purpo siccia, pruppusiccia, so at least there’s a pattern. Though Davidson says it’s also called a scarpetta in Puglia. A scarpetta is a ballet shoe or trainer, and one nice Italian expression for when you mop up the sauce in your plate with a piece of bread is “fare la scarpetta” – make the ballet shoe – just to confuse things.
sciabola – see spatola.
seppioline – little cuttlefish.
serra – see pesce serra.
soace – see suacia.
sogliola – sole, or more specifically the common sole (Solea solea). Italians do catch other species, but this is the main variety, and one Brits will know as Dover sole. Another problematic species due to beam-trawling.
spigola – bass, European seabass, Mediterranean seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax). Also known as bronzino (Liguria); ragno (Veneto, Toscana); lupasso (Davidson says this is the Lazio name, but I’ve only ever seen spigola in Rome); lupu de mari (Sicilian); and pesce lupo, though frankly variations on the latter names (“wolf fish”) seems to pop up for various species, including Anarhichas lupus. These days, it’s commonly reared in fish-farms, something I’ve got very mixed feelings about (see salmone).
spatola – silver scabbard fish, frostfish, beltfish (Lepidopus caudatus). Pesce bandiera (Lazio).
squalo – generic noun for shark.
stella – see leccia stella.
stoccafisso, stoccofisso – like baccalà, dried salted cod, Gadus morhua. The difference between the two seems to be a matter of argument, but It’s possibly a question of where the Gadus morhua is sourced: baccalà being Atlantic, stoccafisso being Norwegian/Arctic. It’s also a question of a different salting process.
suacia – Mediterranean scaldfish (Arnoglossus laterna), a flatfish related to flounder. A lot of the northern Italian names seem to be variations on petrèe, petrale, pataracia, peteracchia, but in the south things just spread out and have no apparent similarities. Also commonly known as zanchetta. My poster also lists it as soacia, though I can’t find any reference to that name in Davidson or online.
sugarello – Atlantic horse mackerel, scad, jack mackerel (Trachurus trachurus). Confusingly, the fish that’s literally called “horse mackerel” in Italian, Sgombro cavallo, is a different species – see lanzardo. (Note, mackerel is one of those vague terms that doesn’t exclusively include members of the same family of fish. So while the true mackerel, Scomber scombrus, and the chub mackerel,  Scomber colias, are members of the Scombridae family, this one is instead a member of the Carangidae family. They’re all, however, oily fish or pesce azzurro that have certain cosmetic similarities, notably the sheeny-shiny skins.) Scad isn’t generally eaten in the UK.
suro – see sugarello.

tellina – wedge shell, a type of bivalve (Donax trunculus). Apparently also known as fasiola and trilatera in Lazio, though in her book The Food of Rome and Lazio, Oretta Zanini de Vita just uses tellina, while Italian Wikipedia says they’re also called arsella. I had them in a pasta dish very much like spaghetti alle vongole, except that they’re small so it takes a lot longer to get the meat out of the shells. Tellina is also the French name. Strangely, Donax trunculus isn’t in the Tellina genus of bivalves – I can only assume it was scientifically reclassified after the Latin name became commonly used (via Vulgar Latin) for various edible bivalves.
tilapia – tilapia. Farmed tilapia is found in Italy, such as in my local DOC supermarket where they have it in packets, smoked. Unlike the aquaculture of salmon, which requires wild fish for feed, tilapia can be fed on a less unsustainable food source: algae. But they are also fed maize, a controversial crop (intensive monoculture, GM etc etc). Never mind the questions of hormones and chemicals. It’s a tricky one. I would say “try to buy organically reared tilapida” but a) you may not be able to get the relevant info and b) people will moan about it being pricier. You know what you – saving human civilisation in the face of environmental meltdown requires us to recalibrate their food consumptions habits. Anyway, back to tilapia in Italy. The farmed species found here are Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) and Mozambique tilapia(Oreochromis mossambicus).
tonnetto – see tonno alletterato.
tonno, tonno rosso – tuna, specifically northern bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus). I’ve tried not to eat this perenially popular fish, well, for most of my adult life really as it’s the poster boy of over-exploited marine life. Indeed, most tuna species are firmly Red Listed these days, despite what supermarkets may sell you about line-fishing or even “ranches”, which are fish farms that don’t raise tuna from eggs, but instead still deplete natural stocks by taking young fish from the wild. Insanely, “Ranching also uses high amounts of other wild fish as feed – about 20kg of wild fish to produce just 1kg of tuna.” (from Greenpeace, here). Here is it too on the IUCN Red List.
tonno alalunga – albacore, longfin tunny (Thunnus alalunga). It’s on my poster of seasonal fish, but even the albacore is on the Greenpeace Red List these days, while the IUCN Red List categorises it as “Near Threatened“, having undergone an estimated 37% decline in the past 20 years.
tonno alletterato – little tunny, little tuna, false albacore (Euthynnus alletteratus). This one’s not on the Red List (at the time of writing, Feb 2013), and Wikipedia gives its status as “least concern”. Also known in Italy with other diminutives like tonnetto, tunnella, tonnello, plus loads more dialect names like sanguinaccio in Tuscany (this also happens to be the name of a blood sausage and a chocolate pudding made with blood); ‘nzirru (Campania); alittratu, littrata, culuritu (Sicilia) etc.
totano, totano commune – European flying squid (Todarodes sagittatus). Totano may also be used for the southern shortfin squid (Illex coindetii), notably in Sicily. See discussion in comments, below.
tracina –general name for fish from the Trachinidae family, weevers.
tracina drago – greater weever (Trachinus draco). Also (Davidson): agno, aragno, dragena, ragna, ragno, varagno, tracena, parasaula, antracina, tracchio, ragnas, aragnas. Although drago means “dragon”, a lot of these names are related to ragno, standard Italian for “spider”. It would also seem to indicates a lot of interchangeable nomencleature with the tracina ragno (Trachinus araneus), below. Unless Davidson was getting in a muddle too.
tracina ragno – literally “spider weever” in both Italian and Latin (Trachinus araneus), though in English it’s called the spotted weever.
triglia – generic name for red mullets, goatfish.
triglia di fango“mud mullet”, in English one of the two fish called red mullet (Mullus barbatus).
triglia di scoglio – “rock mullet” or “cliff mullet”, also known as red mullet in English but  a different species to the above (Mullus surmuletus).
trota – trout, brown trout (Salmo trutta).

Uova di pesce – “fish eggs”, meaning roe, or specifically hard roe. For soft roe, milk, see “latte”.

vongola – clam, generic name for various members of the Veneridae (Venus clam) family. In Italy, for dishes like spaghetti alle vongole, it usually refers to to Venerupis decussata, in English the carpet shell, or cross-cut carpet shell. Davidson also gives Italian names vongola nera (black clam), vongola verace (true clam), and says it’s call capa incrocicchiata and archello in Lazio, though I’ve not seen or heard this.

zanchetta – see suacia.
zerro –  picarel, blotched picarel (Spicara smaris/Spicara maena). I’ve never actually seen this one, or heard of it before now, so I’m not even going to go there with the dozens of regional dialect names Davidson lists. Life’s too short.

Coda: If, like me, you enjoy eating seafood, but want to see stocks managed and fished sustainably, I’d urge you to get involved with organisations that campaign for changes to policies and law. In the UK, for example, there’s Fish Fight.

I’d also recommending  watching the film The End of The Line, which has a global swep, and checking out the related charity, the Blue Marine Foundation.

If you’re based in the UK, another notable body is the Marine Conservation Society, which tries to provide consumer information via FishOnline and its Good Fish Guide.


Filed under Food misc, Italy, Learning Italian, Rome

The Euro-mankiss

Hugs are great. I love a good hug. They’re versatile. They can be reassuring at a teary emotional level. They can cement a reunion between friends of any sex, whether it’s after just a few days separation or several years. They can celebrate a shared experience. They can even celebrate a shared manly experience like scoring a goal or, I dunno, shooting a boar. In a perfectly masculine way. Heck, think of all the American movies where a bunch of “the guys” are watching “the game” and their team scores “a touchdown” or whatever, and they leap up, spilling their cans of pissy beer, high-fiving, bumping chests and, yes, hugging.

It’s all good.

I’m really not very British about hugging. Many Brits are still more stiff and formal, proferring a hand for gentlemanly shake. Not me. When I was younger, I lived in New Zealand on and off for about three years with people others would probably describe as hippies. I would have been described as a hippy too. We all enjoyed hugs. I like hugs with my family too. Even with my more conventional brother, who’s tall like me (1.89m) but burly, so does a good bear hug. I’m even perfectly happy for a good Italian chum to give be jovial hugs or take my arm when we’re joking in the street.

When I am very British, however, is when a Euro-mankiss is involved. That’s where I draw the line, which leads to some slightly awkward situations living in Rome. I’m not sure how widespread the mankiss is, but from an outsider’s perspective, it seems to be absolutely commonplace in Italy, France and other countries in the Romance language group. Perhaps it’s the ancient Romans’ fault. Somehow, however, the habit didn’t survive the crossing to the barbarous shores of Britain with Caesar and co. For a Brit, it’s just not done. Unless you’re in theatre. Or unless you live on the continent and have gone really native. And I haven’t. My wife is a Brit too, and we have plenty of friends here who are either British or have a slightly closer cultural heritage (like Canadians). There’s no mankissing with them. We have plenty of Italian friends too, though, and that’s where the trouble starts.

It’s not all good.

So, the other night we were going out to meet some friends. She’s Sicilian, his background is from various parts of Italy. We go to a restaurant. I’m already antsy as I don’t like eating at Italian dinner time. For me, I’m generally hungry around 6pm, and my family always ate dinner at 7pm. I can survive a little longer if I have snacks, but not too many as I don’t want to ruin my appetite (as my mum would say) for the proper meal. Eating at 9.30pm plus seems crazy to me, especially if you’re shovelling away all the courses, and dolce, and coffee and digestivo. How can the body cope with all that? Never mind the diners who I hear yacking away at midnight in the summer at the restaurant just down the road from our flat. How the heck do they digest and get up for work the next morning? I mean, strong coffee is the obvious answer, but surely there’s a cumulative effect of eating late, not getting much sleep and drinking loads of coffee? I don’t geddit. But then I’m northern European.

Anyway. The restaurant. So we arranged to meet at 8pm. They finally arrive about 8.30pm. By which time, my (self-diagnosed) hypoglycemia is making me go squiffy. I can’t really think straight. I manage a Euro-womankiss, one on each cheek. That’s fine. I used to be involved with the art scene enough to have practised that at gallery openings and whatnot. But then my hungry brain and body have to contend with the male greeting. He goes in for a mankiss, I go in for a quick hug. He ends up airkissing, the hug happens sideways. Feathers aren’t notably ruffled; it’s a tolerably minor cross-cultural semi-faux pas. But I’m relieved half an hour later when some food finally arrives and I can start to think straight again. First thing I think is that next time I’ll have to try and line up my approach for either a handshake or a hug or both a bit better. Though I’m not quite sure what body language is required to give the message “Nice to see you but I don’t do the Euro-mankiss.”


Filed under Italy, Learning Italian, Rome

Translating Tensione Evolutiva by Jovanotti into English

As usual, I’m hearing Italian music on Rampower, a radio station that doesn’t tell you what the songs are or who they’re by, or on the supermarket tannoy. And as I’m so resounding ignorant* of Italian music, I have to Google to get any info.

Anyway, this is one I genuinely like (until I get sick of it it being played to death). It’s a catchy combo of gutsy ballad and rave tune that shouldn’t work, but does. Some googling tells me it’s  ‘Tensione Evolutiva’ by Jovanotti  (aka Lorenzo Costantino Cherubini), a massive star here. It’s a far more sophisticated bit of song-writing than the last bit of Italian pop I had a go at translating.

Even if I didn’t know his name before, checking up on him now, I already knew some of his tunes. My chum Michele says it was Jovanotti who introduced hip-hop to Italy, as both a DJ and performer, but he has innumerable other influences beside. This familiar track from 1995, ‘L’ombelico del mondo’, exhibits a similar set of influences to Manu Chao. While his 1988 Italo house tune ‘Welcome’, released under the name ‘Gino Latino’, apparently reached number 17 in the UK charts.

I can’t say I like much of his older stuff listening to it now on YouTube (he started out doing iffy reggae), but I like ‘Tensione Evolutiva’ more after watching the great video, which is directed by Gabriele Muccino, who’s made a few Hollywood films. Though his most recent one looks terrible.

Anyway, I also like the song more after having a stab at this translation, as it seems to actually have something interesting to say, something that can still be rare in pop songs.

Here’s the video:

And here are the original lyrics (by Jovanotti and Michele Canova Iorfida):

Abbiamo camminato sulle pietre incandescendi
Abbiamo risalito le cascate e le correnti
Abbiamo attraversato gli oceani e i continenti
Ci siamo abituati a i più grandi mutamenti
Siamo stati pesci, e poi rettili e mammiferi
Abbiamo scoperto il fuoco, inventato i frigoriferi
Abbiamo imparato a nuotare, poi a correre, e poi a stare immobili.

Eppure ho questo vuoto
Tra lo stomaco e la gola
Voragine incolmabile
Tensione evolutiva
Nessuno si disseta
Ingoiando la saliva.

Ci vuole pioggia, vento, e sangue nelle vene
Pioggia, vento, e sangue nelle vene
E sangue nelle vene
E sangue nelle vene
E sangue nelle vene.

E una ragione per vivere
Per sollevare le palpebre
E non restare a compiangermi
E innamorarmi ogni giorno, ogni ora
Ogni giorno, ogni ora, di più
Oh-oh, di più
Oh-oh, di più.

Abbiamo confidenza con i demoni interiori
Sappiamo che al momento giusto poi saltano fuori
Ci sono delle macchine che sembrano un miracolo
Sappiamo come muoverci nel mondo dello spettacolo.

Eppure ho questo vuoto
Tra lo stomaco e la gola
Voragine incolmabile
Tensione evolutiva
Nessuno si disseta
Ingoiando la saliva.

Ci vuole pioggia, vento, e sangue nelle vene
Pioggia, vento, e sangue nelle vene
E sangue nelle vene
E sangue nelle vene
E sangue nelle vene.

E una ragione per vivere
Per sollevare le palpebre
E non restare a compiangermi
E innamorarmi ogni giorno, ogni ora
Ogni giorno, ogni ora, di più
Oh-oh, di più
Oh-oh, di più
Oh-oh, di più
E innamorarmi ogni giorno, ogni ora
Ogni giorno, ogni ora di più.

Pioggia, vento, sangue nelle vene.

E innamorarmi ogni giorno ogni ora
Ogni giorno, ogni ora, di più
Ogni giorno, ogni ora
Ogni giorno, ogni ora di più.

And here’s my (not entirely literal) stab at translation:

We’ve walked on burning stones
We’ve pushed our way up cascades and currents
We’ve crossed the oceans and the continents
We’ve got used to massive changes
We were fish, and then reptiles and mammals
We discovered fire, invented fridges
We learned to swim, then run, and then stand still.

Yet still I have this emptiness
Between the stomach and the throat
Unbridgeable chasm
Evolutionary anxiety
No one can slake the thirst
By swallowing saliva.

We need rain, wind, and blood in the veins [see below]
Rain, wind, and blood in the veins
And blood in the veins
And blood in the veins
And blood in the veins.

And a  reason for living
To raise the eyelids
And not going on feeling sorry for ourselves
And fall in love every day, every hour
Every day, every our, and more
Oh-oh, more
Oh-oh, more
Oh-oh, more
And fall in love every day, every hour
Every day, every hour, and more.

We have assurance with our inner demons
We know that at the right moment they’re jump out
There are miraculous machines
We know how to hurry ourselves in the world of showbiz. [see below again]

[Then repeated bits. ]

So yes. Anyway. It seems to be saying we need more than just what modernity has to offer us – and what we’ve evolved into – to get the most out of life.

Ci vuole pioggia, vento, e sangue nelle vene = We need rain, and wind, and blood in the veins
“ci vuole” literally means “he/she/it needs”, but I think he’s saying more that we – humanity – need these things, to live fully. We’ve evolved from lizards to people with fridges and more static lives, but we – our animal or atavistic selves – need stimulation.
We need these things – and falling in love. (E innamorarmi ogni giorno, ogni ora – “And fall in love every day, every hour”.) It is a pop song after (and an Italian pop song to boot). What’s a pop song without mentioning love and/or falling in love?

Ci sono delle macchine che sembrano un miracolo = There are machines that resemble a miracle, or There are miraculous machines
Sappiamo come muoverci nel mondo dello spettacolo = We know how to rush in the world of showbiz. Or something. I’m a bit lost here. Shame really, as it’s the last lines (before the repeats), so I’m sure it’s significant.


* As for this ignorance of Italian music – my theory is that if you’re an Anglophone, and have grown up with the great music produced in such cities as London, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, New York, Detroit, Memphis, Seattle etc, you have an attitude that’s not unlike the attitude Italians have about foreigners’ knowledge and understanding of food.

Italians disdain the very idea that foreigners know anything about food, and that they could even begin to produce food worth eating. (It’s a board stereotyping generalisation, but I’ve encountered it enough to believe it.)

So similarly, if you’re an Anglophone, you don’t grow up consuming Europop. Why would you? You don’t even think it’s possible for France or Italy or wherever to produce decent pop music.

Of course there are exceptions. It’s just a working theory. But I think the Italians-food/ Anglophones-music analogy is reasonable and viable.




Filed under Italy, Learning Italian

English-Italian confusables and false friends / Falsi amici


Italian is a Romance language (or series of dialects) that predominantly evolved from Vulgar Latin. English (I’m British, so I’m talking about BE) is a mongrel language, evolved from a blending of Vulgar Latin, Anglo-Saxon Germanic dialects, Norman French (another Vulgar Latin derivative spoken by a group of northern French of Viking descent), and all the rest (notably words added to BE from the British international imperial and post-imperial experience, eg anorak, canoe, pyjamas, curry, etc etc).

So English shares a lot of language roots with Italian, but not all.

Quite often, if you’re an Anglophone learning Italian, you’ll encounter a word that looks and sounds like an English word and assume it has the same meaning. And quite often you’ll be right, the words will be cognates – with the same linguistic roots – and friends – with the same meaning.  But not always. They might have the same etymological Latin DNA, but it will have got twisted somewhere along the way.

So here’s my ongoing list of false friends and English-Italian linguistic confusables. Along with a bit of etymology, because that’s how I roll.

Word list, A-Z

accidenti! – this is a fun one. It sounds like ‘accident’, ‘accidents’, but actually can be translated in a number of ways, depending on your favoured English idiom. I like ‘crikey!’ ‘Bimey! ‘Flipping heck!’ It’s a cute, non-religious, old-fashioned way of saying ‘dammit’. So the more US English equivalents might be ‘dang it’, ‘gosh darn it’, etc. I suppose it’s also not unlike mamma mia! An accident in Italian is un incidente, which is also a cognate for incident. Phew.

affermazione – is a cognate of ‘affirmation’, but more in the sense of a statement that provides motiviation. The other English sesnse, of a statement that confirms a fact, is una conferma, from the verb confermare.

annoiato  – doesn’t mean ‘annoyed’. It means ‘bored’. But the word ‘annoyed’ is related to ‘ennui’, so there is an etymological connection in there somewhere. Noioso means ‘boring’.

attico – rather than being a direct equivalent for the English word ‘attic’, meaning a loft or roof space for storage, it more normally means a top floor flat or penthouse appartment. A loft storage space would instead be called a soffitto. Which is slightly confusing as the word for ceiling is soffitta. Other words for a loft (storage, not fancy urban living) or attic are solaio and sottotetto. The latter is nice as it literally just means “under-roof”. You have to watch it a little with tetto though, as I mentioned here. Both attico and ‘attic’ are from the Greek ‘attikos’, meaning from Attica, the region around Athens. The term(s) came to be used in architecture to refer to a certain type of pilaster used to decorate top storeys, so the migration to the related modern meanings in English and Italian becomes slightly clearer.

camera – the old classic. It doesn’t mean camera in the English sense, it means ‘room’, and relates to the English word ‘chamber’, which derives from the Latin word for room, camera, which is from the Greek kamara. A camera, ie a device for taking (primarily still) photographs, is a macchina fotografica or fotocamera in Italian. A video or film camera is a telecamera. The English name for a camera comes from camera obscura, an early set-up for capturing images that was original just darkened room with a hole in the wall. Camera obscura literally means dark room in Latin. The room became a box, the box became a device with film in it. And so it goes.

capitolo – doesn’t mean capital in the sense of capital city (that’s capitale), and doesn’t mean capital in the sense of upper case letters (that’s maiuscola). It doesn’t mean the capital of a column either (that’s capitello). Nor does it mean ‘capital!’ in the sense of a blustery Victorian gentleman praising the latest imperial victory from the confines of a leather armchair in the tabacco smoke atmosphere of his private members club (that would be eccelente! meraviglioso! stupendo! or even splendido!, all good friends). No, it means ‘chapter’, in the sense of a section of a book or a biker gang. All these cap– words are related to caput, the Latin for head, which lives in in capo, the Italian for boss, leader or even head (still).

casino – literally means ‘little house’. In modern English it’s become almost exclusively used for a gambling house, but in Italian it means a brothel. It’s also used figuratively in the sense of “what a shambles!” – “che casino!“. A place for gambling in Italian is a casinò, with the emphasis on the final o, or a casa da gioco – ‘a gaming house’.

confetti – during carnival (after Christmas and before Lent, so usually around February), confetti is thrown around all over the place to celebrate. Or at least it is here in Rome, where the streets are liberally sprinkled with the stuff. You’d assume that in Italian confetti was confetti, as it’s clearly a loanword. You’d be wrong. It’s actually called coriandoli. Coriandolo is the herb/spice coriander. So it’s plural coriander that’s thrown around. Confetto (singular of confetti) is actually a type of sweet, a sugared almond, or a pill (as in medicine).

confezione – I was buying a Christmas poinsettia yesterday, and the vendor offered me some confezione. It’s not unlike the English word ‘confection’, and even the word ‘confectionary’. In the sense the vendor was using, it’s more like the former: he was offering to decorate or gift-wrap the pot. So it means ‘packaging’, but it also means ‘tailoring’, ‘sewing’ or, more broadly, making. This latter is closer to the English sense. ‘To confect’ means ‘to prepare’, even if it’s most used in the sense of preparing something sweet, confectionary. Both the Italian and the English (via old French) have their roots in the Latin verb conficere, to make, which itself is derived from facere, to make. In modern Italian to make is fare but its conjugation has more overtly Latin forms such as faccio, I make.

confidente – we were talking about this one last night. A Sicilian friend said it’s not actually the Italian word for ‘confident’, in the sense of having confidence, being self-assured, though it has come to be used in that sense. For confident in that sense the Italian word is sicurezza. Confident in the sense of ‘in confidence’, it’s confidenza. For being ‘confindent in someone’, in the sense of having trust, it’s fiducia. Confidente can also be translated into the gender-variable English nouns ‘confidant’/’confidante’, ie someone you have entrusted a secret to.

conveniente –  although it can mean ‘convenient’, more normally it means means ‘suitable’, ‘appropriate’ or ‘favourable’, ‘advantageous’. So it’s a cognate – ie it has the same linguistic roots – but it’s distinguished by nuance and context. For ‘convenient’ in the sense of useful, easy for that particular moment or opportunity, a better Italian word is comodo, but that also means ‘comfortable’. And relates to the English word ‘commodious’ – which comes from the commodus, meaning ‘convenient’. Though ‘convenient’ and conveniente themselves, as well as ‘convene’, ‘convention’, etc come from the Latin convenire, that is con + venire, where venire is still the verb ‘to come’ in modern Italian (and pretty much the same in French and Spanish: venir): ‘to come together’.

deluso – You might assume this means ‘deluded’, but in fact it means ‘disappointed’. The verb deludere is ‘to disappoint’, ‘to betray’ or ‘to let down’. The verb ‘to delude’ on the other hand is illudere. They all have roots in the Latin ludere – ‘to play’. So the English ‘to delude’ is from the Latin deludere, ‘to play false’, but the meanings have evolved in slightly different directions over the centuries.

doloroso – is arguably both a cognate and a good friend of the English adjective ‘dolorous’, but I feel there’s some distinction. In English, we generally use in the sense of emotional pain, anguish, grief, and in Italian I believe it’s used more in the sense of physical pain, ie when an injury is painful, it is una ferita dolorosa. Both are from the Latin dolere, ‘to feel pain’.

etichetta – while this does translate as the English ‘etiquette’, meaning ‘code of conduct’ or ‘manners’, it also means ‘sticker’, ‘tag’, ‘label’, ‘docket’, ‘ticket’. Which at first seems odd. But with a bit of digging, the relationship becomes clear (ish). Apparently, it’s from Old French, and mid-18th century French, when rule of decorum were written or printed on small cards.  Which is all very well, but surely it would have been rude, in specific social situations, to keep having to say “Hold on a mo,” then flick through your deck of crib-cards? BTW, the verb etichettare does mean ‘to stick a label on’. You’d think the reflexive form etichettarsi would mean ‘to behave oneself’, but it doesn’t seem to exist.

eventualmente – no, this doesn’t mean ‘eventually’. It’s a classic false friend. It actually means ‘possibly’, ‘in case’. Thankfully possibilmente is a true friend. Eventuale means ‘possible’. Thankfully eventualità is a true friend – it means ‘eventuality’. Though ‘eventually’ itself can be translated as alla fine, infine, finalmente – more literally ways of saying ‘finally’, ‘at last’.

fattoria – means ‘farm’, not ‘factory’. A factory is a fabbrica, ie a place where things are fabbricated or manufactured.

fiasco –  it’s another one of those words where you get a clue by replacing the i with a l: it literally means a ‘flask’. From scouring all of two different dictionaries it seems to be the case that the feminine form, fiasca, does strictly mean ‘flask’, though the masculine form fiasco can be used figuratively in the same sense as we know it in English: a farce, a shambles. Though I’ve never heard this; more common terms are a casino (see above), macello (slaughterhouse – so literally the same as ‘shambles’), or even bordello (which we also have as a loan word in English, meaning ‘brothel’). “Che casino!”, “Che macello!”, “Che bordello!”

genitori – no, not ‘genitals’. It means ‘parents’. What are parents? They are people with children. How are children made? From matter originating in the genitals. It’s all from the same Latin root. The Latin genitalis means ‘relating to birth’, it’s from the past participle of gignere, meaning ‘to beget’. The Italian for genitals is a nice neat cognate actually: genitali, or organi genitali.

gentile – it can mean ‘gentle’, but the more typical translation is ‘kind’, or even ‘gracious’. The ‘gens’ part of these words all has the same Latin root meaning, gens, meaning ‘family’, ‘race’, ‘people’ (see genitori, genitals etc). Somehow, perversely, the idea of being of noble lineage got mixed up with the idea of being gentle and kind. The mind boggles.

ginnasio – does mean ‘gymnasium’ in the British sense, but more typically it’s used to mean a secondary school or high school. The word is apparently used in various countries in this sense. I’d never encountered it before as a Brit whose longest time overseas was living in New Zealand (where all the linguistic education I got was an accent, pronouncing “peg” as pig, “pen” as pin etc). In ancient Greece, the gynmasium was a place of exercise for body and mind. Naked (gymnos means naked). So it’s no surprise that in different countries it’s taken either one meaning or the other: place of physical exercise or place of education. For those who like to go to the gym and use environmentally costly electricity to run on the spot, , like so many giant hamsters, what you’re looking for in Italy is a palestra. Though today neither places involve requisite nudity.

macchina – this isn’t a false friend, but it can be a little confusing. It does literally mean ‘machine’, but for the most part it (at least in the Italian I’ve encountered, mostly in Rome) it means ‘car’. It’s the quintessential Italian metonym. Italians are so obsessed with cars it’s no wonder the car is their ultimate machine, the machine. (Rome has an obscene amount of internal combustion personal transportation, something that’s just not viable for a 21st century civilisation that needs to move beyond fossil fuel gluttony.) Other examples of where macchina is used in the non-car sense include: macchina da scrivere (“machine for writing”, ie typewriter); macchina da presa (“machine for gripping”, meaning movie film camera, gripping ye old celluloid); macchina fotografica (see camera); macchina da guerra (war machine), etc.

magazzino – nope, not a magazine. That’s a rivista (ie “re-viewed”, reviewed). A magazzino is a warehouse, storeroom or store. It’s not such a false friend really, though, as English still uses ‘magazine’ to refer to a store of explosives or ammunition, for example. Apparently, books and periodicals acquired the name ‘magazine’ in English, directly from the Italian word, in the mid-17th century; it was being used figuratively, as publications were stores of information. Oh, and this one isn’t from the Latin, it’s from the Arabic: makhazin, meaning storehouses. In Latin, a warehouse is an horreaum. No idea what the ancient Romans called a magazine, like ‘Ampitheatre Times’ or whatever.

mansione – doesn’t mean ‘mansion’. It means ‘task’, ‘job’, or ‘function’. A mansion – a grand house – can be translated with palazzo (which also means apartment building, or the more obviously related palace) or villa (which means a detached house or large country house or… villa). A manor house is a maniero. I can’t quite get my head around the etymology here. The English ‘mansion’ is related to the French maison (house), and both have the same root in the Latin manere (itself from the Greek, from the Persian), which means ‘to remain’ (in Italian rimanere); as such a house was a place to stay or remain. But quite how the modern Italian meaning of task emerged I can’t say. Especially as this (old) Italian etymological dictionary seems to say mansióne (with an acute on the o) does mean ‘staying place’, a definition I can’t find in any other (newer) Italian dictionaries like Wordreference & Collins here, or the offline ones we have at home.

occorrere – this verb’s primary meaning is ‘to be necessary’, ‘to be required’. It can mean ‘to occur’, but the most direct translation for this English verb is succedere. (see below)

pavimento – doesn’t mean ‘pavement’. It means ‘floor’. Pavement (or ‘sidewalk’ in North American English) is marciapiede, which is a lovely word that makes me think, semi-literally, of “marching feet”. Pavimento, like ‘paving’ etc, is derived from the Latin pavimentum, a hard floor, from the Latin verb pavire, ‘to beat hard’.

piano – isn’t the musical instrument. That’s called a pianoforte in Italian, and indeed that was the name originally used in English. Piano is one of those interesting words in Italian where, if you replace the I with an L (think piatto, ‘plate’; piazza, ‘plaza’), it gives you some idea of the translation. So think piano, ‘plane’, in the sense of an even, level surface. Also think piano, ‘plan’. It also means ‘smooth’, ‘gently’, ‘softly’, ‘easy’, ‘floor’ (in the sense of ‘storey’), etc. The instrument – pianoforte – means ‘softloud’, ie the instrument was capable of this range. Though in English we’re just really calling it a ‘soft’ now.

radice – looks and sounds (“radishay”) like the English word ‘radish’. But it ain’t. That’s ravenello or rapanello. What is a radish? It’s a root. Radice means root. It’s from the Latin radix, which is also the the root of such English words as ‘radical’ and ‘eradicate’.

reduce – related to the English word ‘reduce’, sure, but in Italian it has two meanings: il reduce is the veteran, or the survivor, while reduce da means returning from, back from.

rumore – doesn’t mean ‘rumour’, it means ‘noise’. Fare rumore means ‘to make noise’. For ‘rumour’, Italian uses voce (literally ‘voice’); pettegolezzo (which is closer to ‘gossip’), chiacchiera (which is closer to ‘chatter’). There’s also the Neopolitan dialect word inciucio, which has apparently become more widespread throughout Italy. Rumore and ‘rumour’ may or may not have the same roots. The English word comes from the Old French, and thence the Latin (rumor – common talk), but the roots may go deeper than that, to the Old Norse rymja, ‘to roar’, and even possibly to the Sanskrit raut, rauti, ravati, (he) cries.

simpatico – this is a classic semi-false-friend-that’s-really-quite-friendly. An Anglophone might well assume it means ‘sympathetic’ when more commonly it means ‘likeable’ or ‘pleasant’. Someone can be molto simpatico – very nice. Though if they’re that nice, they’re probably going to be sympathetic too, which is lucky as it helps clarify the shared etymology, which is from the Greek sympathetikos, via Latin sympatheticus, meaning ‘having fellow feeling, affected by similar feelings’. (With+pathetic, where pathetic is based on pathos, feeling, suffering.) Having said all that, simpatico – in the Italian sense – can be found in English dictionaries….

succedere – this verb’s primary translation is ‘to occur’, ‘to happe’n, not ‘to succeed’ in the sense of ‘to accomplish something’. A better verb for that is riuscire. Which I find confusing, as uscire means ‘to go out’, ‘to exit’, so literally riuscire also means ‘to re-exit’, ‘to go out again’. Succedere can mean ‘to succeed’ in the sense of to be successful, to be good at something.

vizioso – this is another one of those nuanced ones. It is related to the English word ‘vicious’, but is another example owhere the words in Italian and English have evolved in slightly different directions. So, by and large we use the word vicious increasingly to mean savage, ferocious, ‘a vicious dog’. Officially and literally though, it means ‘characterized by vice’, ie ‘depraved’. Which is closer to the Italian sense. For vicious in the sense of ‘ferocious’, there’s the nice feroce, un cane feroce. Confusingly, Italians do use the expression un circolo vizioso, but, like in English, it’s less to do with depravity and more to do with generic, unfortunate cause-and-effect.


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Improving my English by learning Italian

Not having learned Latin at school has long been a regret of mine, as the sort of person who likes words and etymology.

I’ve written before about how it would have helped me learning the names of animals in Italian, as so many of them are close to their Latin names. But I’m finding learning Italian is also now teaching me new words in English – words with shared Latin roots. Words that aren’t necessarily common in English, but are still interesting. Hey, it’s one of life’s main joys to keep learning new stuff.

So for example, I wanted to learn the Italian for “to dither”, as I’m a past master at dithering. Maybe. Sometimes.

To dither = esitare or tergiversare

I dug a little deeper with tergiversare, and it can also be translated as “to prevaricate” (ok) and “to tergiversate”. That latter one was new to me. It’s from the Latin “to turn back”.

Here are a few others I’m learning while trying to read this beer guide (gotta collect ’em all!):
organolettico – “organoleptic”, that is “perceived by a sense organ” or “capable of detecting a sensory stimulus”. (Okay, this one is from the Greek.)
appannaggio – “appanage”/”apanage”, that is an endowment, a prerogative, a rightful revenue or a necessary accompaniment. (I like this one. At the heart of the word is “pan”, as in bread – pane, pain, panis. In the sense of “to give bread”, or “to nourish”.)

Inevitably, my WordPress spellcheck doesn’t like a lot of these English words. I shouldn’t really be ashamed of my ignorance if it’s so ignorant too.

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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

Translating cheesy Italian pop songs, pt 2

So I’ve already had a few attempts at translating Italian pop songs into English. These are generally songs that I’ve found catchy, but have been largely unable to translate in my head while I’m listening. I never know what they are or who they’re by, as the station our radio is mostly tuned to doesn’t give such info.

Anyway, a song struck me lately, so I looked it up online, and lo it’s by the same band that I translated before, here. The song’s called ‘Come un pittore’ – Like a painter – and the band’s Modà, and I guess they’re quite big here. I said before, they’re perhaps the Italian Coldplay. Though they sing in Italian, so haven’t quite been exported so successfully. Oh, and this one seems to be a song “feat. Jarabedepalo”, a Spanish group. I believe that’s their singer Pau Donés in the video, below.

I’d say this song sounds like a nursery rhyme (filastrocca), but that’d be unfair to nursery rhymes. When you think about it, a babyish love song is a disturbing thing.

And having said all that, I must admit I quite like it – it’s idiotically sentimental and cheesy but has singalong value, the bottom line of any good pop song. Plus, the fact that I can just about sing along with an Italian pop song, and understand some of it, gives me a good feeling, a sense of progress on my pathetically slow journey on the road to acquiring Italian.

Here’s the official video:

(Why is he making the – very rude – sign of the cuckold at the end of the vid?! I’m really confused now. Is it only rude the other way round?)

Here are the original lyrics:

Ciao, semplicemente ciao.
Difficile trovar parole molto serie,
tenterò di disegnare…
come un pittore,
farò in modo di arrivare dritto al cuore
con la forza del colore.

Guarda… Senza parlare.

Azzurro come te,
come il cielo e il mare
E giallo come luce del sole,
Rosso come le
cose che mi fai… provare.

Ciao, semplicemente ciao.
Disegno l’erba verde come la speranza
e come frutta ancora acerba.
E adesso un po’ di blu
Come la notte
E bianco come le sue stelle
con le sfumature gialle

E l’aria… Puoi solo respirarla!

Azzurro come te,
come il cielo e il mare
E giallo come luce del sole,
Rosso come le
cose che mi fai… provare.

Per le tempeste non ho il colore
Con quel che resta, disegno un fiore
Ora che è estate, ora che è amore…

Azzurro come te,
come il cielo e il mare
E giallo come luce del sole,
Rosso come le
cose che mi fai… provare.

And here’s my stab at a translation:

Hi, just hi.*
It’s hard to find the right words,
so I’ll try to sketch it…
like a painter,
that way, I’ll try to get straight to the heart
with the strength of colour.

Look*… without words*

Blue like you,
like the sky and the sea
And yellow like sunlight
Red like the
things you do to me… Trying.*

Hi, just hi.
I paint the grass green like hope*
and like fruit that’s not ripe.
And now, a bit of blue
Like the night
And white like the stars*
with hints of yellow

And the air…. You just want to breath it!

Blue like you,
like the sky and the sea
And yellow like sunlight
Red like the
things you do to me… Trying.

For storms, I just don’t have the colours
All that remains, I paint a flowerer
Now it’s the summer, now there’s love.

Blue like you,
like the sky and the sea
And yellow like sunlight
Red like the
things you do to me… Trying.

“Look” in the sense of “Behold!” perhaps.
“Without words” – or maybe “Without talking”
“Trying” – provare is the verb to try, but also to demonstrate, to feel, to experience. Not really sure what it means here.
Is hope green? Maybe in Italy.
“Like the stars” – or “like her stars”?

I’m probably doing these bards a terrible disservice with my crude translation.

Oh, and if anyone things I’m being rude about Italy here, I don’t agree. I’m being rude about cheesy pop. And I’m enjoying the challenge of translating it, as part of the process of learning Italian.
English language songs can, of course, be equally cheesy. Especially if they’re by Coldplay.

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Clear as mud, and the convolutions of mnemonics

Mnemonics are really useful for learning vocabulary in a new language. So for example, in Italian the pavement, or “sidewalk” if any North Americans happen upon this blog, is il marciapiede. To help me learned this one, I thought about marching along the pavement.The Latin factor is clearly very useful. Piedi, feet in Italian, is related to the French pied (thanks O-level, you weren’t completely useless after all), and also related to the English word pedicure. Or the Italian verb to hide is nascondere. I’m thinking that’s probably related to the English verb to abscond, somewhere along the line.

It’s not, however, always so straightforward. I was trying to translate the English idiom “clear as mud” in Italian, as I often find myself in a situation where clarity eludes me, notably in class. The word for mud in Italian is, however, fango. Semi-unhelpfully, the thing that sprung to mind here was “You know when you’ve been Tango’d”. Ok, thought I, that’s fine, I have a vision in my mind of someone splattered with mud.

Unfortunately, I remembered the mnemonic, but forgot the first letter of the actual word. Jango, mango, gango, gah!? Okay, thought I, fango is like fangs, so that brings to mind vampires. It’s clearly unrelated though, with no nice neat Latinate etymological chain of connections. Instead, I the mnemonic visualisation got increasingly silly. So now when I try to think of the word for mud, I imagine a mud-splattered vampire.

And finally I can say Chiaro come il fango.

Unfortunately, this isn’t one of the idiomatic expressions that directly shared between English and Italian, as far as I know. Hi ho.

Yesterday, I tried a semi-mangled Italian translation of the English expression “between a rock and a hard place” with my teacher, Giammarco: tra una pietra e un posto duro. Though looking now, apparently the Italian version is tra l’incudine e il martello – which means between the anvil and the hammer. Which is great, very evocative, but I’ll need some new mnemonics to learn these words, as for me the word martello brings to mind martello towers, the defensive towers built on England’s coast in the Napoleonic wars. Which, etymologically, have nothing to do with the Italian for hammer.

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Me Talk Ugly This Day

Been reading David Sedaris’s ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ (thanks Marta!), an astute, highly entertaining collection of essays/autobiographical short stories. Several of them are concerned Sedaris’ move to France and his efforts to learn French.

I particularly love the way he renders bad student French in English – “That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty.” (Hence the title of the book.) I’m aware that much of my Italian probably sounds like this. My teachers are used to such mangling and don’t even bat an eyelid, but staff in bars and restaurants in touristy areas, who inevitably have better English than my Italian, do tend to flinch and wince, giving a good idea of my standard

Teachers and linguists perennially say that a key problem adults have when learning a new language is self-consciousness, a fear of the blunders. Children don’t have this problem, or confident people, who just push on through. But I most certainly do; I don’t relish hearing myself talking like I’m retarded a semi-illiterate nincompoop.

Pitfalls and pratfalls

There are just so many pitfalls to cause linguistic pratfalls. One of my teachers, Giammarco, suggests that Italian is a largely logical language and while it’s hard to learn at the start, it gets easier. This is the complete opposite of my experience. At the start, having learned the present tense and the passato prossimo (simple past tense, ie “I bought a cake”) and a smattering of everyday vocabulary I felt a fleeting giddiness – “Wahey, I can speak Italian!” At least in class or alone with my wife.

After that, however, other tenses have presented themselves, tenses like the conjiuntivo passato (present perfect subjunctive), which not only involve learning new conjugations, but can also be somewhat baffling to translate; modern English, for example, doesn’t use the subjunctive much.

Prepositions – to, from, in, at, on – also continue to bewilder me, especially in combination with eight variations of the definite article (“the”). People say English is complex, but at least we only have one the. And I’m still trying to ignore complex constructions with indirect object pronouns.

Hell, it doesn’t help that during my 1970s and 1980s education, a literal teaching of grammar was out of fashion. Or at least seemed to be in my school; thanks for nothing St Peter’s, Winchester. Hence I didn’t even learn much of the terminology, like, oooh, “transitive” and “intransitive” verb, even if I instinctively know how to apply such elements of my own language.

Mister Sandwich

Anyway, I could very much relate when Sedaris talked evocatively of the bewilderment he felt when faced with the concept of nouns having gender. Or as he elaborates in ‘Make That a Double’: “Because it is female and lays egg, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine…. I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it.”

Sedaris finally decided to avoid using gendered pronouns, and instead always talked in plurals. Which works fine linguistically in French, but did mean he’d end up buying food in bulk – so him and boyfriend Hugh are faced with the challenge of not just finding space in the fridge for four pounds of tomatoes, alongside two chickens, but also eating their “way through a pair of pork roasts the size of Duraflame logs.” (I had no idea what they were without the help of Google, but got the picture.)

This system wouldn’t work in Italy, and not just for the issue of acquiring too many groceries. In Italian, unlike the French plural the (les), plural definite articles are different between genders. So il (the, masculine) becomes i, or even sometimes the pronunciation challenge gli, while la (the, feminine) becomes le. There’s also l’ sometimes, which doesn’t even have the decency to appear with the predictability it has in French.

Now, Italian is broadly logical with its nouns – masculine nouns mostly end with o, feminine a in singular, with this changing to i and e respectively in plural. So a book, libro, becomes libri, while an apple, mela, becomes mele. I say broadly logical, because I’m increasing meeting nouns that don’t conform to this. The first that really threw me was egg, which is uovo – looking deceptively like a regular masculine singular. But then it becomes uova, which looks like a feminine singular but is actually a feminine plural of a masculine noun.

Italian seems to be tricksily littered with these transgendered nouns. A knee – ginocchio (m) – decides to become feminine in the plural, but looks like a feminine singular, ginocchia. Discussing running, for a long time I thought I was being smart (well, smart-ish) saying “I miei ginocchi sono rotti” – my knees are broken. Anyway, what I should have been saying (well, should-ish; I’d no idea how to be any more refined with expressions for to be damaged or injured) is “Le mie ginocchia sono rotte”. Maybe. I’m still not quite sure.

Another confusing customer is tower, which in the singular is torre – resembling a feminine plural. But in the plural it becomes torri, resembling a masculine plural.

How on earth did this gender reassignment evolve over history?

Gender confusion

Talking of which, one of the most confusing things I’ve encountered in Italian involves the various ways of saying “you”. Your choice of “you” depends not just on whether you’re addressing a individual or a group, but also on the formality of the situation. Ok, thought I, I learned a bit of the similarly Latinate French as a kid, I can handle that. So French uses tu for the singular “you”, then vous for the plural “you” – and the formal “you”. I assumed Italian would use the equivalent tu and voi but oh no. Ooooh no.

In Italian, the formal you is – get this – “her”. Lei. Yes, even if you’re addressing a person of a chap persuasion, you refer to them as her. So you’ll ask a male shop assistant or waiter “Lei ha…” – literally “She has…” – to mean “Do you have….?”

I can’t say I’ve exactly got my head around this, but I’m at least aware that I should use it. Or most of the time. I mean, I realise I’ve probably been a bit rude using the tu conjugation of the expression “how are you?” (come stai?) with an older neighbour but what really throws me is when, for example, I’m in a bar – frankly, a pretty informal situation – and the waiter or waitress is a lot younger than me. Do I still have to use Lei not tu? Really?

Another of my teachers, Clelia, says it’s a “cultural thing” and Italians will generally be fairly forgiving of foreigners being rude through basic ineptitude or ignorance. But still. Do I really have to use Lei for an amiable, young bartender? Sometimes they even go straight into tu conjugations with me – so if they can do it, can’t I? Or should I be offended? What’s Italian for faux pas?

Oh, and out of interest, apparently the Lei form of address evolved in the Florentine courts of the Middle Ages, when the nouns used for sycophantic greetings or whatever were feminine. Mussolini wanted to try and purge it, considering it too feminine and Spanish, and replace it comprehensively with voi, used like the French vous. Voi is used more for the formal address in southern Italy I believe. Though I’ve never experience that in Rome, which according to northern Italians is the south.

See, that’s a key factor too. Parts of Italy approach language very differently. Giammarco also likes to tell us that “Italian” doesn’t even really exist as a spoken language; most Italians will use one of innumerable dialects. Some people say that Florentine Italian (of refined, Dantean origins) is like the Queen’s English, but this is a misconception and a Florentine dialect is as alive and well as many other dialects in his long, diverse nation. So basically I’m trying to learn a language that no one even really uses. It’s not exactly heartening.

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