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Italian word of the day: ‘Permesso’

Italian word of the day: 'Permesso'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
May we introduce you to this very polite Italian word?

Here's another example of an Italian word that sounds a lot like its most direct English translation – but doesn't have a perfect English equivalent.

Permesso sounds a lot like “permission” or “permit”, and that's exactly what you're asking for when you use it.

In fact, most of Italy's foreign-born residents will first encounter this word in the phrase permesso di soggiorno – the Italian residence permit. The phrase can be translated as “permit to stay.”

In everyday Italian, the most common usage of permesso is really simple.

It's the “excuse me” for when you need to get past someone in a crowded place (but not the “excuse me” for attracting attention in a restaurant. More on Italian apologies here.)

But the most Italian way to use permesso is for asking permission to enter a room, a shop, an office, or someone's home.

Imagine being invited to a new Italian friend's apartment for lunch for the first time. You enter the building, walk upstairs, and find the apartment door left ajar for you. What would be the polite thing to do? Knock, or just walk straight in?

Italians would most likely hover in the doorway for a moment while calling out “permesso!”

Some of my Italian friends also do this jokingly, despite knowing very well they have permission.

I have been told that it's not that widely used anymore because, as one Italian friend put it, “Italians are pretty rude.” (No comment.)

But if you're erring on the side of politeness, especially if your Italian friend's parents are home, you really can't go wrong with a permesso.

And it's definitely recommended if you visit a doctor or any kind of office where the door has been left slightly ajar.

Just remember it's only for asking permission to enter a space, or excusing yourself when moving around a space.

If you're asking permission to do something, such as pouring yourself more coffee, you might want to use posso? (“can I/may I?”) instead.

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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