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Italian word of the day: 'Bis'

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Italian word of the day: 'Bis'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

You won't have to ask what this word means twice.

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Today's word was requested by a reader who was left puzzled by its usage, most of all in Italian newspaper headlines.

It's one of those words that you're unlikely to learn in Italian class, but you will encounter it sooner or later if you live in Italy.

Bis is a curious little adverb which is used to talk about anything from Italian laws to sporting events to theatrical performances.

The Treccani dictionary notes that the original use of bis was to mean 'encore', and says that you may still hear the exclamation 'bravo, bis!' at Italian theatrical and musical performances.

Il pubblico chiedeva un bis così calorosamente che l'attore ha deciso di recitare una scena aggiuntiva.

The audience demanded an encore so enthusiastically that the actor decided to perform an additional scene.

You can use it in other contexts too when talking about repeating or doing something again, such as in the Treccani dictionary's food-related example:

Squisita questa torta: farei volentieri il bis

This cake is exquisite, I would gladly make another one.

It is also used where in English we might put a 'B' or describe something as 'version two'. After all, it's derived from the Latin term for 'twice'.

While you won't hear it used that often in spoken Italian, bis is often used by newspaper headline writers as shorthand for 'second time' or 'second version', and you'll come across it on both the front and back pages.

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It can for example be used to describe the second draft or version of a law or decree, or an additional legal clause. This might sound like a niche usage, but Italian news reports and other information sources often publish the names of laws in full.

One famous example would be the law known as '41 bis', which is an abbreviation of the full name of a clause in a 1992 law on a tough prison regime for convicted mafia bosses.

In politics, its most famous usage is probably in the governo Conte bis, which is how newspapers describe the second iteration of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's government, formed (or re-formed) in 2019.

Bis is also seen regularly in the sports pages, typically to describe a second win or second event.

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Beyond the headlines, the -bis suffix is also occasionally seen in Italian postal addresses. This is usually within formerly large houses which have been subdivided or, for example, former cellars which have recently been renovated as ground-floor apartments - just as how in the UK it's common for flats to have door numbers like '1A' or '2B'.

As you can see, bis can pop up in all sorts of contexts but what you need to know is that, generally, it's used to talk about a second round, a second helping, a second version, or simply another of something.
 
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