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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Casino’

No, we're not talking about gambling.

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

In Italy, a casino isn’t where you go to play roulette – but it might be where you end up after you’ve bet everything and lost.

First of all, let’s clear up the confusion: a casino as English speakers know it is un casinò in Italian.

Our English word is Italian in origin: it’s the diminutive form of casa (‘house’), the suffix ~ino making it ‘small house’. The term was once used to refer to a lodge – the kind you might use for hunting or fishing – in the days when people had country estates and needed to distinguish between the ‘big house’ and all the others.

Perhaps because of the kind of thing people tended to get up to in said lodges, the term grew to be extended to gambling houses and brothels.

Casino is still an old-fashioned word for a brothel today, though as we’ve seen today’s Italians add an accent on the ‘o’ when they’re talking about gambling dens. That changes the pronunciation too: casinò is said the French way, “ka-si-noh“, with a light stress on the final syllable.

Casino, on the other hand, is pronounced “ka-zee-no”, with emphasis on the middle syllable. And what it’s come to mean is ‘complete and utter mess’.

Ma guarda che casino!
Just look at this mess!

It can apply to figurative as well as literal jumble… 

Col suo intervento ha creato un casino.
His intervention created chaos.

… and also to noise.

Non fate casino!
Don’t make such a racket!

Why? Well, the explanation usually given is that brothels were noisy, chaotic places back in the day, with clients coming and going and women loudly advertising their services. Casino therefore became shorthand for something raucous and disorderly – just like the word bordello (another term for ‘brothel’), which today means ‘mess’ or ‘mayhem’ too.

Ma come fai a dormire in questo bordello?
How can you sleep in the middle of such mess?

But casino also carries the sense of ‘trouble’ or ‘bother’ – usually of your own making. It is, as Brits would say, ‘a cock-up’. 

In questo periodo ha tanti casini.
She’s got a lot of troubles at the moment.

Ho fatto un casino.
I really screwed up.

There’s one more sense you need to be aware of: in informal Italian un casino can also mean, quite simply, ‘a lot’. 

Mi piace un casino.
I like it a lot.

C’era un casino di gente.
There were loads of people.

Try not to mix up the various senses or you might find yourself in a real casino.

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

Member comments

  1. Why are there no bylines on your admirable articles? You credit photographers but not the writers/reporters whose work they illustrate.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day ‘Peloso’

Here's why being 'hairy' in Italian isn't necessarily a good thing...

Italian word of the day 'Peloso'

You’d expect a dog or cat to be peloso/a – furry, fluffy or shaggy – but what about a human who’s peloso (pronunciation here)?

It might just refer to someone who’s hairy, or a hairy body part.

È una giornata fredda per fare un tuffo in mare ma Davide non deve preoccuparsi, guardate quant’è peloso!
It’s a cold day for a dip in the sea but Davide doesn’t need to worry, look how hairy he is!

Le mie sopracciglia pelose le ho prese da mia madre.
I got my furry eyebrows from my mother.

But it can also mean someone who’s artful and wily – the Treccani dictionary says the word defines someone who has their own interests at heart and lacks moral scruples.

Non fidatevi di Claudio, è la persona più pelosa e insincera che abbia mai conosciuto.
Don’t trust Claudio, he’s the most self-interested and insincere person I’ve ever met.

Where did the idea of a sly, self-serving person being ‘hairy’ come from?

A video explainer on the Repubblica news site offers some clues: it discusses the origins of the phrase carità pelosa, meaning a type of charity or help offered by a donor whose underlying motives are selfish.

According to presenter Stefano Massini, the expression refers all the way back to the 11th century, when William the Conqueror (often referred to as Giuliano/Gugliemo il Bastardo, ‘William the Bastard’, in Italian) sought the blessing of Pope Alexander II for his 1066 invasion of England.

Alexander agreed to support William’s military campaign, and was said to have sent the warrior a gold ring along with a few hairs from the beard of St. Peter as a token of his approval.

The invasion was – famously – successful, and to thank to the pope, William sent him a vast array of riches plundered from his new kingdom, worth far more than Alexander’s initial gift of a piece of jewellery and a few hairs.

While we can’t know that Alexander II expected such a high return on investment, these days any charitable donor hoping for similar repayment – or just any giver whose motives are unclear – is said to be offering carità pelosa.

Meanwhile, avere il pelo sullo stomaco – literally, ‘to have hair on your stomach/heart’ means to be completely lacking in scruples and conscience, while avere il pelo/i peli sul cuore – ‘to have hairs on your heart’ means to be cold and insensitive.

One obvious interpretation is that having a body part insulated by hair makes it unfeeling and impervious to any criticism or insults.

Another is that various ancient Greek figures, including Aristomenes of Messene – who fought the Spartans – and the Greek rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus, were reputed to have been found with large and hairy hearts in their bodies when they died.

The theory is that at the time this was considered a sign of courage and admirable toughness, but over the course of centuries it came to stand for insensitivity and meanness.

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

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