I recently received an email from an Italian reader living in the UK, who wants some help translating the verb ammiccare (pronounced “ammi-kar-eh”).
Look it up in your Italian-to-English dictionary and you'll most likely find a simple definition: 'to wink'.
Le ammiccò di soppiatto.
He winked at her slyly.
What's so complicated about that, you might wonder? Well, just like the bat of an eyelid and tap of the nose, ammiccare keeps a few things hidden.
It is indeed most often used to describe the action of winking, but it's less specific than the other common expressions fare l'occhiolino (literally, 'to make the little eye') or strizzare l'occhio ('to squeeze an eye') which refer exclusively to blinking an eyelid.
Ammiccare, according to the Italian-only dictionary, can in fact mean performing any gesture on the sly to let someone in on the secret or joke, whether it involves your eyes or any other bits of you.
That's why you might hear a sentence in Italian such as:
Gli ammiccava con gli occhi che tacesse.
She was winking at him with her eyes so that he'd shut up.
… whereas in English, specifying that you're winking 'with your eyes' would be redundant.
What's more, ammiccare can be entirely figurative, with no gestures whatever. It's also defined as 'to send allusive signals', be they physical or otherwise.
You might do it to invite interest…
Il film ammicca alla fascia giovanile del pubblico.
The film winks at (or: aims to appeal to) a younger audience.
… or to pass on information on the down-low: in the Italian card game of briscola, for instance, which is a bit like trumps, one player might ammiccare l'asso ('signal the ace') to their partner, whether they really have it or not.
Ammicca l'asso e l'ho in mano io!
He's signalling the ace and I've got it right here!
As ever in Italian, a gesture – even the word for a gesture – says a thousand things.
Do you have an Italian word you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan with your suggestion.