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Italian word of the day: ‘Scaramanzia’

Touch wood you won't have much cause to use this word.

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

The Corriere della Sera newspaper’s online dictionary defines scaramanzia as a spell or charm, and when spoken out loud the word itself – ‘ska-ra-man-zee-a’ – almost sounds like an incantation in its own right. 

But the word also means superstition – and in day to day life, scaramanzia tends to have much more to do with this than to any actual spell-casting.

If you do something per scaramanzia it’s for luck or to ward off bad luck, while if you *don’t* do something per scaramanzia it’s because you don’t want to jinx yourself.

Incrocia le dita per scaramanzia.
Cross your fingers for good luck.

La diciassettesima sedia è stata rimossa per scaramanzia.
The seventeenth seat has been removed for good luck.

(In Italy seventeen, rather than thirteen, is considered an unlucky number).

Non gli ho detto niente ancora per scaramanzia.
I haven’t told them anything yet because I don’t want to jinx it.

A common gesture to ward off bad luck in Italian is fare la corna – sticking out your index and little finger in imitation of a pair of bull’s horns.

Scaramanzia Scaramantico Scaramantica Gesto Scaramantico Corna Facendo Corna Totò GIF - Fare Le Corna Porta Male Portare Male GIFs

The idea is that the gesture will fight off the evil eye, or malocchio, with the strength of a bull; in the south it’s performed with your fingers pointing towards the ground, as making it the other way around implies the person you’re gesturing towards is being cheated on.

Holding the highest office in the land doesn’t prevent you from being susceptible to a little scaramanzia – in the 70’s, Italian president Giovanni Leone was repeatedly photographed making the sign behind his back, including during a visit to patients suffering from a cholera outbreak in Naples.

As well as being an abstract concept, a scaramanzia can also be a physical object: namely a good luck charm.

As with the hand gesture, the corna, or horn, remains a favoured symbol for good luck, and in Naples in particular it often takes the shape of a twisted object resembling a red chilli pepper, known as a cornicello (little horn).

If you’re wandering the streets of downtown Naples as a tourist, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to buy one in the form of a keychain, Christmas ornament or dashboard decoration.

Fingers crossed you won’t need it.

Is there an Italian word of expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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For members


Italian word of the day: ‘Delusione’

We hope this word doesn't disappoint.

Italian word of the day: 'Delusione'

Experiencing a delusione (deh-loo-zee-OH-neh) in Italian may not be pleasant, but it doesn’t mean you need escorting to the psychiatrist’s chair.

That’s because while delusione may look and sound like its English cousin ‘delusion’, the word actually means something quite different: disappointment.

Disappointment Disappointed GIF - Disappointment Disappointed Food Review GIFs

The two nouns actually have the same root in the Latin dēlūsiō, meaning a deceiving or deluding, and delūdō, meaning to deceive, dupe, or mock.

But while the English ‘delusion’ has hewn close to the original Latin meaning over the centuries, delusione at some point branched off to its current, quite different, definition.

There’s not much in the way of information about exactly when and how that happened, but it’s clearly a short associative hop from feeling ‘deceived’ or ‘duped’ by things turning out differently to what you’d expected to feeling ‘disappointed’.

Che delusione.
How disappointing.

La festa era, purtroppo, una grande delusione.
The party unfortunately was a big disappointment.

Mike Ehrmantraut Breaking Bad Che Delusione No Che Vergogna GIF - Disappointment Disappointed Oh No GIFs

The adjective for ‘disappointed’ is deluso for a single masculine subject, changing to delusa/delusi/deluse if the subject being described is feminine singular/masculine plural/feminine plural.

Era delusa da come era venuta la torta.
She was disappointed with how the cake turned out.

Devo dire che siamo davvero delusi dal fatto che siamo stati trattati in questo modo.
I have to say that we’re very disappointed to have been treated this way.

A word you’ll often see used in combination with deluso/a/i/e is rimanere (ree-man-EH-reh): rimanere deluso.

You might correctly recognise rimanere as meaning ‘to remain’, and wonder why we’d use that word here – but rimanere also has an alternative meaning along the lines of ‘to become’, ‘to get’, or simply ‘to be’.

For example, you can rimanere incinta (get pregnant), or rimanere ferito (get hurt or wounded, for example in a car accident).

It’s also very often used with emotions, usually those experienced in the moment rather than long-term ones: you can rimanere sorpreso (be surprised), rimanere triste (be sad), rimanere scioccato (be shocked)… and rimanere deluso (be disappointed).

Sono rimasto molto deluso quando mi ha detto di aver abbandonato la scuola.
I was very disappointed when she told me she had dropped out of school.

Siamo rimasti delusi dalle condizioni della stanza d’albergo al nostro arrivo.
We were disappointed by the condition of the hotel room when we arrived.

With that, we wish you a weekend free of delusioni (disappointments)!

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