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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Passeggiata’

It's not just a word. In Italy, it's an art form.

Italian word of the day: 'Passeggiata'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

It sounds like a simple enough concept, but I got this all wrong when I first arrived in Italy. So let’s talk about the passeggiata.

Fare una passeggiata means to go for a walk or stroll.

– È andato a fare una passeggiata.

– He went out for a walk.

– Andiamo per fare una passeggatia

– Let’s go for a walk

– Fa una passeggiata ogni sera.

He takes a walk every evening.

But when Italians talk about la passeggiata, they’re not usually talking about just any old walk.

The passeggiata is a time-honoured tradition in which the whole town participates, on Sunday evenings and holidays, if not most nights of the week. Usually while dressed up in their fanciest designer clothing, and shoes which are not made for walking at all.

It’s a word that’s very much associated with leisure and ease, and the feeling of having plenty of time.

In most towns the usual route would involve a stroll down to the main piazza (square) or the centro storico (old town), or perhaps along the lungomare (seafront).

This was all a new concept for me. Growing up in the UK, Sunday walks were a long and muddy affair, probably involving climbing up a hill and being splashed with dirty river water by the dog. You’d come home red-faced and windswept, and eager for a hot bath and a cup of tea.

So the first time an Italian suggested what I thought was “a walk” one Sunday, I assumed we were going to explore the nearby countryside – and I dressed accordingly.

Well, you won’t be trudging through any mud on la passeggiata. 

In fact, you’ll barely even be walking; everyone’s too busy checking out who’s with who, and who’s wearing what. If you really want to do it properly, you’ll stop to admire the view or chat with a neighbour every ten steps, before sitting down for an aperitivo.

Italians tell me the movement and fresh air helps with digesting dinner or an enormous Sunday lunch, or working up an appetite before those meals.

But most of all it’s a chance to see and be seen, show off your new relationship or designer handbag, and generally fare una bella figura, or look really good. I suppose it’s how people used to show off before social media was invented.

Once upon a time, this kind of leisurely walk was called a “promenade”. And the noun can also mean a promenade, as in a long street.

– una passeggiata alberata

– a tree-lined promenade

And it can be used figuratively to mean a “walk in the park” or a “cakewalk”

– Questo esame non sarà una passeggiata.

– This exam won’t be a walk in the park.

So, when an Italian friend suggests “andiamo per fare una passeggiata”, you probably don’t want to grab your oldest trainers and scrape your hair back, as I did on my first week in Italy, thinking “hey, I’m only going for a walk.”

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

Italian expression of the day: ‘Avere un diavolo per capello’

No need to blow your top about this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Avere un diavolo per capello'

At one point or another, we’ve all had un diavolo per capello – ‘a devil by the hair’.

This isn’t a devil on your shoulder – the little voice encouraging you do so something bad or mischievous.

The demon is this phrase isn’t devious but seething, making the person whose locks it is clutching furious, enraged, or extremely irritable.

State attenti alla signora Russo, ha un diavolo per capello stamattina. 
Watch out for Mrs. Russo, she’s in a foul mood this morning.

Ha abbandonato la riunione con un diavolo per capello.
He walked out of the meeting in a fury.

You might picture someone tearing their hair out in rage, or a furious djinn perched on someone’s head directing their movements.

Angry Inside Out GIF by Disney Pixar

Another common Italian expression involving the devil is fare il diavolo a quattro.

This phrase can mean any of raising hell – either by causing a ruckus or kicking up a fuss – or going to great lengths to get something.

Ha fatto il diavolo a quattro quando le hanno detto che l’orario di visita era finito e non l’hanno fatta entrare.
She screamed blue murder when they told her visiting hours were over and wouldn’t let her in.

Ho fatto il diavolo a quattro per ottenere quel permesso.
I fought like hell to get that permit.

It’s unclear quite how a phrase which literally translates as something along the lines of ‘doing the devil by four’ came to have its current meaning – according to the Treccani dictionary, there are a couple of explanations.

One is that in some profane medieval art that involved religious imagery, the devil was often depicted along with the number four.

Another is that when the devil was represented on stage, he had so many different guises that four actors were required to play him in order to avoid having too long a time between costume changes.

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

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