‘Il Covid’ or ‘la Covid’? Here’s what the Italian language police say

Is Covid-19 feminine or masculine in Italian? Italy's official language guardians have spoken.

'Il Covid' or 'la Covid'? Here's what the Italian language police say
'Il coronavirus' but 'la Covid': what are the Italian language rules? Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The short answer, according to the venerable language academy that advises on the proper use of Italian, is: both.

Though the term Covid-19 should really be feminine, it's so widely referred to as masculine by now that it's too late to correct it, the Accademia della Crusca says.

READ ALSO: The Italian vocab you need to understand the coronavirus crisis

While 'il coronavirus' is definitely masculine, like any variations of the word 'virus' in Italian, 'Covid-19' is in fact an acronym for the respiratory illness the virus causes: 'COronaVIrus Disease (20)19'. 

The Italian Health Ministry's FAQs refer to Covid-19 as feminine.

Since practically all the words you could use to translate 'disease' into Italian – malattia, infezione, patologia, sindrome – are feminine, Covid-19 should by rights be feminine too, the Florence-based Accademia says in its newly published 3,000-word opinion on the matter.

But probably because people mistakenly use the terms 'coronavirus' and 'Covid-19' interchangeably, the disease has commonly come to be called 'il virus Covid-19' or 'il Covid' in Italian – not only by journalists, but even on occasion by the Italian Health Ministry, the Accademia points out.

  A warning to travellers from the Italian Health Ministry, referring to 'il Covid-19'.

In fact 'il Covid' is so ubiquitous by now that there's little hope of rectifying the mistake: “The masculine is now so firmly rooted in spoken Italian that even if linguists recommended the feminine it would probably have little effect,” the academy admits.

“The use of Covid in the masculine cannot therefore be considered grammatically incorrect,” it allows, even if “it would perhaps have been preferable” that Italians had adopted 'la Covid' from the start. 

“All that remains is to recommend that the acronym at least be used consistently, especially within the same text,” the linguists resign themselves to saying.

In other words: pick 'il Covid' or 'la Covid' and stick to it.

The Italian language police are less dogmatic on the matter than their French counterparts, who ruled that the coronavirus is masculine, Covid-19 is feminine and saying otherwise constitutes “faulty use”.

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Why did Italy choose opera over espresso in its bid for Unesco status?

Italy has put another pillar of national culture forward for inclusion on the UN agency's list of intangible global heritage - but it's not the art of making coffee, as many had hoped.

Why did Italy choose opera over espresso in its bid for Unesco status?

Music or coffee? This was essentially the tough choice Italy’s National Committee for Unesco was faced with when deciding which treasured Italian art form to recommend for recognition this year.

In the end, the committee on Monday chose to put forward the art of opera singing as the country’s candidate – meaning the art of making espresso coffee will not be considered for addition to the list alongside Neapolitan pizza-making after all.

On announcing the decision, the committee did not give any reason for its selection though said the much-discussed and somewhat controversial application for the candidacy of espresso coffee had been “highly appreciated”.

“With the candidacy of the Italian opera to the world’s intangible heritage, Italy is aiming to get recognition for one of its most authentic and original cultural expressions,” said culture minister Dario Franceschini after the committee’s decision.

“Italian opera singing is an integral part of the world’s cultural patrimony, which provides light, strength and beauty in the darkest hours”.

A performance of Puccini’s 1900 opera ‘Tosca’ at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

The announcement came as a boost for those working in opera houses and theatres across Italy after the Italian arts an cultural sector was hit hard by pandemic-related closures.

Italy has around 60 opera houses – the most in the world.

“Opera was born in Italy,” said Stephane Lissner, the French director of the San Carlo theatre in Naples, which opened in 1737 and claims to be the world’s oldest opera house.

“In the 19th century, when you arrived in any Italian town, the entire population sang opera arias. It was normal,” he told AFP.

Compared to France or Germany, he said: “Italy is different, Italian theatres are different… and if you go into the villages, they’re not even towns, you find small theatres.”

In Italy, lyrical music “is not just reserved for the elite”, he added, although he said “the majority of the public cannot pay certain ticket prices and has been abandoned”, which he said was a “huge error”.

In contrast, Italian coffee is an everyday pleasure enjoyed by the majority of the population – and the price of an espresso is kept below the symbolic threshold of one euro at most local bars due to the widespread belief that the drink should be  accessible to all.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

In fact, it’s not unusual for people to avoid bars that charge more than one euro for un caffè normale, even if that’s for a better-quality cup – with some reports of customers even complaining to the police about being charged higher prices for artisanal or specialist coffees. 

But this focus on keeping the price of Italian coffee low may be part of the reason the Unesco bid was rejected, according to food writer Nunzia Clemente in Naples.

“90-cent coffee shouldn’t make us proud,” Clemente wrote in a post on Italian food blog Dissapore.

Pointing to examples of corner-cutting by bar owners struggling to make a profit, she said “the final result is, half the time, bad to say the least”.

Unesco’s ruling on the bid for recognition of opera is due at the end of the year.