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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Mezzogiorno’

Why this word is used for talking about so much more than just lunchtime.

Italian word of the day: 'Mezzogiorno'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

When Italians talk about mezzogiorno, they’re not always discussing lunchtime – although that would be the most obvious meaning, and maybe the most obvious topic up for discussion in this food-obsessed country.

The word can be used to talk about midday, or noon:

– Pranziamo a mezzogiorno

– We eat lunch at noon

However, when Italians start using the word while talking about the weather, politics or geography, non-native speakers tend to get a bit lost.

Curiously, the south of Italy – basically everything south and east of Naples – is often referred to as the Mezzogiorno.

– Le città del Mezzogiorno

– The cities in the south of Italy

Sicily and Sardinia are often included in the Mezzogiorno, too.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

If you’re wondering why on earth Italians would describe half of their country as ‘midday’, the reason goes all the way back to the days of the Maritime Republics, or repubbliche marinare, in the middle ages.

Seafarers around the Mediterranean gave names to the winds coming from different directions to help them describe their routes, long before the days of the compass, when they couldn’t simply say ‘North’ or ‘South-east’.

Vento di Tramontana, proveniente dal Settentrione (Wind from the north)

Vento di Ponente, proveniente dall’ Occidente (Wind from the West)

Vento di Levante, proveniente dall’ Oriente (Wind from the East)

Vento di Mezzogiorno, proveniente dal Meridione (Wind from the South)

The wind coming from the south was called ‘il Mezzogiorno’ because at midday the sun is seen in the south (or, as it was known long before there was a word for ‘south’, in the Meridione, or Meridian.)

l

A modern version of the wind rose, or la rosa dei venti. Photo: Depositphotos.

Still today, the south of Italy is also often called Meridione, while the north is still referred to as Settentrione.

Or Italia meridionale/settentrionale

All very interesting, sure, but is this useful? Actually, it is. These words might sound like some unnecessary thing that only a geography teacher would ever use, but in Italy you’ll hear them in weather reports and everyday conversations all the time.

Basically, Italians today are using this bit of old-school sailor lingo in everyday speech. Which I think is pretty cool.

So next time an Italian friend starts talking about il mezzogiorno while discussing some seemingly unrelated topic, you’ll know it’s not (just) because they’re really looking forward to lunchtime.

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

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It would only be polite to master the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It usually doesn’t take long for foreign nationals residing or merely vacationing in the bel paese to realise that Italians have three different ways to express what in the English-speaking world is generally conveyed by means of a simple, unproblematic ‘please’.

Now, more often than not, the trio of expressions available in the Italian language – ‘per cortesia’, ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’ – creates a fair deal of confusion as to what form should be used and in what social circumstances.

Unfortunately, there is no official grammar rule on how to juggle the above-mentioned expressions and their use is mostly regulated by unwritten social rules and etiquette. So, to help you familiarise yourselves with the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian, here’s a breakdown of what each form is used for and, above all, on what occasions.

Of the three forms used by locals, ‘per cortesia’ is surely the most peculiar. The expression’s literal translation would be something along the lines of ‘as an act of courtesy’ or ‘as a kindness’, though, of course, it is generally rendered into English with the catch-all ‘please’.

According to tacit social rules, ‘per cortesia’ and its kin adverb ‘cortesemente’ are generally employed in formal settings, especially in interactions with people one is not acquainted with or does not know very well. So, for conversations with anyone that you might consider a stranger, this is the go-to expression.

Q: Mi scusi, ci potrebbe portare il conto, per cortesia?

A: Certo, arrivo subito.

Q: Excuse me, could you please get us the bill?

A: Sure, I’ll be right with you.

Q: Mi perdoni il disturbo, Dottor Rossi. Riuscirebbe a mandarmi i documenti in questione entro sera, per cortesia?

A: Certo. Provvedo subito a mandarli.

Q: I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr Rossi. Could you please send me the documents in question by this evening?

A: Sure. I’ll send them right away.

As you can see from the above examples, ‘per cortesia’ is usually placed at the end of a question and it is generally used together with the so-called ‘polite form’ (forma di cortesia), that is by addressing the person you’re communicating with as ‘Lei’ and conjugating verbs in the third person singular. 

The ‘polite form’ is usually scrapped in informal settings and so is ‘per cortesia’. Notably, in ordinary conversations with friends, family or other acquaintances, Italians switch to the use of ‘tu’ (i.e. they address the speaker with verbs in the second person singular) and simultaneously opt for either ‘per favore’ or ‘per piacere’.

The difference in meaning between the two expressions is somewhat negligible, so much so that they are often used interchangeably by most native speakers. 

However, for the sake of nitpicking, while both forms are used to ask something of people one knows very well, ‘per piacere’ is specifically used for fairly urgent and/or dramatic pleas. In other words, when you’re begging someone to do something, ‘per piacere’ is the right expression for the job at hand.

Q: Giampietro, la tua camera è un disastro. Puoi pulirla per piacere? Abbiamo ospiti a cena stasera.

Q: Giampietro, your bedroom is a mess. Can you please tidy up? We’re having people over for dinner tonight.

Q: Lo so che non ti piace come persona ma puoi fare uno sforzo e provare ad essere gentile, per favore?

Q: I know you don’t like her but can you please make an effort and try to be nice?

Q: Mi puoi prestare una penna, per favore? Mi sono dimenticato l’astuccio.

A: Ancora? Neanche per sogno! 

Q: Could you lend me a pen? I forgot to bring my pencil case.

A: Again? No way!

Hopefully, the above scenarios have given you an idea of the (very slight) difference between ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’. However, please bear in mind that the former will get the job done in almost any informal conversation, so, when in doubt, go for that and you’ll hardly ever go wrong.

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

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