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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Mo’

Plenty of Italians would argue that this word is not, in fact, Italian.

Italian word of the day: 'Mo'
Photo: DepositPhotos

You won't find it in every Italian dictionary and north of a certain latitude you're unlikely to hear it at all.

But on the streets of Rome and other parts of Italy's centre-south, mo is as common as ora or adesso, the two “proper” Italian words for the same thing: 'now'.

Mo che facciamo?
What shall we do now?

Mo sto studiando, però dopo vengo.
I'm studying right now, but I'll come later.

It's pronounced “moh”, and written with or without a final apostrophe: mo or mo'. Though it's the kind of word you use when you're speaking Italian far more than when you're writing it.

But anyone who thinks mo is just slang should take a look at the word's etymology: it has classical credentials, deriving most likely from one of two Latin words, modo ('just now') or mox ('then', 'soon afterwards').

And it was deemed fit for poetry by none other than Dante Alighieri, the father of modern Italian, who uses it repeatedly in his Divine Comedy. Canto 8 of Purgatorio, for instance, includes the lines:

Verdi come fogliette pur mo nate
erano in veste…

Green as the little leaflets just now born
Their garments were… 

As Dante demonstrates, mo doesn't only refer to the present but also to the (very) recent past – like 'just now' or 'a moment ago'.

L'ho visto mo, il tuo messaggio.
I just saw your message a moment ago.

But mo can also refer to a future so close it's practically the present – like 'immediately' or 'right this minute'. That's especially the case when you repeat it for emphasis.

Dammelo! Mo mo!
Give it to me, right this minute!

You can even combine mo with other words for 'now' for a similar effect: for instance adesso mo, ora mo, or mo ora.

If that doesn't seem to make much sense, we should warn you that you'll often hear mo as a sort of filler word that doesn't mean much on its own – a bit like 'right' or 'well' in English.

This famous line from the 1980s time travel comedy Non Ci Resta Che Piangere ('Nothing Left to Do But Cry') should give you an idea: warned by a priest that he will one day die, actor Massimo Troisi replies: “Mo, me lo segno” – “well, I'll make a note of that”.

Do you have a favourite Italian word you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan with your suggestion.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It would only be polite to master the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It usually doesn’t take long for foreign nationals residing or merely vacationing in the bel paese to realise that Italians have three different ways to express what in the English-speaking world is generally conveyed by means of a simple, unproblematic ‘please’.

Now, more often than not, the trio of expressions available in the Italian language – ‘per cortesia’, ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’ – creates a fair deal of confusion as to what form should be used and in what social circumstances.

Unfortunately, there is no official grammar rule on how to juggle the above-mentioned expressions and their use is mostly regulated by unwritten social rules and etiquette. So, to help you familiarise yourselves with the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian, here’s a breakdown of what each form is used for and, above all, on what occasions.

Of the three forms used by locals, ‘per cortesia’ is surely the most peculiar. The expression’s literal translation would be something along the lines of ‘as an act of courtesy’ or ‘as a kindness’, though, of course, it is generally rendered into English with the catch-all ‘please’.

According to tacit social rules, ‘per cortesia’ and its kin adverb ‘cortesemente’ are generally employed in formal settings, especially in interactions with people one is not acquainted with or does not know very well. So, for conversations with anyone that you might consider a stranger, this is the go-to expression.

Q: Mi scusi, ci potrebbe portare il conto, per cortesia?

A: Certo, arrivo subito.

Q: Excuse me, could you please get us the bill?

A: Sure, I’ll be right with you.

Q: Mi perdoni il disturbo, Dottor Rossi. Riuscirebbe a mandarmi i documenti in questione entro sera, per cortesia?

A: Certo. Provvedo subito a mandarli.

Q: I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr Rossi. Could you please send me the documents in question by this evening?

A: Sure. I’ll send them right away.

As you can see from the above examples, ‘per cortesia’ is usually placed at the end of a question and it is generally used together with the so-called ‘polite form’ (forma di cortesia), that is by addressing the person you’re communicating with as ‘Lei’ and conjugating verbs in the third person singular. 

The ‘polite form’ is usually scrapped in informal settings and so is ‘per cortesia’. Notably, in ordinary conversations with friends, family or other acquaintances, Italians switch to the use of ‘tu’ (i.e. they address the speaker with verbs in the second person singular) and simultaneously opt for either ‘per favore’ or ‘per piacere’.

The difference in meaning between the two expressions is somewhat negligible, so much so that they are often used interchangeably by most native speakers. 

However, for the sake of nitpicking, while both forms are used to ask something of people one knows very well, ‘per piacere’ is specifically used for fairly urgent and/or dramatic pleas. In other words, when you’re begging someone to do something, ‘per piacere’ is the right expression for the job at hand.

Q: Giampietro, la tua camera è un disastro. Puoi pulirla per piacere? Abbiamo ospiti a cena stasera.

Q: Giampietro, your bedroom is a mess. Can you please tidy up? We’re having people over for dinner tonight.

Q: Lo so che non ti piace come persona ma puoi fare uno sforzo e provare ad essere gentile, per favore?

Q: I know you don’t like her but can you please make an effort and try to be nice?

Q: Mi puoi prestare una penna, per favore? Mi sono dimenticato l’astuccio.

A: Ancora? Neanche per sogno! 

Q: Could you lend me a pen? I forgot to bring my pencil case.

A: Again? No way!

Hopefully, the above scenarios have given you an idea of the (very slight) difference between ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’. However, please bear in mind that the former will get the job done in almost any informal conversation, so, when in doubt, go for that and you’ll hardly ever go wrong.

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

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