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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: ‘Inciucio’

Here's a word you'll need to deal with ahead of Italy's elections.

Italian word of the day: 'Inciucio'

With two days to go until Sunday’s general election, there’s talk of a potential ’inciucio’ everywhere from the pages of newspapers to the heated conversations at sports bars up and down the country.

So what is an ‘inciucio’ and why does the word seem to be on everyone’s lips whenever Italy faces elections?

Briefly, ‘inciucio’ is political jargon that describes any type of dubious agreement or, if you will, compromise reached by two or more political parties generally holding opposite views and ideals.

There’s no direct translation into English, though a native speaker would probably refer to it as something of a dodgy backroom deal.

Non c’è una maggioranza chiara. 

Eh, figurati. Faranno il solito inciucio.

There isn’t a clear-cut majority.

Oh, that’s not new. They’ll go for the usual deal.

Such an agreement is usually necessary when forming a large coalition government, with terms largely assumed to be based on the “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” principle. 

READ ALSO: Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

With that definition in mind, it’s hard not to see why ‘inciucio’ is such a commonly-used word in Italy, a country whose political class has historically been partial to improbable alliances with their previously hated rivals. 

Cosa pensi delle prossime elezioni?

Preferisco non pensare. Ne ho avuto abbastanza di questi inciuci. 

What do you think of the next elections?

I’d rather not think. I’ve had enough of these political deals.

Purtroppo, con questa legge elettorale, l’inciucio tra partiti è l’unica via per avere un governo…

Fammi un piacere. Gli inciuci esistevano anche 60 anni fa, molto prima di questa legge elettorale.

Sadly, with the current electoral system, a compromise between different parties is the only way to form a new government.

Do me a favour. These types of agreements existed 60 years ago, well before the present electoral system.

While the noble art of the inciucio goes back a long way in the history of republican Italy, the term itself was only coined in 1995 by Massimo D’Alema, then secretary of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). 

The expression only rose to popularity a couple of years later, when the founder of the term thought it fit to put the word to good use and reached a ‘non-aggression pact’ with the then-leaders of Italy’s right-wing coalition – the agreement went down in history as the patto della crostata or ‘pie pact’ – but we’ll keep that story for another time.

Ever since then, the term ‘inciucio’ has been regularly used by political commentators as well as the wider public to discuss the various power plays of the country’s major political forces.

For instance, the most classic of inciuci was at the foundation of Giuseppe Conte’s first cabinet back in 2018, when Matteo Salvini’s League and Luigi Di Maio’s Five-Star Movement unexpectedly found sufficient common ground to form a coalition government.

So, will we see another inciucio this time around?

Given the unpredictable nature of Italian politics, you’ll forgive us for not ruling out the possibility of another inciucio just yet.