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The Italian vocabulary you’ll need to follow the presidential election

Confused by talk of 'hills' and 'blank cards' during Italy's presidential election season? The Local's vocabulary guide is here to help decipher it all.

A voter casts their ballot in Italy's parliament during the first round of voting in the presidential election.
A voter casts their ballot in Italy's parliament during the first round of voting in the presidential election. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino / POOL / AFP

Italian politics is hard to follow even for those with experience of the political system and fluency in the language. So if you’re new to the country and not a native speaker, political news reports can be truly baffling.

But when it comes to major events, such as the presidential election taking place from January 24th, it becomes more important to be able to understand what’s going on.

With the vote currently deadlocked, you’ve got time to learn a few key words and phrases. Here’s The Local’s guide to the language you’ll need to know when following the election news.


Literally meaning ‘hill’, the ‘Colle‘ (capitalised – pronounced ‘kol-leh’) that’s popped up in headlines throughout the election makes reference to one hill in particular – the one on which Italy’s presidential palace, the Quirinale, sits.

In this context, however, the Colle doesn’t refer to the actual hill itself, or even the palace, but is used as shorthand for the office or position of president.

You’ll read about the corsa al Colle (race to the presidency) or the tappe per arrivare al Colle (the stages to get to the presidency). With all the effort involved in selecting a new president, it’s perhaps no wonder that the primary metaphor employed by the media denotes an uphill struggle.

Scheda bianca

scheda bianca (‘skay-dah bee-an-kah’) – literally a ‘white card’ or ‘white ballot’ – is, as you might guess, a blank ballot. Turning one in is the simplest way for electors to spoil their ballot, which is what more than half of the voters in Italy’s presidential elections have done in the second round.

READ ALSO: Uncertainty as Italy’s presidential elections remain deadlocked after round two

A word you’ll often see crop up in conjunction with scheda bianca (or the plural schede bianche ‘skay-deh bee-an-keh’, spoiled ballots) is the verb bocciare, which in general means to reject or fail something, but in a political context means to vote down.

While an absolute majority of the voters in Italy’s presidential elections will ultimately have to reach a consensus in order for the role to be filled, in the initial stages it’s typical for the parties in Italy’s centre-left and centre-right coalitions to have their own preferred candidates, and bocciare the names put forward by the opposition.

Fumata nera

When the news outlet La Stampa wrote of a seconda fumata nera (‘second black smoke’) on Wednesday morning, it wasn’t sounding the alarm about a fire in parliament but announcing an inconclusive second round vote in the presidential elections.

Fumata nera (‘foo-mah-ta nair-ah’) refers to the black smoke released during a papal conclave to signal that no pope has yet been chosen (white smoke means the opposite).

The process by which Italy elects its presidents has been compared to a conclave, so it’s perhaps no surprise that this particular metaphor is applied here – though it can also be used to describe decisions that have yet to be taken in other political contexts, such as during a government crisis.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about Italy’s presidential elections


The prefix toto~ is used in Italy wherever speculation abounds: it comes from gambling, specifically the football pools, named Totalizzatore calcistico (‘Football Totalizator’) or Totocalcio for short.

It’s a word that’s crept into political newspeak, and is frequently used around election time by journalists making more or less informed guesses about an uncertain outcome. 

You’ll see toto~ in toto-poltrone (‘parliamentary seat sweep’), toto-ministri (‘minister sweep’, referring to who will make the cabinet in a newly elected government), or toto-colle (literally ‘hill sweep’, though as we know this really means ‘presidency sweep’).

Toto-nomi (‘toh-toh noh-mee’), or ‘name sweep’ – an adaptation of toto-nomine (‘nomination sweep’) – then, refers here to speculation about the most widely-tipped candidates for the office of president.


An ipotesi (‘eep-ott-eh-zee’) is, as you might guess, a hypothesis or theory – and when used in newspaper headlines, it fulfils a similar role to toto~, allowing journalists to speculate as to what may have happened or be about to happen.

In the context of election news you’ll usually see ipotesi followed by the last name of a potential nominee, e.g. ‘l’ipotesi Berlusconi‘ or ‘l’ipotesi Draghi‘, along with some information about the likely success of that person’s candidacy.

L’ipotesi Draghi è morta‘ – the Draghi hypothesis is dead – announced the newspaper Il Foglio on Wednesday, while Il Fatto Quotidiano opined that ‘L’ipotesi Berlusconi al Colle meritava uno sdegno maggiore dal centrosinistra‘ – the hypothesis of Berlusconi as president deserved greater disdain from the centre-left’.


Rivincita (‘ree-vin-chee-tah’) is a word with multiple meanings, even within the world of politics. Broadly it refers either to revenge, or to a rematch or a comeback (vincita is ‘win’, so it makes sense that a rivincita, or re-win, refers to getting your own back or a return to form).

Multiple Italian news outlets on Wednesday reported on the ‘rivincita del peone’ – ‘revenge of the peon’ – referring to the numerous low-ranking Italian parliamentarians who had defied their party’s wishes by spoiling their ballots.

Others speculated that the elections would present opportunities for former prime minister Giuseppe Conte and former interior minister Matteo Salvini to separately pursue their own rivincite, or comebacks, by paving the way for their return to office.

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For members


Five tips that make it easier to learn Italian

Learning Italian can be tricky to begin with, but there are ways to help smooth the path to proficiency.

Five tips that make it easier to learn Italian

The journey to fluency in Italian can sometimes feels like it’s all uphill. Here are some tips for making things a little easier.

1. Practice speaking Italian as soon as you can

Speaking in Italian can feel daunting when you’re a beginner, but the best strategy is to throw yourself in at the deep end and not worry too much about making mistakes, as this is one of the quickest ways to get comfortable with the language.

  • If you live or work with someone who speaks fluent Italian, try to switch the conversation to Italian just for a few minutes a day to start with.
  • Set up a regular language exchange with a native Italian speaker. In Italy you’re likely to find plenty of Italians keen to practice their English and willing to correct your Italian in exchange. If you’re somewhere more remote, you can arrange online sessions through platforms like Tandem.
  • Look for places that hold language events, such as cafes or the weekly gatherings such as those held by the Koiné – Italian Language Centre in Rome where you can chat to other people learning Italian.
  • Join conversation groups through the Meetup app.
  • Look up ‘fare volontariato’ along with the name of your town to find volunteer opportunities in your area, where you will get to practice your Italian.

2. Language schools

There are a plethora of private language schools in Italy for foreign students wanting to learn Italian, with a wide range of prices and time commitment levels to choose from.

You may also be eligible for a free or heavily state-subsidised course at your local CPIA (Centro provinciale per l’istruzione degli adulti, or adult education centre). While most often most widely attended asylum seekers and refugees, in theory all foreign nationals over the age of 16 with a valid residency permit have access to these language programmes.

The advantage of language school is that it gives you a structure to your learning, and gives you skills in the four areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as learning about Italian culture. The class times are often flexible and you can choose between online and classroom lessons.

The downside is that with large class sizes, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to practice speaking, which is why supplementing language school with speaking opportunities can really help.

3. Italian media

Watching Italian TV with subtitles is always helpful. If you don’t have a TV, you can watch some Italian channels online, including programmes by national broadcaster Rai.

On Netflix there are popular Italian series including Zero, Baby, and Suburra: Blood on Rome.  

Italy’s podcast industry is currently growing rapidly, with new programmes popping up all the time – you can find a list of some of the best podcasts to get you started here.

READ ALSO: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

Listening to Italy songs can help with pronunciation. The famous song Con te partirò, with its slow tempo, is a good one to get started with. Here are some other songs that can help you learn Italian.

4. Graphic novels and books

When you first arrive, reading children’s books out aloud can help you learn how to make your mouth form those tricky words, as well as give you confidence when you can read and understand the whole of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Il piccolo bruco maisazio) in Italian.

If you want something more targeted towards adults, books which have the Italian one page accompanied by an English translation on other, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole/In Other Words, are a good option as they allow you to easily and quickly check the meaning of words or phrases you don’t know.

Graphic novels by popular Italian writers and cartoonists like Zerocalcare and Gipi are also a great way in to the language, as you’ll learn more colloquial Italian while having pictures to tell you what’s going on.

You can borrow books from your local library or buy them from second hand shops and mercatini (markets), as well as at bookstores like Feltrinelli.

5. Creating new daily habits

Forming small but regular new habits will keep up your language learning without it feeling too overwhelming.

  • For example, keep a little notebook or a place on your phone where you can write down new words you come across in your daily life. During the week, while on the bus or waiting to meet a friend, keep looking at those words to get them stuck in your head.
  • When you’re caught off guard in situations, such as someone asking in a shop, “Posso aiutarla?” (‘can I help you?’), and you automatically blurt out English, don’t feel too disheartened. Instead, write the scenario down, find out the different ways to respond, and memorise them, so that next time it automatically comes out. “Sto solo guardando, grazie” (‘I’m just looking, thank you’) is always a useful one.
  • Add some Italian accounts to your social media so when you scroll, you’re seeing and hearing Italian. Italian news sites are a good place to start, then seek out the profiles of Italians who specialise in the kinds of things that naturally interest you, whether that’s cooking, fashion, football or something else.
  • Listen to Italian podcasts or audiobooks on your way to work or when doing the washing up, whether it’s about a topic you’re interested in, or a specific language learning podcast like ‘Coffee Break Italian’.
  • Plan out what you’re going to say in a new situation before you say it and commit to it in Italian, for example booking an appointment, ordering food, speaking to your neighbour or language teacher.

Italian language learning can be a slow process but keep going, take the small wins and one day, we promise, you will be understood. 

Find more articles on learning the Italian language here.