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Italian word of the day: ‘Tosto’

This word’s a tough one.

Italian word of the day tosto
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If you’ve spent some time in Italy, you may have heard tosto used to describe a wide range of objects, situations, and people, and been left scratching your head over exactly what the word means.

Tosto is linked to the verb tostare, meaning to toast. When you heat bread and suck the moisture out of it, it hardens, and hard or tough is what tosto can mean when applied to certain physical objects.

It’s an adjective, so remember the end vowel changes to a/i/e depending on whether the ending is masculine, feminine, singular or plural.

Questa bistecca è un po’ tosta.
This steak’s a little tough.

Lei ha le braccia toste e muscolose.
She has hard and muscular arms.

Usually, though, tosto is used metaphorically. When discussing a thing (like an exam, or a job) it means challenging, or hard.

Quella salita era bella tosta.
That hill was really tough.

Quello è un gioco abbastanza tosto.
That game’s quite hard.

When applied to people, tosto has some subtle variations in meaning.

It can mean tough, determined, hard-nosed, or that you’re decisive and not easily influenced by others.

Non vi preoccupate, ce la farà. È uno tosto!
Don’t worry, he’ll make it. He’s tough!

Lei è una tipa tosta, secondo me non riuscirai a convincerla.
She’s a tough one, I don’t think you’ll be able to convince her.

It can also mean that you have chutzpah, or nerve, or that you’re slightly brash in your words or actions – especially when you talk about someone with a faccia tosta (literally, hard face; in English we might talk about someone having ‘bare-faced audacity’).

Ha avuto la faccia tosta di chiedere uno sconto.
She had the nerve to ask for a discount.

Barbara Durso Dottoressa Gio GIF - Barbara Durso Dottoressa Gio Giorgia Basile GIFs

Generally, it’s seen as a positive attribute to be a little tosto.

An archaic or literary use of the word is quickly, or soon.

Lo scopriremo ben tosto.
We’ll find out soon.

While this usage is very rare these days, it lives on in music annotations, where the note tosto directs a musician to play at rapid tempo.

It’s unclear exactly how we got from one meaning to the other is unclear, but one suggestion is that toughened people are likely to react quickly.

Now you’ve learned this word, put on your best faccia tosta and go demand what you deserve from your day.

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

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For members


Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It would only be polite to master the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It usually doesn’t take long for foreign nationals residing or merely vacationing in the bel paese to realise that Italians have three different ways to express what in the English-speaking world is generally conveyed by means of a simple, unproblematic ‘please’.

Now, more often than not, the trio of expressions available in the Italian language – ‘per cortesia’, ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’ – creates a fair deal of confusion as to what form should be used and in what social circumstances.

Unfortunately, there is no official grammar rule on how to juggle the above-mentioned expressions and their use is mostly regulated by unwritten social rules and etiquette. So, to help you familiarise yourselves with the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian, here’s a breakdown of what each form is used for and, above all, on what occasions.

Of the three forms used by locals, ‘per cortesia’ is surely the most peculiar. The expression’s literal translation would be something along the lines of ‘as an act of courtesy’ or ‘as a kindness’, though, of course, it is generally rendered into English with the catch-all ‘please’.

According to tacit social rules, ‘per cortesia’ and its kin adverb ‘cortesemente’ are generally employed in formal settings, especially in interactions with people one is not acquainted with or does not know very well. So, for conversations with anyone that you might consider a stranger, this is the go-to expression.

Q: Mi scusi, ci potrebbe portare il conto, per cortesia?

A: Certo, arrivo subito.

Q: Excuse me, could you please get us the bill?

A: Sure, I’ll be right with you.

Q: Mi perdoni il disturbo, Dottor Rossi. Riuscirebbe a mandarmi i documenti in questione entro sera, per cortesia?

A: Certo. Provvedo subito a mandarli.

Q: I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr Rossi. Could you please send me the documents in question by this evening?

A: Sure. I’ll send them right away.

As you can see from the above examples, ‘per cortesia’ is usually placed at the end of a question and it is generally used together with the so-called ‘polite form’ (forma di cortesia), that is by addressing the person you’re communicating with as ‘Lei’ and conjugating verbs in the third person singular. 

The ‘polite form’ is usually scrapped in informal settings and so is ‘per cortesia’. Notably, in ordinary conversations with friends, family or other acquaintances, Italians switch to the use of ‘tu’ (i.e. they address the speaker with verbs in the second person singular) and simultaneously opt for either ‘per favore’ or ‘per piacere’.

The difference in meaning between the two expressions is somewhat negligible, so much so that they are often used interchangeably by most native speakers. 

However, for the sake of nitpicking, while both forms are used to ask something of people one knows very well, ‘per piacere’ is specifically used for fairly urgent and/or dramatic pleas. In other words, when you’re begging someone to do something, ‘per piacere’ is the right expression for the job at hand.

Q: Giampietro, la tua camera è un disastro. Puoi pulirla per piacere? Abbiamo ospiti a cena stasera.

Q: Giampietro, your bedroom is a mess. Can you please tidy up? We’re having people over for dinner tonight.

Q: Lo so che non ti piace come persona ma puoi fare uno sforzo e provare ad essere gentile, per favore?

Q: I know you don’t like her but can you please make an effort and try to be nice?

Q: Mi puoi prestare una penna, per favore? Mi sono dimenticato l’astuccio.

A: Ancora? Neanche per sogno! 

Q: Could you lend me a pen? I forgot to bring my pencil case.

A: Again? No way!

Hopefully, the above scenarios have given you an idea of the (very slight) difference between ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’. However, please bear in mind that the former will get the job done in almost any informal conversation, so, when in doubt, go for that and you’ll hardly ever go wrong.

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