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POLITICS

The words and phrases you’ll need to understand Italian political discussions

From armchairs to poisoned meatballs, here's some of the vocabulary used by Italians to talk about Italian politics.

The words and phrases you'll need to understand Italian political discussions
Italian opposition MPs hold up sigs reading "Conte resign" in the lower house on January 18th. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino / POOL / AFP

Italian political goings-on are famously unpredictable, but they don't have to be completely confusing.

Once you're armed with a bit of background information and some specifically Italian political language, it does get easier to understand what's going on (at least, most of the time).

READ ALSO:  An introductory guide to Italian politics

You may already have some basic political vocabulary down, such as le elezioni (general elections), partiti politici (political parties) and i sondaggi (opinion polls).

But if you want to follow or discuss the latest political crisis in the Italian news, you'll probably find that these words aren't quite enough. 

Italian political discourse (or “politichese“) features lots of words used informally to describe peculiarities of the Italian system – and their meanings often escape non-native Italian speakers.

Here's a quick look at some of the words you may come across in Italian political news reports, on Italian social media, or in discussions at your local bar.

Poltrone

Why would a power-hungry politician be keen to deny that he is “hunting for armchairs”? In this case, such a statement has nothing to do with furniture shopping. Una poltrona does of course mean “armchair” or “seat” and it can be used to talk about a job or position within a company, or in this case, a government. 

In a political context, a politician on the hunt for poltrone is attempting to gain important 'seats' or positions for his party members within the government .

Responsabili

We've heard a lot about the votes of i responsabili in Italian political reports recently. This is usually translated as “the responsible ones” or “the constructors”.

In the context of the latest political crisis, it refers to any independent lawmaker who decided to support the ruling coalition government in order to prevent it from collapsing.

Ribaltone

Forming an alternative majority with opposition parties after a government collapse, in order to avoid a snap election, is a timeless feature of Italian politics.

This word translates as “turnaround”, and it is, of course, how the last coalition government was formed between the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party.

Italy's former prime minister Matteo Renzi. Photo: AFP

Trasformismo

Another time-honoured Italian tradition, this is the act of switching your political allegiance depending on how the wind blows.

Totoministri

This word doesn't have anything to do with Italian comic treasure Totò – more's the pity – but it often has elements of farce.

This is a hard one to translate – see the full explanation here – but it means something like 'minister sweep'. You'll see it it newspaper headlines whenever journalists are busy speculating on who'll be part of a new government. 

Governo balneare

A “seaside government”. When an Italian political crisis strikes during the summer months, you'll see this idiom in the Italian press. It dates back to 1963, but was used frequently during the last government crisis in 2019.

According to one definition, it describes a new government “baptized between June and August with the sole objective of lasting until the weather turns cold”. In other words, it's a government formed hastily to avoid a deeper crisis or elections in the middle of everyone's summer holidays.

Polpette avvelenate

Beware the “poisoned meatballs” of Italians politics – this is used to describe a politician trying to tempt a rival into doing something which will likely be bad for them politically further down the line, as in this example from the 2019 European election campaign (which also features una poltrona).

“League leader Matteo Salvini insisted that he will not ask for a single extra seat, only the implementation of his government programme of “autonomy, unblocking construction sites, tax cuts, security decree” all of which are poisoned meatballs for the Five Star Movement.”

Pasticciaccio

The Italian word pasticcio is used to describe a complex, chaotic, multi layered, scandal-ridden mass of irregularities and confusion – which makes it perfect for describing the messiest of situations in politics, Italian or otherwise.

READ ALSO: Ten English words that make you sound cool in Italian

Pasticciaccio, then, is something even worse. It's defined by one Italian dictionary as “a tangled situation with mysterious or problematic implications, with no way out or solution.”

The term has been most recently spotted in Italian media reports about Brexit.

Political nicknames

Some political parties in Italy, as elsewhere, have nicknames.

For example, the League is sometimes referred to as il Carroccio, the name for a medieval ox-drawn altar used for pre-battle services in medieval Italian wars. This was used as a symbol by the party when it was called the Northern League.

You'll also hear the major players in Italian politics referred to by well-known nicknames. 

For example, Matteo Renzi is known asil rottomatore” (“the scrapper”, or “the wrecker”) due to his habit of destabilising coalition governments.

Silvio Berlusconi meanwhile is often referred to in media reports as “l'immortale” (the immortal) because of his long political career, which continues today despite numerous sex scandals, a tax fraud conviction, regular health scares, and his advancing age.

There are of course plenty of other, more insulting nicknames used in Italian politics, which we won't list here.

This is just a small selection of our favourite Italian political words and phrases. Is there another you think we should add to the list? Please get in touch by email and let us know.

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ITALIAN LANGUAGE

UPDATED: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

Listening to podcasts is a great way to immerse yourself in a new language. For everyone from beginners to advanced learners, here's a list of audio shows that will help improve your Italian.

UPDATED: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

After we published a list of top 10 podcast recommendations for Italian language students, several readers got in touch with their own suggestions.

Below you can find our updated list of the best podcasts to listen to when learning Italian, featuring additional reader recommendations. Enjoy!

For beginners to intermediate learners:

In 2022, there’s a vast range of podcasts for people wanting to learn Italian from scratch – here we’ve selected just a few.

Since beginners will often struggle to understand even slow Italian, almost all these podcasts come with a paid subscription tier that provides access to transcripts and other accompanying materials.

That said, you don’t need to pay anything to simply listen to most of these shows. Give them a try, and see what you can pick up for free.

Coffee Break Italian

The creators of this show are on to a winning format: stop native speakers of a language in the street to ask them questions on a given theme; slowly repeat their answers and translate them into English; replay the interviews so the listener can fill in the gaps they missed the first time around.

It’s a simple but highly effective technique, allowing learners to acquaint themselves with the language as spoken by real Italians while giving them the tools they need to extract meaning from strong accents and colloquial turns of phrase.

News in Slow Italian

This podcast does exactly as advertised: gives you the week’s major international news in a (very) slow Italian.

READ ALSO: Ten of the best TV shows and films to help you learn Italian

It’s good for keeping up with current events as well as learning the language. One particularly useful function of the paid tier is that it allows you to hover over certain phrases in the transcript and see the English translation.

Easy Italian News

Can’t get enough of people slowly reading the news to you in Italian? You’re in luck, because Easy Italian News is another resource that does just this.

Unlike News in Slow Italian, Easy Italian News purports to be entirely free and donation-based, so you have access to the entire transcript as you listen. New episodes every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Italiano Automatico

Alberto Arrighini has taken his highly popular Youtube channel, Impara l’Italiano con Italiano Automatico, and made each episode available to listen to via the Italiano Automatico podcast.

While those who opt to listen via the podcast will miss out on the captions and slides Arrighini provides in his Youtube videos, it’s ideal for busy listeners who want to learn on the go. 

Each episode is roughly 10 minutes long and tackles different aspects of Italian such as regional accents, conjunctions, and answers to questions like when to use essere vs stare.

Which podcasts can help you learn Italian?

Which podcasts can help you learn Italian? Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Quattro Stagioni

This bite-sized podcast from Alessandra Pasqui takes the form of five-minute long episodes covering everything from recipes to travel diaries from Italian cities to biographies of famous Italians.

The programme’s short length makes it perfect listening for walks to the shops or when waiting in line at the post office.

Simple Italian

Simone Pols hosts this programme for intermediate Italian speakers. It’s another basic set up: Pols takes as his starting point a theme or a recent experience and spends around 20 minutes taking about it in slowed-down Italian.

READ ALSO: Seven songs that will help you learn Italian

Recent episodes including his musings on include why it’s important to say no, the definition of beauty, and what he learned from spending six weeks in Palermo.

Italianglot

In Italianglot, Carmine Albanese, a Neapolitan Italian who is also a polyglot fluent in English, French, Spanish and Modern Greek, educates listeners about all aspects of Italian history and culture in his native language. We note that Italianglot promises to help you learn Italian with “minimal effort”, which sounds good to us.

The reader who wrote in to recommend this show says it’s particularly suitable for intermediate learners, but it’s worth noting that it also goes all the way up to C1/C2 level for those with more advanced Italian.

L’italiano vero

L’italiano vero, or ‘True Italian’ boasts of being “the first Italian-learning podcast that speaks to you like a real Italian”, with hosts Cubo and Paolo teaching practical Italian phrases to use in real-life situations like going shopping or having a coffee.

The person who wrote in to champion this show says “I like their senses of humour, and at the same time seriousness about teaching aspects of Italian and Italian life.”

Added extras like episode transcripts require a Patreon subscription, but with their lowest tier starting at €1 a month, you may well find it’s worth the expense.

Italiano con Amore

This podcast comes highly recommended by one reader, who says of host Eleanora Silanis, “She’s delightful and always has interesting subjects. Her diction and her accent are perfect and she speaks just slowly enough to catch every word but not so slowly that it’s tedious.”

The basic podcast is available online for free, and in addition three course levels are offered: ‘Classico’, ‘Plus +’, and ‘Portofino’. This one’s a bit more pricey than the others, but comes with a range of benefits including a workbook and live lessons for higher-tier subscribers.

For advanced learners: 

These podcasts were made for native Italian speakers, but you don’t need to be one yourself to enjoy them.

Practically non-existent until just a few years ago, the Italian podcasting industry has flourished in recent years. Whether you’re into true crime, long-form narrative journalism or science, these days there’s something for everyone.

Here are just a few well-known Italian podcasts for advanced speakers wondering where to start.

Veleno

This 2017 podcast is often referred to as ‘Italy’s Serial’, both for its in-depth investigative journalism and the fact that it’s credited with introducing large swathes of the population to the concept of podcasts altogether.

The story centres around a Satanic Panic that gripped the Bassa Modenese territory in the late 1990’s, leaving huge destruction and grief in its wake.

READ ALSO: The top five free smartphone apps for learning Italian

It’s an impressive piece of longform narrative journalism that makes for uncomfortable listening in some parts and will make you burn with righteous indignation in others.

Radiografia Nera

The Radio Popolare news station didn’t exist before 1976: but what if it had? 

That’s the starting point for this podcast from Tommaso Bertelli e Matteo Liuzzi, who in each episode recount a different crime that took place in post-war Milan up until the year the station was founded, sourcing most of their facts from archived court documents and police reports.

You’ll hear plenty of stories about bank robberies and stick-up jobs, but also learn of broader historical crimes such as attempted coups.

The hosts have a rapid-fire style of delivery, so Italian learners may want to slow the podcast down or go back and listen more than once to fully grasp the whole story – but it’s good practice if you want to challenge yourself.

XXX. Photo by Siddharth Bhogra on Unsplash.

Limoni

L’Internazionale‘s Annalisa Camilli has won awards for her in-depth reporting on migration to Italy, but there’s one story from her past that she always kept at arm’s length – until now.

In Limoni, which was released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the G8 protests in Genoa, Camilli looks back at what happened at the 2001 event in which hundreds of protestors were injured and over forty unarmed people were set upon and tortured by police as they prepared to go to bed.

Camilli, who attended the protests as a young person, examines the events in light of information that has come out in the years since, bringing a new clarity to what happened and why things went so badly wrong.

Il gorilla ce l’ha piccolo

Despite its irreverent name (which translates roughly as ‘Gorillas have small d**ks’), this animal-focused podcast contains a genuine treasure trove of information about the animal kingdom.

Presented by the biologist Vincenzo Venuto, each episode takes a broad relational theme, such as families or cheating, and examines how these things play out among various animal species. In looking at how animals handle aspects of sex, birth, ageing, death and grief, Venuto gives us a greater insight into our own species.

Problemi

From Jonathan Zenti, creator of the excellent (sadly only three-episode-long) English language podcast Meat, comes Problemi. In each episode Zenti talks about something he has a problem with, helped along by interjections from one of his own voice-altered alter egos.

In other hands, this might sound like a relatively dull basis for a podcast, but not in these ones. Zenti’s persona as a host is prickly and impious, but equally capable of deep compassion. His lack of interest in self-censorship and sometimes uncomfortably frank disclosures can make this mostly humorous show surprisingly painful at certain moments. It’s one of the few I’ll sometimes return to.

Demoni Urbani

Another true crime podcast here for fans of the genre. Hosted by actor Francesco Migliaccio but authored and produced by an entire creative team, Demoni Urbani (‘Urban Demons’) aims to peel back the surface to reveal the ‘heart of darkness’ beating away in various Italian metropolises.

While the first series focused solely on Italy, later episodes have gone international, narrating the stories of crimes committed as far away as Japan and the former Soviet Union. The reader who wrote to endorse this podcast recommended it for its “great true crime stories. Excellently told.”

Do you have any recommendations for an Italian podcast we haven’t mentioned here? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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