One of the first ways my boyfriend encouraged me to learn Italian was with a set of 'Cuccioli' flashcards, rightly suspecting that I'd be more inclined to study if pictures of cats were involved.
But I hit a stumbling block before I'd even opened the box. Who or what were cuccioli?
Despite the picture, un cucciolo (pronounced “kootsch-o-lo”) is not a 'kitten'. Nor a 'puppy', a 'cub', a 'lamb', 'piglet' or 'kid'. Rather, it's all of the above.
The word serves as a catch-all term for 'baby animal'. While species-specific versions do exist in Italian (such as agnello, 'lamb', or capretto, 'kid'), cucciolo is the more common way to describe 'a baby X'.
cucciolo di cane
cucciolo di orso
cucciolo di canguro
cucciolo di delfino
… you get the idea.
But before you get too carried away with your zoology, there are some exceptions. Cucciolo generally applies to mammals: birds (pulcino, 'chick'), fish (avannotto, 'fry' or 'young fish'), amphibians (girino, 'spawn' or 'tadpole') and invertebrates (larva) each get their own word.
And while cucciolo describes a young animal, it doesn't apply if the creature in question is just small. If you want to highlight the size, not the age, of a cute critter, just add the diminutive suffix ~ino.
I've also found myself tempted to refer to my (fully grown) pet cat as cucciolo, given how darn cuddly the word sounds, but in fact the usual affectionate term for a kitty is micio or micetto.
You can, however, apply cucciolo to humans – usually if you want to show them affection…
Vieni qua, cucciolo mio!
Come here, pet!
… or if you mean they've still got some learning to do.
Mio figlio è ancora un cucciolo.
My son is still a baby (or: a rookie, a novice).
Do you have a favourite Italian word you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan with your suggestion.