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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Culaccino


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.

Menefreghista

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.

Baffona


Photo: Georgiev/DepositPhotos

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

Pantofolaio

“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.

Sprezzatura

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).

Qualunquismo

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.

Attaccabottoni

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.

Meriggiare


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”).

Magari


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.

For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day: 'Qualcosa non torna'

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

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

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