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Italian word of the day: ‘Buonismo’

There's not much good to say about this word.

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

Have you ever been accused of being a buonista?

It may come from the word buono, but that doesn’t mean it’s a compliment. 

buonista is a do-gooder or goody-two-shoes, whose actions can be characterised as buonismo – something like ‘do-gooding’ or ‘do-good-ism’.

Ne ho abbastanza di questi buonisti.
I’ve had enough of these do-gooders.

Giovanni è un buono, non un buonista.
Giovanni’s a good man, not a goody two shoes.

Basta con questo buonismo.
Enough of this do-gooder-ism.

(Note that buonista in the singular always ends in an ‘a’ even if it’s describing a man).

goody two shoes GIF by Chelsea Handler

The word’s invention is often credited to a Professor Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, though it apparently was already in use in literary criticism at least a decade before.

Nonetheless, it does seem to have been Galli Della Loggia who brought the term into today’s political and journalistic discourse via multiple editorials he penned for the Corriere della Sera newspaper in 1995 concerning the arrival of migrants in Italy.

“Chi non vede gli immigrati. La solidarietà “buonista” del centrosinistra” (‘Those who don’t see immigrants. The ‘do-gooder’ solidarity of the centre-left’) was a line that reportedly appeared in one of the pieces (none of which can currently be found in Corriere’s online archives).

From that point on, and with increasing frequency from around 2015 onwards as the migrant crisis began to accelerate, the term was used by hard-line nativists to deride all those who opposed anti-immigration policies.

It’s essentially the Italian equivalent of ‘social justice warrior’ or (if you’re from an earlier generation) ‘bleeding heart liberal’.

In one particularly ghoulish example, the right-wing newspaper Il Giornale infamously reported on two mass drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean in 2013 and 2015 respectively as “Trecento morti di buonismo”  and “Settecento morti di buonismo” (“Three hundred/Seven hundred dead of do-gooder-ism”).

The word is a particular favourite of far-right League party leader and former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who in the immediate aftermath of the Bataclan Paris attacks tweeted “Buonisti = complici #Parigi” (“Do-gooders = complicit #Paris).

Things reached such a fever pitch in 2017 that the anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano wrote an article for the Repubblica newspaper in which he issued a (presumably rhetorical) call for the word to be abolished altogether.

If buonista is ever used against you as an insult, there’s no need to take it too much to heart – it’s one of those words that tends to say more about the person using it than it does anyone else.

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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Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase all about?

Italian expression of the day: 'Si tratta di'

Today’s expression is one you’ll hear a lot in spoken Italian.

It’s also a tricky one for anglophones to wrap our heads around, because although it appears simple – ‘si tratta di’ basically means something along the lines of ‘it concerns/discusses/deals with/is about’ – it actually doesn’t translate very cleanly into English most of the time.

Let’s start with the use that’s easiest for us to grasp: asking and answering what something’s about/what it concerns.

– Pronto, sono l’ispettore Jackson, posso parlare con la signora Hoffman?
– Sì, sono io – posso chiedere di cosa si tratta?

– Hello, this is Inspector Jackson speaking, can I speak with Mrs. Hoffman?
– Yes, this is she – may I ask what this is concerning?

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We can also use the phrase to say that something is ‘a matter of’ or ‘a question of’:

Se si tratta di qualche ora, rimarremo qui ad aspettarla.
If it’s a question of hours, we’ll stay here and wait for her.

Ora si tratta solo di scoprire dove ha lasciato le chiavi.
Now it’s a just a matter of figuring out where she left the keys.

And si tratta di can also be as a translation for ‘when it comes to’.

Adoro mangiare bene, ma quando si tratta di cucinare sono una frana.
I love eating well, but when it comes to cooking I suck.

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Where things start to get a bit more complicated is that you’ll often see the phrase used where the English translation doesn’t require anything.

For example, you might hear the following exchange at work:

– Michela non viene al lavoro oggi perché la sua bambina è malata.
– Spero che non si tratti di nulla di grave.

– Michela’s not coming into work today because her little girl’s sick.
– I hope it’s nothing serious.

You could say ‘I hope it doesn’t consist of anything serious’, which would get you closer to a direct translation – but in English this would sound oddly formal and overblown (in the above example we use tratti rather than tratta because spero che requires the subjunctive).

What if you want to say that a certain thing – a song, a book, a film, a speech – discusses or ‘deals with’ certain themes or issues?

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Firstly, note that impersonal si there. It’s standing in for a subject, which means we can’t have both the subject and the si in the same sentence together – one of them has to go.

You can say, for example, ‘Il suo terzo libro tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘her third book deals with ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom.’

Or you can say, ‘Nel suo terzo libro, si tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘In her third book, she discusses ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom” (a more literal translation would be ‘in her third book, ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom are discussed’, which sounds a bit awkward in English).

You could ask:

Di cosa tratta il libro?
What does the book discuss?


Di cosa si tratta nel libro?
What’s discussed in the book?

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What you can’t do is say, ‘Il libro si tratta di…’ or ask ‘Di cosa si tratta il libro?’. Neither of these constructions work because you can’t have both the impersonal si and the subject (in this case, il libro) together.

What if you want to say, for example, ‘the book/film is about…’?

The easiest way to do that is either to just say ‘il film parla di…‘ – ‘the film talks about…’ ; or ‘il film racconta la storia di…’ – ‘the film tells the story of…’:

Il film parla di un robot che vuole distruggere la razza umana.
The film’s about a robot who wants to destroy the human race.

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Il libro racconta la storia di un ragazzo che scopre di essere un mago.
The book tells the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what this phrase is all about!

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