Italian word of the day: ‘Casino’

Italian word of the day: 'Casino'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
No, we're not talking about gambling.

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 advertizing 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.

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