Italian word of the day: ‘Sprezzatura’

Don't put too much effort into learning this word.

Italian word of the day: 'Sprezzatura'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Sprezzatura is one of those untranslatable words that is uniquely Italian. It’s also fun to say.

It was a term that became fashionable back in the sixteenth century, after Renaissance-era writer Baldassare Castiglione used it in his 1528 Book of the Courtier to describe “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought.”

Basically, then, sprezzatura is what it takes to make something difficult look effortless.

There aren’t many courtiers around these days to show us what that looks like, but Italy is full of more modern examples.

It’s the effortlessly glamorous Italian woman spotted on an evening passaggiata, where la bella figura is everything – but would never admit how much work she puts into her appearance.

It’s the impossibly good-looking man I saw in Naples strutting catwalk-style across a piazza, designer sunglasses on, well-tailored suit jacket slung over his shoulder, and a tiny coffee cup held in one hand. He showed no sign of having noticed that he held the full attention of every woman on that square.

It’s that charming party host who never breaks a sweat and shrugs off their restaurant-style cooking as “just an old family recipe”.

– la sprezzatura è l’arte che nasconde l’arte

– Sprezzatura is the art which conceals art.

Ci vuole molta sprezzatura per fare il suo lavoro

– It takes a lot of sprezzatura to do his job

The untranslatable word has apparently been adopted into English and appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, defined there as “studied carelessness.”

Though since some Italians don’t even know what it means, or at least find it hard to define, we doubt it’s used widely outside of the country.

And we’re not saying it’s always a positive attribute.

After all, the root of the word is in the verb sprezzare, meaning to ‘disdain’ or ‘scorn’.

Some writers have described sprezzatura as a kind of aloof detachment, or even “the art of acting deviously,” saying those courtiers back in Baldessare’s day were in danger of losing their true selves to the need to keep up this façade at all times.

It can also be used to describe a kind of trickery or performance:

– Il mago mostrò molta sprezzatura, compiendo il suo atto con facilità

– The magician showed a lot of sprezzatura, as he performed his act with ease.

Is it nonchalance, grace, or just trickery? Perhaps a little bit of all three.

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

For members


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.