I'm not calling my Italian in-laws argumentative, but let's just say there's no such thing as polite chit-chat at their dinner table. Everything is a topic for debate.
That's how I learned today's phrase: from my Italian father-in-law, repeatedly demanding “che vuol dire?” while waving a forkful of spaghetti around, as I looked blankly at him across the table.
Who wants to say what? I wondered.
Vuol(e) dire literally means “wants to say”. And so che vuol dire may seem to mean: “what does it want to say?”
But, as I soon figured out, what that really means is: “what does that mean?”
Confused yet? Let's look closer.
When asking the meaning of words in Italian class, you'll no doubt have learned:
– Cosa significa?
– What does it mean?
And che vuol dire can be used in much the same way.
– Questa parola vuol dire…
– This word means… (literally “this word wants to say…”)
You might also hear cosa vuol dire which, as far as I can tell, means the same as che vuol dire.
My father-in-law however wasn't asking for clarification on the meaning of a phrase. He understood perfectly well. But he disagreed with it. In this case, the meaning becomes: “What do they mean by that?” or “what are you trying to say?”
The meaning of che vuol dire can shift a little depending on context.
– Questo è ciò che vuol dire diventare adulto
– That's what being an adult is all about
When preceded by the article “il” the phrase becomes “which means”, for example:
– Questa è codice rosso, il che vuol dire…
– This is a code red, which means…
Switch it around, and vuol dire che is especially useful when clarifying meaning.
– Non vuol dire che sei un fallito
– It doesn't mean you're a failure
– Jim vuol dire che ci siamo felici per te
– What Jim means is that we're happy for you
So next time an Italian demands to know what you mean, at least you won't be left wondering: “what does that mean?”