Today's word is what you might call a false friend. When I first arrived in Rome and overheard people all the time talking about roba – even between men – I wondered: Why are they always going on about dresses?
Don't fall into the same trap I did. Unlike 'robe' in English or French, roba does not mean 'dress'. (Of course, there's nothing to stop Italian men talking about dresses, but if they do they'll use the words vestito or abito.)
Instead, roba has a much less specific meaning: 'stuff' or 'things'.
Ha la casa piena di roba vecchia.
His house is full of old stuff.
Ho un sacco di roba da fare.
I've got a lot of things to do.
Cos'è quella roba?
What is this stuff?
If you want to narrow it down, you can specify what the 'things' are for by using the construction roba + da + verb in the infinitive.
C'è un sacco di roba da mangiare.
There's loads of stuff to eat.
Dammi la roba da lavare.
Give me the laundry (literally: things to wash).
È tutta roba da buttare via.
All this is stuff to get rid of.
But in its broadest sense, roba is wonderfully versatile. Like 'things', it's a synonym for worldly goods…
Non pensa ad altro che alla roba.
He doesn't think about anything but possessions.
… and like 'stuff', it also describes the quality or nature of something.
Di che roba è fatto?
What's it made of? (literally: What stuff is it made of?)
You can even use roba as an alternative to that most ubiquitous of Italian words, cosa – 'thing'.
È successa una roba incredibile…
An incredible thing happened…
No wonder I hear it so often. One of my favourite usages – once I'd worked out what it meant – is roba da matti: literally 'stuff of crazies', it means 'sheer madness' or as you might say, 'the stuff of madness'.
Another expression you might hear is bella roba, which means 'good stuff' but is often said sarcastically – a bit like 'so what' or 'big deal'.
But one you'll hopefully avoid is la roba: it's slang for drugs or other illicit substances. “Che roba!”, you might reply if anyone dares offer you such things: 'Unbelievable!'
I'll leave you with the very latest expression I've learned: tanta roba. It's literally 'so much stuff', and it's become what younger Italians say when they see someone attractive (both male or female). Why? Well, I'll leave that to this illustration and your imaginations.
Do you have a favourite Italian word you'd like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.