Ten untranslatable words that only exist in Italian

What's the word for the mark left on a table by a cold glass? Oh that's right, there's no word in English for that – but in Italian, on the other hand…

Ten untranslatable words that only exist in Italian
Oh, to meriggiare. Photo: oneinchpunch/Depositphotos
Every language contains certain words or phrases that just can't be translated into a single English word. And Italian is full of examples.

You'll come across some of these words in everyday speech, while others may be used only in, say, poetry or politics.

Here are ten of the most interesting 'untranslatable' Italian words, along with our best shot at a translation.


Photo: zeevveez/Flickr

You know that annoying mark that you get when you put a cold or wet glass down on a table? Well, in Italy it's so bothersome there's a word for it: culaccino.

Derived from culo (“bum”), the same versatile word can also mean the dregs in the glass itself, or the end of a salami or loaf of bread.


You may have heard the phrase “Non me ne frega!” uttered in Italy, meaning “I don't care!”

Well, in Italian there's also a noun to describe someone who's particularly prone to this way of thinking. A “don't give a damn-ite”, if you will.


Photo: Georgiev/DepositPhotos

A lady with a moustache. But it's so much more elegant when you can say all that in one word.


“Couch potato” is probably the closest translation for this one, but it doesn't quite capture the humour of this Italian word.

You may know already that pantofole mean slippers in Italian. A pantofolaio is someone who prefers the quiet home life (hence the slippers) and avoids any activity which may disrupt the tranquility of their existence.


This word, popularized by Renaissance man of manners Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, is so untranslatable that you'll sometimes hear it used in English.

The best definition we've got for it is “studied carelessness” or well-faked nonchalance. Castiglione considered it essential to any true gentleman: “I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other,” he wrote, “and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is… to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”

ApericenaFive great spots for aperitivo on a budget in MilanPhoto: oneinchpunch/Deposit Photos

In the English-speaking world, people use the French word aperitif to describe an alcoholic drink before a meal. In Italy, it's called an aperitivo. But often you'll find that your pre-dinner tipple comes with free food, too.

In that most glorious of cases, it becomes an apericena – a cross between aperitif and dinner (cena in Italian).


As a pejorative, qualunque can be translated as “whatever”, to indicate indifference. The noun qualunquismo means an attitude of distrust, scepticism and apathy towards politics – something like “meh-ism”.

The word can be traced back to the right-wing populist, monarchist and anti-communist party, the Fronte dell'Uomo Qualunque (Common Man's Front). Formed in 1946 just after the Second World War, the party offered an apolitical alternative to both fascism and anti-fascism.


That chatty nonno at the bottom of your road who's determined to stop you for a half-hour lecture about his zinnias each time you pass by? He's an attaccabottoni.

It means someone who, literally, “attaches your buttons”: the image is of someone keeping you a little too close for a little too long, as if they were repairing the jacket you're wearing. Or, as we'd say in English, buttonholing you.

You'll sometimes see self-help guides advising you how to attaccare bottone (strike up a conversation) with an attractive stranger, but it'll take a certain sprezzatura to make sure you don't come off as a drag.


Photo: mimagephotos/DepositPhotos

Stemming from the word meriggio (“noon”), this beautiful verb means to rest at midday in a shady spot.

Perhaps the most famous usage can be found in a poem by the 20th century poet Eugenio Montale, who wrote: “Meriggiare pallido e assorto/presso un rovente muro d'orto,/ascoltare tra i pruni e gli sterpi/schiocchi di merli, frusci di serpi” (“To slump at noon thought-sick and pale/under the scorching garden wall,/to hear a snake scrape past, the blackbirds creak/in the dry thorn thicket, the brushwood brake”).


via Tenor

This is a tricky word for English speakers to grasp as it has so many different meanings that don't always directly translate. Typically, it's translated as “even if”, “maybe” or “probably” in a sentence.

But as an exclamation, “magari!” is an expression of a strong desire. For example, if someone asks if you'd like to win first prize in the lottery, you may truthfully say: “magari!”. Although there's no single-word equivalent in English, in this context it means: “If only it were true!”

READ ALSO: 19 of your favourite Italian words (and some of ours)

Which words have we missed? Get in touch on Facebook, Twitter or via email to let us know.


This is an updated version of an article first published in 2014.


Italian word of the day: ‘Inchiodare’

You'll nail this word in no time.

Italian word of the day: 'Inchiodare'

What do a carpenter, a detective, and a bank robber screeching to a halt in their getaway car all have in common?

In English, not much – but in Italian, they could all be said to inchiodare (eenk-ee-ohd-AHR-eh) in the course of their professional activities.

In its simplest form, inchiodare simply means ‘to nail’ (chiodo, ‘kee-OH-do’, is a nail) – a picture to a wall, or a leg to a table.

Ha trovato questo cartello inchiodato alla sua porta.
She found this notice nailed to her door.

Inchioderò la mensola al muro più tardi.
I’ll nail the shelf to the wall later.

But like ‘to nail’, inchiodare has more than one definition.

You can use it to describe someone or something being ‘pinned’ in place, without actually having been literally nailed there.

Mi ha inchiodato al muro.
He pinned me to the wall.

La mia gamba è inchiodata al terreno.
My leg is pinned to the ground.

You can be metaphorically inchiodato to a place in the sense of being stuck there, tied down, or trapped.

Dovrei essere in vacanza e invece sono inchiodata alla mia scrivenia.
I should be on holiday and instead I’m stuck at my desk.

Don'T Forger You'Re Here Forever GIF - The Simpsons Mr Burns Youre Here GIFs

Siamo inchiodati a questa scuola per altri tre anni.
We’re stuck at this school for another three years.

Sono stati inchiodati dal fuoco di armi.
They were trapped by gunfire.

Just like in English, you can inchiodare (‘nail’) someone in the sense of proving their guilt.

Chiunque sia stato, ha lasciato tracce di DNA che lo inchioderanno.
Whoever it was, they left traces of DNA that will take them down.

Ti inchioderò per questo omicidio.
I’m going to nail you for this murder.

Thomas Sadoski Tommy GIF by CBS

Senza la pistola non lo inchioderemo, perché non abbiamo altre prove.
Without the gun we’re not going to get him, because we have no other proof.

For reasons that are less clear, the word can also mean to slam on the brakes in a car.

Ha inchiodato e ha afferrato la pistola quando ha visto la volante bloccando la strada.
He slammed on the brakes and grabbed the gun when he saw the police car blocking the road.

Hanno inchiodato la macchina a pochi passi da noi.
They screeched to a halt in the car just a few feet away from us.

Those last two definitions mean that you’re very likely to encounter the word when watching mystery shows or listening to true crime podcasts. Look out for it the next time you watch a detective drama.

In the meantime, have a think about what (or who) you can inchiodare this week.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.