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Italian word of the day: ‘Scusa’

You won't regret learning how to use this word properly.

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

We all want to be polite when speaking a foreign language, and especially when, inevitably, we need to apologise. But in Italian it’s hard to know if you’re apologising correctly.

Is it scusa or scusi? When should I use mi dispiace? And what if it’s a formal situation? 

While in English a simple “I’m sorry” will usually cut it, that’s not the case in Italian. Instead, different circumstances call for different words and expressions. For Italian language learners, ‘sorry’ really can feel like the hardest word.

But don’t sweat. Let’s have a close look at all the different variations on today’s word, scusa.

The standard way of saying ‘I’m sorry’ in Italian is mi dispiace.

But this expresses a level of regret that you probably wouldn’t feel when, say, trying to get past someone on a crowded train platform.

Instead, scusa (pronounced ‘skoo-za’) is the apology you’ll probably hear Italian speakers use most often.

The dictionaries say it’s an informal apology that’s only to be used between friends and family, and for non-serious things.

If you don’t understand, or if you mishear someone, the easiest thing to say is scusa? (sorry?) in an informal situation, or if you need to be polite, it’s scusi? (I stick to scusi when trying to understand what’s going on at the local comune.)

There’s often confusion about this, as it may sound grammatically odd. But remember here you’re using the imperative form of the verb scusare.

But when you genuinely want to apologise, even for a small thing, mi dispiace is more suitable. See the difference in this example:

– Scusi, ma cosa significa?

– Mi dispiace, non lo capisco neanche io.

– Sorry, but what does this mean?

– I’m sorry, I don’t understand it either.

And definitely do avoid scusa if you’ve seriously messed up, as it can come across as flippant or insincere.

Another common variation is mi scuso, which can be used to apologise to anyone – but again, not for something very serious.

– Mi scuso del ritardo

– I’m sorry I’m late.

If you need to get past someone, or if you bump into them, you can also say chiedo scusa (sorry/excuse me).

Meanwhile, you can say scusi or mi scusi when you want to attract attention, for example in a restaurant.

– Mi scusi!

– Excuse me!

I often see people use scusa or scusami in this situation too – though again, we’re warned by dictionaries and Italian textbooks only to use this with people we know well.

All of these words come from the verb scusarsi, which means to excuse yourself, or to apologise.

– Davvero, non deve proprio scusarsi.

– Really, you don’t need to apologise.

More formally, and especially if you’ve done something serious, you can use sono desolato/a.

– Sono veramente desolato!

– I’m really sorry!

And if someone apologises to you, you can reassure them by saying:

– non fa niente or non importa (it doesn’t matter)

– nessun problema (no problem)

– non preoccuparti or non si preoccupi (don’t worry).

For greater emphasis, you can use figurati (don’t mention it) with friends, and si figuri is the formal version.

– Mi dispiace di non averti richiamata prima.

– Non preoccuparti!

– I’m sorry that I didn’t call you back sooner.

– Don’t worry!

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

Member comments

  1. I admit that my Italian is basic, at best, but in so far as I know “scusa” is the formal and “scusi” the informal.

    Please correct me if I am wrong.

    1. Hi Carmine,

      That is the case if you’re talking in the regular present tense: tu scusi (“you excuse”) and Lei scusa (“one excuses”).

      But when you’re asking/instructing someone to “excuse me”, you need the imperative tense: then it becomes scusa in the informal (tu) and scusi in the formal (Lei).

      Hope that makes sense!

      ~ Jessica

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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.