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Italian word of the day: ‘Oretta’

When is an hour not an hour? When it's in Italy, of course.

Italian word of the day: 'Oretta'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Time is a fluid concept in Italy, as anyone who’s ever waited for a bus in Rome can tell you.

And Italians have a way to describe those hours that aren’t really hours: oretta, literally ‘little hour’. 

The word is the regular word for hour, ora, combined with the diminutive suffix ~etta, which is like adding ‘little’ or ‘small’ to describe the noun.

The result is something not quite as definite as un’ora (‘an hour’): a bit fuzzier, and subject to variation. Un’oretta is like ‘an hour-ish’.

Tornerò tra un’oretta.
I’ll be back in an hour-ish.

Quel pane è uscito dal forno un’oretta fa.
That bread came out of the oven barely an hour ago.

While you might assume that a ‘little hour’ is necessarily shorter than a regular hour, in fact that’s not the case: what you’re emphasizing is that it’s around the 60-minute mark, not always under it.

Ieri abbiamo passato una buona oretta a discutere sulla politica italiana.
Yesterday we spent a good hour or so talking about Italian politics.

– Quanto ci metti da Milano a Torino?
– Un’oretta di treno.

– How long does it take to get from Milan to Turin?
– Around an hour or so by train.

By extension, you can also have several orette (‘around X hours’), una mezz’oretta (‘a half-hour-ish’) and un quarto d’oretta (‘a quarter of an hour or so’).

Ci vuole mezz’oretta

It takes about half an hour

And you can do the same thing with other periods of time, too.

Vivi qua da solo un mesetto

You’ve only lived here for about a month

Siamo stati insieme per un annetto

We were together for about a year

Just think of it as a reminder that you’re on Italian time now.

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

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Italian word of the day: ‘Scarabocchio’

Can you fathom the meaning of this word?

Italian word of the day: ‘Scarabocchio’

If you haven’t yet found a proper Italian word to describe the unintelligible collection of dots, wonky lines and swirls that Italian doctors often nonchalantly passes off as a prescription, scarabocchio might do the trick.

Scarabocchio is the Italian equivalent of ‘scribble’ or ‘scrawl’ and it describes to any piece of writing or drawing whose meaning can’t be fathomed. 

Ho lasciato la lista della spesa sul tavolo!

Si, l’ho vista ma non ci ho capito niente. Era tutto uno scarabocchio…

I left the shopping list on the table!

Yes, I saw it but couldn’t understand any of it. It was all a scribble…

From a five-year-old’s abstract artworks to a colleague’s poor excuse for a handwritten note, you can use scarabocchio for pretty much anything – as long as it figures on a piece of paper. 

Though it is a bit of a mouthful (pronunciation available here), Italians love to use the word in daily conversations, especially so when it comes to mocking the unfortunate author of the scribble. 

Ti ho fatto uno schema per farti capire meglio.

Ma cos’e’ ‘sta cosa? Mi sembra proprio uno scarabocchio…

I’ve drawn a diagram to help you understand.

What on earth is this? It looks like a scrawl to me…

The word comes from the fusion of scarabeo (beetle) and the pejorative suffix -occhio (also used in ranocchio, meaning ‘ugly frog’, and marmocchio, meaning ‘bratty kid’). 

Though today’s scribbles may not resemble the shape of a beetle, they most likely did back in the days when poor handwriting skills would result in your quill creating circular blots of ink on the paper.

That’s why, to this day, Italians refer to scribbles as ‘ugly beetles’. 

Funnily enough, sgorbio, one of scarabocchio’s synonyms, also takes its name from an animal, namely the scorpion. But that’s a story for another time.

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