Italian word of the day: ‘Cavolo’

Why are Italians always talking about cabbage?

Italian word of the day: 'Cavolo'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Maybe you’ve come across this word already, on menus or at the market.

No, you haven’t misremembered: cavolo means plain old ‘cabbage’. 

Now, while cabbage is valuable vocabulary in itself (minestra di cavolo? Yes please), the reason it’s really worth learning it is that it’s also a surprisingly versatile slang term.

Hear un cavolo pronounced:

It usually serves as a milder substitute for cazzo (‘shit’ or ‘dick’), much the same way ‘sugar’ and ‘fudge’ can stand in for stronger terms in English. But more than just a placeholder, we think cavolo has a certain charm all of its own.

Che cavolo vuoi?
What the heck do you want? (literally: What the cabbage do you want?)

You can use it as a noun, to mean ‘nothing’ or ‘not at all’…

Non m’importa un cavolo!
I don’t give a damn!

Non capisce un cavolo.
He doesn’t understand a damn thing.

… as an adjective, like ‘bloody’ or ‘crappy’…

Che giornata del cavolo…
What a crappy day…

Spero che tu abbia finito quel libro del cavolo!
I hope you’ve finished that bloody book!

… or you can yell it out on its own to express your surprise or frustration.

– Ho vinto la lotteria!
– Cavolo!

– I won the lottery!
– Wow!

Mi hai fatto male, cavolo!
That hurt, dammit!

It even crops up in its own expressions, such as col cavolo – ‘fat chance’…

– Ci presterà la macchina?
– Sì, col cavolo! 

– Will she lend us the car?
– Fat chance! (literally: With cabbage!)

… and cavoli miei/tuoi, ‘my/your cabbages’ or figuratively, ‘my/your business’. 

Se voglio figli? Sono cavoli miei.
Do I want kids? That’s my business.

Fatti i cavoli tuoi!
Mind your own beeswax!

Frankly, cavolo is a word worth giving a cabbage about. 

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

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Italian word of the day: ‘Scarabocchio’

Can you fathom the meaning of this word?

Italian word of the day: ‘Scarabocchio’

If you haven’t yet found a proper Italian word to describe the unintelligible collection of dots, wonky lines and swirls that Italian doctors often nonchalantly passes off as a prescription, scarabocchio might do the trick.

Scarabocchio is the Italian equivalent of ‘scribble’ or ‘scrawl’ and it describes to any piece of writing or drawing whose meaning can’t be fathomed. 

Ho lasciato la lista della spesa sul tavolo!

Si, l’ho vista ma non ci ho capito niente. Era tutto uno scarabocchio…

I left the shopping list on the table!

Yes, I saw it but couldn’t understand any of it. It was all a scribble…

From a five-year-old’s abstract artworks to a colleague’s poor excuse for a handwritten note, you can use scarabocchio for pretty much anything – as long as it figures on a piece of paper. 

Though it is a bit of a mouthful (pronunciation available here), Italians love to use the word in daily conversations, especially so when it comes to mocking the unfortunate author of the scribble. 

Ti ho fatto uno schema per farti capire meglio.

Ma cos’e’ ‘sta cosa? Mi sembra proprio uno scarabocchio…

I’ve drawn a diagram to help you understand.

What on earth is this? It looks like a scrawl to me…

The word comes from the fusion of scarabeo (beetle) and the pejorative suffix -occhio (also used in ranocchio, meaning ‘ugly frog’, and marmocchio, meaning ‘bratty kid’). 

Though today’s scribbles may not resemble the shape of a beetle, they most likely did back in the days when poor handwriting skills would result in your quill creating circular blots of ink on the paper.

That’s why, to this day, Italians refer to scribbles as ‘ugly beetles’. 

Funnily enough, sgorbio, one of scarabocchio’s synonyms, also takes its name from an animal, namely the scorpion. But that’s a story for another time.

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