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Italian word of the day: ‘Bufala’

It’s not just a fancy mozzarella.

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

If you encounter the word bufala at your local market or delicatessen, it’ll probably be on the labelling of a type of cheese.

Mozzarella di bufala is made with milk from a female buffalo (bufala – pronunciation here), which makes it particularly creamy (and more expensive than ordinary mozzarella).

Outside of culinary contexts, however, the word bufala means something else entirely – it’s a hoax, a scam, or fake news.

Non essere così ingenuo, è ovvio che si tratta di una bufala.
Don’t be so gullible, it’s obviously a hoax.

La bufala è stata ampiamente condivisa sui social.
The fake news was widely shared on social media.

A headline in reads: True or false? How to figure out if a video is a hoax. Fake photos and retouched videos: 'viral' doesn't mean 'true'. Our suggestions for uncovering hoaxes online.
A headline in reads: ‘True or false? How to figure out if a video is a hoax. Fake photos and retouched videos: ‘viral’ doesn’t mean ‘true’. Our suggestions for uncovering hoaxes online.’

So how did bufala become the Italian word for hoax?

There a couple of theories, neither of which have been proven – though it’s generally believed that the current use of the term originated in Rome.

One is that dishonest Roman restauranteurs would try to scam their patrons by passing off bufala meat as the more prized – and expensive – vitello (veal).

Another comes from the 1866 edition of the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca – Italy’s first dictionary, created in 1612 by a Florence-based society of scholars.

The 19th century tome says the phrase “to lead others by the nose like a buffalo (‘menare altrui pel naso come un bufalo/una bufala’) at the time meant ‘to trick someone’.

This leads some to believe that bufala came to mean someone who is obtuse and easily misled, and eventually to mean the trick or falsehood itself.

Though it’s much more rare, you might occasionally see bufala used to mean ‘blunder’ (like abbaglio).

Si tratta di un’altra bufala, questa volta più grave.
It’s another blunder, this time more serious.

And in the Rome area specifically, a bufala can also be used to describe a particularly shoddy, poorly produced film.

– Hai visto il nuovo film di cui parlava Enzo?
– Sì, è stata una bufala!

– Did you see that new film Enzo was talking about?
– Yes, it was rubbish!

Now you know what to look out for in Italian as well as English, you can stay extra wise to those hoaxers.

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: ‘Settimana bianca’

Here’s a phrase you'll need for a truly Italian winter holiday.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Settimana bianca’

As far as winter traditions go, there’s only one thing more quintessentially Italian than a family feud over which is the best Christmas dessert between pandoro and panettone. That one thing is the ‘settimana bianca’ (pronunciation available here).

You might have already heard the expression on a couple of occasions, but if not, you’re very likely to hear it soon from Italian friends, relatives or colleagues as we enter the holiday season

There is a set of unwritten rules governing a respectable settimana bianca, but first, what does the expression actually mean?

The literal translation into English would be ‘white week’, and the phrase is used by native speakers to describe a period of around seven days (but sometimes more) spent in any mountain destination, whether that’s in Italy or abroad. 

As you might have guessed, ‘bianca’ refers to the colour of the location’s landscape, which would be white due to the presence of snow. 

Dove pensi di fare la settimana bianca quest’anno?

Boh, non ci ho ancora pensato bene. Forse Cortina.

Ma che sei pazzo? Con quei prezzi…

Where are you thinking of going for your ski holiday this year?

Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it yet. Maybe Cortina?

Are you out of your mind? With those prices…

That said, you might wonder what’s so special about a winter break up in the mountains.

Regardless of whether it’s a family vacation or a trip with friends, the settimana bianca has a precise set of features that all Italians seem to be aware of from a very young age, almost as though information on how to execute it came embedded in their own genetic setup.

Firstly, the settimana bianca is a very important social event and the smooth unfolding of the holiday is seen as vitally important.

As such, the organisers spend the preceding weeks and months working on an infallible day-by-day plan, which is generally scrapped the moment they reach their destination. 

Italian holidaymakers then spend most of their days engaging in a variety of winter sports, from skiing to ice skating, with tall tales of athletic prowess generally followed by tragic tumbles and other various health and safety mishaps.

Qual era il bilancio dell’ultima settimana bianca?

Due feriti, un malato.

Ah, non male dai. Pensavo peggio.

What was the toll of your last ski holiday?

Two injured, one sick.

Oh, not so bad then. I expected worse.

Finally, no settimana bianca is truly complete without at least one of the members of the group severely underestimating the rigid winter temperatures and ultimately falling ill, thus being begrudgingly looked after by a carousel of friends or relatives for the rest of the vacation. 

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