Italian word of the day: ‘Boh’

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

Italian word of the day: 'Boh'
Photo: DepositPhotos

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.

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)

– Hai progetti di cercare un lavoro?
– Boh.

– Do you plan to look for a job?
– Dunno. (or: I don’t want to talk about it)

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?

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

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Può darsi’

This might be just the Italian phrase you need.

Italian expression of the day: 'Può darsi'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s expression is one I learned courtesy of my Italian in-laws, who frequently use it as a non-committal response to my suggestions.

This isn’t a phrase that ever came up in Italian class, and at first I wasn’t sure what they were saying. But from the context it was obvious that it meant something like “perhaps” or “possibly”.

– Forse sono in ritardo a causa del traffico

– Può darsi

– Maybe they’re late because of the traffic

– Possibly

When può darsi is used alone as a response, it’s not always clear just how likely the speaker thinks something is.

In fact, it can mean anything from “maybe” to “probably”.

Literally translated, the phrase doesn’t make much sense to English speakers. It’s a combination of può (the third-person singular form of the verb potere, ‘to be able‘) and darsi (the reflexive form of the verb dare ‘to give‘). It could be translated literally as “it can be given”.

As well as being used alone, this phrase can be used within sentences instead of forse (maybe) or magari, which is altogether more complicated.

With può darsi you’ll need to pay more attention to the grammar. But it’s worth mastering, as the phrase is very commonly used in spoken Italian.

Unlike forse and magari, sentences using può darsi need to be constructed in a particular way.

The formula you’ll need is può darsi + che + a verb in its subjunctive form.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

– Può darsi che Gianni sia in ritardo.

– Maybe/it’s possible that Gianni is late

Compare that to the simpler structure of:

– Forse Gianni è in ritardo.

– Maybe Gianni is late

Both sentences effectively mean the same thing.

In the first example, the form of the verb ‘to be’ used is sia because we’re speaking in the subjunctive.

Understandably, language learners often want to run for the hills when they start hearing about the subjunctive mood (congiuntivo). But it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Put very simply, it’s used whenever you’re not stating a fact. It expresses doubt, possibility, or uncertainty. It may also be used to talk about emotions, or when making suggestions – so for most normal everyday conversations, then.

So, while this is often taught as a more ‘advanced’ bit of grammar, you may want to get on friendly terms with it ASAP in order to partake in everyday chit-chat with Italians. Read a more detailed explanation of it here.

It pays to remember that with può darsi you don’t need to use the verb in the subjunctive form if you’re speaking in the future or conditional tense.

For example, you could also say:

Può darsi che Gianni sarà in ritardo

– Maybe Gianni will be late

Here, the verb refers to the future, so we used sarà – the future simple form of essere (to be).

And once you’ve got the hang of that, you can take things a step further by inserting the word anche (also) in between può and darsi to add emphasis.

Può anche darsi che sia un disastro totale.

– It may well be a total disaster

As mentioned earlier, this phrase is used for things you think are possible or likely.

If you’re a bit more certain about something, it would be better to use probabilmente or è molto probabile (‘probably’ or ‘it’s very likely’).

Will your Italian friends be impressed if you master the use of può darsi?

Sì, è molto probabile!

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