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Italian Word of The Day Supported by: Fluente logo For Members

Italian word of the day: 'Boh'

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Jessica Phelan - [email protected]
Italian word of the day: 'Boh'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Where did this expression come from? Why do Italians say it so often? Is it even a word? Who knows!

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If you're anything like me, there'll be plenty of times in Italy when you just don't know the answer.

Why hasn't a single bus come in 45 minutes? I don't know. Do you really need that piece of paperwork or can you get by with a wink and a smile? I don't know. Which region makes the best pasta? Heaven help me, I don't know.

That's why I'm such a big fan of today's word: boh.

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It means 'I don't know', but in its most informal form – like when we shorten the phrase to 'dunno'.

– Di dov'è?
– Boh, forse Puglia... ma che ne so?

– Where's she from?
– Dunno, maybe Puglia... but what do I know?

Don't be fooled by the transcription: it doesn't rhyme with "oh" or "so" in English. Instead the vowel is shorter: more of a "buh".

And according to the dictionary, Italians have been making this funny B sound since circa 1840 to express "doubt, indifference or reticence". 

– Com'è andata?
– Boh! Vediamo.

– How did it go?
– Who knows? We'll see.

– Quale preferisci?
– Boh!

– Which one do you prefer?
– I dunno! (or: I don't care)

Italians often underline their point by what I like to think of as Doing The Boh: a thrust of the chin forward and up, lips pulled down. If the tone you're going for is "how the heck should I know?", spread your palms up and out for emphasis. 

One final note: boh is not to be confused with similar sounding beh, which means 'well...' or bah, which means... actually, that one's a little more complicated. Perhaps we'll come to it another time. Who knows?

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