Italian word of the day: ‘Mossa’

You'll want to know how to use this word figuratively - and not only if you're going to a Tuscan horse race.

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

I first heard this word at the Palio di Siena, the historic and hair-raising Tuscan horse race, where la mossa was being discussed all around me. But I had no idea what it meant until I saw it happening.

One of the most traditional and highly-anticipated parts of this famous event, it happens right before the race itself begins, when one of the riders makes a false start – perhaps suddenly changing direction, or stalling – apparently to put the others on the back foot.

The noun mossa simply translates as “move”:

– Avresti dovuto sorvegliare ogni sua mossa

– You were supposed to watch her every move

But at the palio it’s used figurately to mean a sort of staged movement or trick. (And there’s an art to la mossa, plus lots of rules on performing it correctly.)

And the term mossa can be a bit confusing, as it’s used frequently, often figuratively, and with varying shades of meaning.

The dictionary definition that might describe the Palio’s mossa is probably this one:

– è tutta una mossa

Literally “it’s all a move”: understood to mean that something is fake or staged.

– fare una bella mossa

Literally to “make a nice move”: meaning to act in such a way as to achieve a purpose for one's own benefit.

But just as with the word “move” in English, there are countless ways to use mossa and it can get very confusing for non-native Italian speakers.

However, some phrases do translate very easily.

Much like in English, fare una mossa falsa, or to make a false move, means to do something careless that endangers the final result of your endeavour,

And you can also say fare la prima mossa, or “make the first move”, which means to start a game (such as chess) or take the initiative in something.

And datti una mossa simply means “get a move on”.

Be aware that mosso/a can also be used as an adjective, for example to describe wine – in this case, it means that the wine is gently sparkling, or “moving”.

And the diminutive mossetta can be used to talk about anything from hand gestures to dance moves.

– Non mi prenda in giro con quelle mossette.

– Don’t make fun of me with those hand gestures.

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

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


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.