It might surprise you to learn that Italians get their word for joking around from… the Germans.
That's right, scherzare ('to joke') comes – via settlers to northern Italy – from an early Germanic word meaning 'to hop, jump or frolic'.
Today's Italian version (pronounced “sker-tsar-eh”) still has the same sense of playfulness. It's not just telling jokes, it's what we'd call 'playing around' or 'goofing off'.
Si sono messi a scherzare con la neve come dei ragazzi.
They started playing around in the snow like kids.
Of course, saying something was just for fun is a good way to get away with things. It's the equivalent of saying you're 'kidding' or something is just 'a joke' (uno scherzo).
Era solo uno scherzo!
It was only a joke!
Jokes come in all different shapes and sizes: uno scherzetto ('little joke') is a harmless 'trick', uno scherzo di mano is a 'practical joke' or 'prank', scherzo rozzo is 'horseplay', and uno scherzo da prete (literally, 'priest's joke') is a 'nasty' or even 'dirty joke', for reasons best left to the imagination.
But when it's no time for kidding, you can use scherzare to suggest that someone is being too playful and not serious enough – that they're 'messing around'.
Smettila di scherzare con l'acqua!
Stop messing around with the water!
La situazione è seria: c'è poco da scherzare.
This is a serious situation: it's no laughing matter (literally: there's little to joke about).
By the same token, if you say something 'doesn't mess around', you mean it deserves to be taken seriously – i.e. it's considerable or worthy.
Lei è brava, ma anche tu non scherzi.
She's good, but you're not bad yourself.
Se ieri faceva un freddo cane, oggi certo non scherza.
If yesterday was freezing, today isn't messing around either (in other words: it's very cold too).
If you're not sure that someone's being serious – or can't believe they are – use scherzare to ask if they're joking. Even just rhetorically.
– Hai deciso di sposarlo?
– Stai scherzando?!
– Have you decided to marry him?
– Are you kidding?!
And if you want to assure someone that no, you're deadly serious, the answer, of course, is…
Non sto scherzando!
I'm not kidding!
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