A Slip Of The Lip Can Be Quite A Trip
Italian may be the language of love, but it's rife with peculiarities. For all that it is beautiful and lyrical, correct usage and pronunciation really matter. A little careless slip can result in consequences that are embarrassing – or worse.
Take, for example, what happened to Pope Francis. His Holiness once got a little crossed up when delivering his weekly blessing. He was talking about amassing riches and what he wanted to say was, “......in this case the providence of God will become visible through this gesture of solidarity.” In Italian, that would have been, “in questo caso la provvidenza di Dio diventa visibile attraverso questo gesto di solidarietà.” And the Pope said something......sort of......like that. Except instead of saying “caso,” the Pontiff said “cazzo.” Ooops!
I've heard “cazzo” referred to as “the Swiss Army knife” of Italian curses. It's good for just about any occasion. Want to call somebody a “dick?” “Cazzo” is your word. If you want to express your frustration by saying “f**k!,” just say “cazzo!” “WTF?” “Che cazzo!” So it's no wonder the throng of faithful followers gathered to hear the Pope's words of wisdom were a little taken aback by that one.
A fig is a wonderful fruit. Succulent and sweet, it makes a great filling for cookies. The Italian word for fig is “fico.” But you've got to take great care to make sure you use the masculine form of the word – the one ending in “o.” If you should slip up and ask for a “fica” cookie.....well, it would be quite politically incorrect because that feminized form of the word is a rather vulgar reference to a part of the female anatomy that Donald Trump allegedly likes to grab. Think synonym for “kitty.” Same thing goes for “pecorino” versus “pecorina.” The former is a delicious sheep's milk cheese and the latter can be a sex position. (“Pecorina” means “doggie” in Italian. You take it from there.)
Besides having genders, Italian words are loaded with double consonants. And double consonants are not pronounced the way they are in English. You don't just rush over double letters and make them sound like one letter. In some instances the difference is rather benign. Take, for example, “cappello.” Three syllables, okay? Not two. It's not “kuh-PELOH”, it's “kahp-PEHL-loh.” The first double letter ends one syllable and the second begins the next. If you rush the “p” sound, you'll get “capello.” Not too bad; you've only mixed up “hat” with “hair.” It gets a little more embarrasing when ordering a common pasta, “penne.” You must be very careful to separate the “n”s here, giving each its own distinct sound: “PEHN-neh.” Otherwise, if you tell the waiter you want some “penne” and just run the “n”s together, it's going to sound to his ear like you've asked for “pene,” which is the Italian word for “penis.”
Another instance where the old double consonant can trip you up would be with “ano” as opposed to “anno.” In Italian, age is expressed by saying how many years you have. If you are twenty years old, you say you have “venti anni.” Remember: “AHN-nee.” Say it too fast and run the “n”s together and you've just said you have twenty assholes, “ano” being Italian for “anus”.
Watch middle vowel sounds, too. Not to discourage you (“scoraggiare”) but if you change the middle vowel in that word from an “a” to an “e,” you get “scoreggiare,” which means “to fart.” “Scopare” and “scappare” are both legitimate words. But if you say to someone, “Mi dispiace, devo scappare” you're saying “I'm sorry, I have to run.” “Devo scopare,” on the other hand, means, “I have to f**k.” “Scopare” can also mean “sweep” – as in “sweep the floor.” All in the context, I guess. Speaking of which, “finocchio” is Italian for “fennel.” But it's also a slang term for a gay man, so watch your context.
Another example of how switching final vowels can be embarrassing: ask your Italian bartender for a “negroni” and he'll pour you a nice pre-dinner cocktail made up of one part gin, one part vermouth rosso, and one part Campari, all garnished with an orange peel. However, if you ask for a “negrone” you would be requesting a large black man.
Italy is a land of stunning architecture. For instance, some of the buildings you find in Italy have amazing roofs. That would be “tetti stupefacenti” in Italian. End that first word with an “e” instead of an “i,” however, and you're talking about “tette stupefacenti” – amazing tits.
Italians roll their “r”s. Make sure you make that distinct “r” sound when you use the word “carne.” Saying to your host, “Questo carne è delizioso” would be a nice compliment: “This meat is delicious.” Gloss over that “r”, though, and it's going to sound like “cane.” And telling somebody the dog is delicious would probably not be seen as a compliment.
Sometimes words you think mean the same thing don't. “Conserve” and “preserve” mean similar things in English, right? Not so in Italian, where “conservanti” are preservatives and “preservativi” are condoms. Going to a store and asking for a jar of “preservativi” might be a little embarrassing. And you would think a “parente” would be a “parent,” right. Not really. A parent is a “genitore.” A “parente” is just a relative.
You can talk about your baby's cradle – “culla del mio bambino” – but be sure you're saying “culla” and not “culo,” because then you'd be discussing your baby's butt, except in much more vulgar terms.
Speaking of cradles, how about a nap? “Un pisolino.” If you should inadvertently say you're going to get a little “pisellino” don't be surprised if you get a strange look. “Pisellino” is yet another word for “penis.” A small one at that. Gotta watch those vowels.
Clueless Americans often think adding an “o” to the end of any English word makes it Italian. Sometimes that actually works, but it seldom winds up meaning what you think it does. Saying a man with no hair is “baldo” would actually be something of compliment since that means “bold” or “courageous” in Italian.
You don't want to confuse “baleno” and “balena.” “Baleno” refers to something very fast, like lightning or a flash. “In un baleno” = “in a flash.” “Balena” is a whale and “in un balena” would only make sense if your name were Jonah.
“La banca” is the bank, “il banco” is the bench. You can't take pictures with a “camera.” In Italian, “camera” means “room.” You take photos with a “macchina fotografica.” Be careful asking for directions to the “casino.” “Casino” can mean “brothel,” although it more commonly translates to “mess” or “confusion.” Don't ask to be showered in “confetti” at your celebratory event unless you want to be pelted with candied almonds. “Coriandoli” is the shredded paper stuff. And “ziti” is a pasta shape, while “zitto” means “silent” or “quiet.” It's most commonly expressed as “stai zitto,” or “shut up.”
Which is what I think I'll do right now. I believe you get the picture.