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Five Italian words that help explain the Sanremo song contest

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Five Italian words that help explain the Sanremo song contest
A man waits in front of the Ariston Theatre in Sanremo, before the start of the annual music festival. (Photo by MARCO RAVAGLI / AFP)

Italy's five-day Sanremo Music Festival brings the nation together - and leaves many non-Italians baffled. So what exactly is going on?


It would take a lot more than five words to explain the Sanremo Music Festival (or to give it its full name, Il ​​Festival Della Canzone Italiana di Sanremo). This national institution has been running since 1951. It attracts Italy’s biggest television audiences, and for five days in February it’s all most of the country talks about.

READ ALSO: Why is the Sanremo music festival so important to Italians?

For the uninitiated, Sanremo can be a lot to take in. Not least because each evening’s episode tends to be many hours long, with the show often going on until the early hours, but also because the format can be bewildering, while competition voting could rival the Italian electoral system for complexity.

There is a reason though why Sanremo remains a cultural calendar highlight for so many in Italy, and why the nation comes together around it every year - even if many people claim they don’t enjoy the music. Below are a few Italian words that will help first-time watchers follow the action and get a little more involved.


Look at any Italian news outlet during the week when Sanremo is on, and you'll see the word pagelle popping up everywhere. 

pagella is Italian for a school report card, and that's typically the only definition you'll be offered if you look it up in a dictionary. But it can also be used to mean a scorecard, and in this context, the pagelle (plural of pagella) are the ratings, usually out of 10, that each performer scores according to the person ranking them.

The winner of the Sanremo competition is chosen by a mix of online public votes and a jury, so enthusiastic public participation is encouraged throughout the event - and some fans even start their own Fantasanremo - something like fantasy football (fantacalcio in Italian) but for, well, Sanremo.



If you’re expecting the typical X-factor style singing competition format, you’ll be in for a surprise.

Sanremo is a festival in the sense that there's an awful lot else going on as well on screen every night. Each evening’s show can run on for up to four or five hours, with contest entries interspersed by other songs, guest appearances, and a lot of talking.

There’s often the promise of a ‘grande sorpresa’ (big surprise) later in the evening - and this usually involves the appearance of a celebrity, international or not. Sometimes other guests are invited to highlight surprisingly heavy topical themes or current events on the famous Ariston Theatre stage.

You really never know who’s going to appear or what sort of turn the show may take next, which is all part of the fun.


The first time you watch Sanremo, no doubt you'll wonder: what's with all the flowers?

Sanremo is known as Italy's 'city of flowers' because of its famous Mercato dei Fiori, or flower market, which is one of Italy's biggest. So you’ll see plenty of flowers around the stage, and huge bouquets for all the performers and guests.



A big part of the fun of Sanremo (for long-time fans, at least) is all the jokes and memes on social media. And if you join in with the online commentary, you'll no doubt see this word used a lot.

Italian media says the word 'bop' is the latest anglicism adopted by younger Italians during Sanremo, and the Italian neologism boppone is taking social media by storm.

Like so many other anglicisms adopted into Italian, the use of the word ‘bop’ might seem curiously quaint to the ears of native English speakers, but don't be surprised if Italian commentators enthusiastically praise songs or performers with phrases such as “hai fatto un boppone!” or “Ha tirato fuori un boppone.


One Italian word you'll hear used over and over again throughout the festival: allora. What could this important word mean? At risk of disappointing you, it simply means 'so' or 'then'. It's also the sort of filler word that you might use instead of 'um'. With it being so versatile, the meaning really depends on the context.

Allora can come in handy when waiting for something to happen, introducing a guest, or changing the subject - if in doubt, the Sanremo presenters will give you countless examples of how and when to use this expressive Italian word.

You can watch Sanremo from February 6-10 every night from 8.40pm on Rai 1 or online on RaiPlay.

See more in The Local's Italian language section.


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