The Italian words and phrases we’ve learned during the coronavirus crisis

From bureaucratic terms to everyday phrases, here's some of the Italian vocabulary we're now using due to Covid-19.

The Italian words and phrases we've learned during the coronavirus crisis
Tutto andrà bene – everything will be alright - became the unofficial motto of Italy's coronavirus lockdown. Photo: AFP
In the early stages of the pandemic, we listed the essential vocabulary you’d need to follow the latest Italian news reports on coronavirus. But since then, we’ve picked up quite a few more words and phrases.
Here’s a quick look at some of the virus-related Italian expressions which, though we had probably never used most them before, have become part of everyday speech.
Tampone – No sniggering at the back. While the idea of having a tampone up your nose can sound quite alarming, the word means “swab test” and, though not particularly nice, it’s nothing to worry about. As more proactive testing is key to Italy’s strategy for keeping future Covid outbreaks under control, don’t be surprised if you keep seeing this one pop up in headlines for weeks and months to come.
Decreto – Along with a few medical terms, everyone had to quickly pick up a bit of bureaucratic lingo as the crisis unfolded. As the Italian prime minister issued one decreto emergenza (emergency decree) after another, the word not only dominated headlines but conversations as people discussed – or grumbled about – the latest rule-changes contained within. It’s hoped that Italy’s August decree was the last in the series.
Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime Minister, bcame known for his Saturday night decreto announcements. Photo: AFP
Focolaio – Many of us might never have learned the word focolaio if it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic. It 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’. It’s often used in Italian news reports to talk about outbreaks or clusters of new coronavirus cases.
Smart working – It may not be Italian, but only Italians use this phrase when talking about working from home, or remote work. The concept was virtually unheard of in Italy before, and so perhaps there was no suitable Italian expression at hand when almost all workplaces were suddenly shut down in March. Either way it’s something many people in Italy, as elsewhere, have had to get used to.
Lockdown – We English speakers didn’t have to learn the italian word for “lockdown”, as Italians started using ours. The noun “lockdown” could translate to blocco or isolamento, while some called it il confinamento. Still, the English word is used overwhelmingly often in Italian media, specifically in relation to the national shutdown, or the threat of a new one in future; un nuovo lockdown.
Autodichiarazione – This word, meaning “self-declaration,” became central to life during lockdown as we had to dutifully fill out various, ever-changing forms in order to leave the house. Other forms of autodichiarazione were also required when travelling to other regions, or abroad. It might also be referred to as an autocertificazione or attestazione, but it cna be used to talk about any document on which you “self-certify” something (in this case, that you were aware of the rules.)
Italian police checking autodichiarazione forms at a road checkpoint in April. Photo: AFP
Multa – a fine. Fines for things like bad parking are sadly nothing new to most of us in Italy, but una multa Covid is a rather more serious matter. At the height of lockdown you could be fined up to 3,000 euros for breaking rules aimed at containing the spread of the virus – rising to 5,000 in Lombardy. Those are now a thing of the past but, at the moment, police hand out 400-euro fines to those who refuse to follow rules on wearing masks in public places.
Congiunti – They’re your relatives – but which ones, exactly? Italians themselves were frantically Googling the meaning of this word after one vaguely-phrased decreto in April said people could visit their congiunti, but no-one else. The Italian government then offered its own definition: i congiunti, official sources said, should be considered “relations, in-laws, spouses, cohabitants, long-term partners and loved ones”. Without lockdown, it’s probably not one most of us would know.
Denunciare – Italian news reports are always full of people who have been denunciato, or reported, for various crimes. And never more so than during Covid times. Here’s a detailed look at how to use this verb in Italian.
Lamentarsi – to complain, moan, or grumble. Italian has a lot of words for complaining, including the more poetic-sounding mormorare or brontolare. But this is the one you might hear most often, as in: si lamentava delle regole (she complained about the rules).
Andrà tutto bene – finally, one you may know even if you didn’t spend lockdown in Italy. Pictures and banners bearing the slogan andrà tutto bene – everything will be alright – were plastered all over windows, balconies and Italian social media at one point, as people sought to reassure each other and brighten up long days spent at home.
Which new Italian words and phrases have you learned during the coronavirus crisis? If there’s one we should add to the list please email and let us know.

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase all about?

Italian expression of the day: 'Si tratta di'

Today’s expression is one you’ll hear a lot in spoken Italian.

It’s also a tricky one for anglophones to wrap our heads around, because although it appears simple – ‘si tratta di’ basically means something along the lines of ‘it concerns/discusses/deals with/is about’ – it actually doesn’t translate very cleanly into English most of the time.

Let’s start with the use that’s easiest for us to grasp: asking and answering what something’s about/what it concerns.

– Pronto, sono l’ispettore Jackson, posso parlare con la signora Hoffman?
– Sì, sono io – posso chiedere di cosa si tratta?

– Hello, this is Inspector Jackson speaking, can I speak with Mrs. Hoffman?
– Yes, this is she – may I ask what this is concerning?

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We can also use the phrase to say that something is ‘a matter of’ or ‘a question of’:

Se si tratta di qualche ora, rimarremo qui ad aspettarla.
If it’s a question of hours, we’ll stay here and wait for her.

Ora si tratta solo di scoprire dove ha lasciato le chiavi.
Now it’s a just a matter of figuring out where she left the keys.

And si tratta di can also be as a translation for ‘when it comes to’.

Adoro mangiare bene, ma quando si tratta di cucinare sono una frana.
I love eating well, but when it comes to cooking I suck.

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Where things start to get a bit more complicated is that you’ll often see the phrase used where the English translation doesn’t require anything.

For example, you might hear the following exchange at work:

– Michela non viene al lavoro oggi perché la sua bambina è malata.
– Spero che non si tratti di nulla di grave.

– Michela’s not coming into work today because her little girl’s sick.
– I hope it’s nothing serious.

You could say ‘I hope it doesn’t consist of anything serious’, which would get you closer to a direct translation – but in English this would sound oddly formal and overblown (in the above example we use tratti rather than tratta because spero che requires the subjunctive).

What if you want to say that a certain thing – a song, a book, a film, a speech – discusses or ‘deals with’ certain themes or issues?

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Firstly, note that impersonal si there. It’s standing in for a subject, which means we can’t have both the subject and the si in the same sentence together – one of them has to go.

You can say, for example, ‘Il suo terzo libro tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘her third book deals with ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom.’

Or you can say, ‘Nel suo terzo libro, si tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘In her third book, she discusses ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom” (a more literal translation would be ‘in her third book, ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom are discussed’, which sounds a bit awkward in English).

You could ask:

Di cosa tratta il libro?
What does the book discuss?


Di cosa si tratta nel libro?
What’s discussed in the book?

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What you can’t do is say, ‘Il libro si tratta di…’ or ask ‘Di cosa si tratta il libro?’. Neither of these constructions work because you can’t have both the impersonal si and the subject (in this case, il libro) together.

What if you want to say, for example, ‘the book/film is about…’?

The easiest way to do that is either to just say ‘il film parla di…‘ – ‘the film talks about…’ ; or ‘il film racconta la storia di…’ – ‘the film tells the story of…’:

Il film parla di un robot che vuole distruggere la razza umana.
The film’s about a robot who wants to destroy the human race.

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Il libro racconta la storia di un ragazzo che scopre di essere un mago.
The book tells the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what this phrase is all about!

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