Language and culture For Members

Ten Italian words stolen into English and reinvented

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected] • 4 Dec, 2020 Updated Fri 4 Dec 2020 10:54 CEST
image alt text

Some Italian words seem familiar to English speakers. But use them with caution, because they might not mean what you think.


When you started studying Italian, we're sure you quickly noticed that lots of words look quite similar to English. These are of course often the ones we find easiest to remember.

Some Italian words are similar to English when both have a Latin root, so we can thank the academic language for helping us to better understand Italian.

Some obvious examples are adjectives like impossibile and difficile, or verbs like aggiustare (to fix, or adjust).

Although sometimes the meaning has shifted over time, creating some classic “false friends”, such as annoiarsi (“to get bored”, not “to annoy”) 

Other more modern Italian words can also look familiar. Not because they have Latin ancestors, but because we've simply stolen them.

READ ALSO: The best and most creative insults in the Italian language


And just as the original meanings of those Latin words can shift, so too can our understanding of these words borrowed from modern Italian.

While some of the Italian words and phrases we pepper our English speech with today still mean pretty much the same thing, others would get a surprised reaction from Italians.

Here's a list of some of the most commonly-used stolen Italian words.

Al fresco

Used in English to describe doing something such as eating outside. But if you ask someone to have dinner with you al fresco in Italy, they'll either be confused or concerned.

In Italian, al fresco means “in the fresh/cold,” which can figuratively mean “in the fridge”, or even “in jail.”


We know this word as an insult, meaning an unintelligent woman. But Italians use the word to mean a very young boy. (Bimba is a little girl, and bimbi is the plural for small children.)


Spiky stiletto heels might be something we associate with Italian style icons, but be careful how you talk about your new designer shoes. In Italian, stiletto just means a small dagger. If you mean spiky high heels, say tacchi a spillo.

Photo: Kris Atomic/Unsplash


English speakers understand this as the colourful paper thrown at weddings, and confusingly, it's also wedding-related in Italian. Here, confetti are sugared almonds – the traditional sweets given at weddings - but thankfully not thrown. The Italian word for confetti paper is coriandoli.


This one will be useful if you're studying abroad in Italy. For English speakers, this word means the subject matter of your course at school or university. In Italian, curriculum refers to your CV (curriculum vitae) or, for Americans, your resume.

READ ALSO: Job-hunting in Italy: The Italian words and phrases you need to know


We take photos with it, but Italians live in it. Camera is a word for a room in Italian, such as a camera da letto (bedroom). If you want to snap some pictures instead, the word you'll need is fotocamera.


It might mean a tall, milky coffee in Italian-style coffee shops elsewhere, but in Italian latte just means “milk”. So if you ask for latte in Italy, that's what you'll get.

If you want coffee in it then you’re better off ordering a caffè latte (which may still look very different, outside of tourist areas) or a cappuccino.

Photo: Blake Richard Verdoom/Unsplash


Another Italian coffee-related word. You might be surprised to hear that we English speakers probably use this one in relation to coffee more than Italians do. That's because here in Italy an espresso is just a standard caffè (coffee) and it's what you'll get if you simply request un caffè per favore. Some bartenders will check that you want un caffè normale. But they're unlikely to call it an espresso because, well, here it's just a coffee.

Espresso in Italian is an adjective which means “fast” or “express" and is more likely to be used to talk about parcel deliveries.

READ ALSO: The 12 ways speaking Italian will mess up your English


Want a panini to go with your coffee? Well, don't say this. To us it's a specific kind of flattened, grilled ciabatta sandwich but in Italian it just means “sandwiches” (plural) of any type. For a grilled sandwich (just one), ask for a panino tostato instead.


What could be more Italian than a pepperoni pizza? Quite a lot of things, it turns out. Don’t order a “pepperoni pizza” unless you want your pizza covered in small bell peppers. For a spicy sausage topping, try requesting salame piccante.” i

Photo: Blake Richard Verdoom/Unsplash

Which other words should we add to the list? Are there other aspects of the Italian language you'd like us to write about? Let us know.





Clare Speak 2020/12/04 10:54

Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

[email protected] 2019/11/15 18:32
I thought that the italian word "Espresso", when talking coffee, means "pressed" which describes the process of brewing coffee by extracting it from the beans ground by pressing action, and not to describe an "express" or fast-prepared coffee as stated in this article, correct?

See Also