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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Focolaio’

This topical word will help you make sense of Italy's headlines.

Italian word of the day: 'Focolaio'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Many of us might never have learned the word focolaio if it weren't for the coronavirus pandemic.

The word comes from the Latin focus, meaning 'fireplace' (the same root gave Italian its word for fire, fuoco). So un focolaio is quite literally 'a hotspot'. 

In molte regioni italiane sono stati accertati negli ultimi giorni diversi nuovi focolai di coronavirus.
New coronavirus hotspots have been identified in several Italian regions in recent days.

Doctors use it figuratively to describe the main site of a disease or injury.

il focolaio infettivo
the centre of infection

il focolaio di frattura
the fracture site

By extension, it's also used for the place where something – usually bad – begins, like a 'hotbed' or 'breeding ground'.

un focolaio di rivolte
a hotbed of revolt

un focolaio di corruzione
a breeding ground for corruption

Since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, focolai (plural) have made their way into Italian headlines as people hunt for details of each new flash point.

While the term really refers to a place or site, in this context it's sometimes easier to translate it as 'outbreak' or 'cluster'.

'C’è un nuovo grosso focolaio nel mantovano'
'There's a large new outbreak near Mantua' – a recent headline in Il Post.

Find out where Italy's latest focolai have been identified in this article.

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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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

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.

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