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Italian word of the day: ‘Afa’

Italian word of the day: 'Afa'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
When it's getting hot and sticky in Italy, here's the word you need.

It’s not just another word for a heatwave (ondata di caldo, or canicola).

Afa (pronounced “af-fah”) describes the particular type of oppressive, sultry heat that results from high humidity in Italy.

You’ll hear it used in weather reports to describe those days that feel stifling even though the temperature isn’t particularly high (at least, not by Italian standards).

– L’afa è in arrivo

The humid weather is on its way

It doesn’t translate exactly into English. Dictionaries use words like ‘muggy’, and ‘close’, but that doesn’t fully capture it.

-Senti che afa!

-Just feel how hot and muggy it is!

-C’è un’afa terribile 

-It’s terribly close

For one thing, this onomatopoeic term sounds like the sort of exhalation you might make when you’re feeling far too hot to move.

More than just being a bit stuffy, afa can describe a hot humidity and stillness that feels truly oppressive. It evokes those hot summer nights where the air is soup-like and you just can’t get to sleep.

There’s also the adjective afóso

This is used to describe stifling summer heat, and it’s probably a little too poetic for everyday use.

The Treccani dictionary in fact gives a line from a poem by Giovanni Papini as an example:

– nei meriggi afósi, quando l’aria trema tutta di calore

– At sultry noon, when the air trembles all over with heat

Some people say the arrival of l’afa in early summer is a bittersweet thing – the wave of humidity brings with it memories of first beach trips of past summers, and signals that it’s almost time for this year’s holidays to begin.

After all, it’ll soon be much too hot to do anything else.

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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