Italian Culture

Boh!?”… And Other Perfect Italian Words & Phrases That Don’t Translate Well

When you split your life between two cultures with two languages, it is quite easy to get trapped in the wrong language from time to time.

 I sometimes find myself speaking one language, then suddenly a word or phrase pops out from the other.

 I don’t realize it until the person I am speaking with gets that glazed look in their eyes.  It is as though they are suddenly thinking “Did Michael just invent a word?”  “Is he trying to be cool, throwing Euroslang into his speech?”  “and why on earth does he keep throwing his arms around as he speaks?”

No… I don’t even realize I am doing it.

 Until I see that look, and I get a little embarrassed.  

The thing is, that when you are fluent enough in two languages and sufficiently integrated in multiple cultures, certain concepts are better expressed in one language than another.  

You don’t actually think about what language you are speaking… you just speak.

 So when I have a thought, the easiest way to express that thought is what immediately pops into my head sometimes.

 There may be one word in a language that takes a complete sentence to express in another…. so something inside says “This can only be said this way”, and it just pops out.

This is my tribute to a few of these words and phrases between Italian and English.  There are so many more than aren’t coming to mind right now, so if you have others, please leave a comment and let me know!


Boh!?  (Bo)

This may be my favorite word in Italian, which is why it made it into the title of this article. I use this ALL THE TIME in English.  I just cannot help it!  It means “I don’t know”, but being just one little single-syllable, 3 letter word, makes it so utterly perfect.  It is as though being so short and simple, it carries a more definite meaning.  Like “I don’t know, and what kind of idiot are you that you might think I would?”

Cornuto  (Cor-Noo-Toe)

Bob is a Cornuto.  Literal translation:  Bob is horned.  Huh?  Well, what it actually means is “Bob’s wife/girlfriend/significant other is cheating on him”… all in one word: CORNUTO.  Having horns simply means that you are being cheated on, and it can be used several ways.  “Poor Susan has horns” (She is being cheated on), “John put horns on Jane” (John is cheating on Jane).  It is also used (primarily in the south) as an offense  Cornuto!  As to say “You Cornuto, You!”.  And when you get waaay south, well… Them’s Fightin’ Words!

Uffa (ooh-fah)

I love this word, because I’m really not sure how to translate it into an English word at all!  Imagine you are bored to the point of frustration.  You know that full-exhale-sigh you make?  Maybe you finish it off saying ‘Blah’.  That entire expression can be summed up by the word ‘Uffa’, and if you really deliver the f’s in the middle (uffffffa), you are amping up how strong the feeling is.

Che Palle (Kay-Pall-Ay)

This literally translates to “What Balls”, but the meaning depends entirely on the context, such that these two little words cover quite a bit.

I’m bored: Che Palle!
You are starting to annoy me:  Che Palle!
This is redundant:  Che Palle!
This is bothering me:  Che Palle!
My fingers are starting to hurt while writing this: Che Palle!
Paola is calling me to come downstairs and do something while I am writing this: Che Palle!  ?

It isn’t considered very nice, but not quite profane.  I would put it on par with using a word like “Damn”.  So, there is a light version of it:  Che Pizza!

Porca Miseria (Porca Mee-Sare-Eee-Ah)

For some reason, Italians seem to have some major issues with pigs that might be worth exploring with a collective national psychologist.  They have a full range of exclamations about pigs, and they range from light-hearted to stuff I should not write here.  Yes, we have the classic “You are a Pig” in English, which is to say that you are messy.  But Italians elevate the pig to near demonic status.

Porca Miseria literally translates to “Misery is a Pig”.  It is a very generic exclamation.

I lost my job, porca miseria!
I stubbed my toe, porca miseria!
I forgot to make that reservation, porca miseria!

What makes the pig so fun, is that you can modify the strength of your exclamation by changing the status of that which you are associating with the pig.  For example:

Porca Puttana! ( A Whore is a Pig ) is much stronger than Misery.
Porca Puttanaccia! ( A BAD Whore is a Pig ) is even stronger.

The whole whore thing is quite popular too!  You can use all sorts of words to say whore:  Puttana, Mignotta, Troia, etc.  All work well with “Porca”!

You can get REALLY strong and vulgar by associating the pig with God and the Virgin Mary ( Dio and Madonna ), but that is a major no-no!  However, even they get lightened up to “Porco Due” and “Porca Madosca”… More or less how we go from God to Gosh and Damn to Darn.

The point is, that while these all do translate into something English, I can’t quite explain why, but it is somehow more powerful than the english counterparts, such that I find myself using Porca Miseria all the time, even in English.

Che Fico!  (Kay Fee-Co)

Ok, this simply translates to ‘Cool’, so while it doesn’t really fit into this article, I couldn’t resist.  Why, you ask?  Because the literal translation is What a Fig!.  Can’t you just picture your friend walking up to your brand new car and saying What a fig ?  Ok, I’ll move on…

Ti Voglio Bene ( Tee-Vol-Yo Beh-Nay ) & Ti Amo (Tee-Amo)

They both mean I love you, but the Italian language has different ways of expressing love for your mother, for example, from love for your spouse. Ti Amo literally translates to “I love you”, but if you say it to your mom, well.. Ewww!  That’s sick!!!  That would be getting into Norman Bates territory.   On the other hand, Ti Voglio Bene is properly suited for mom.  It literally translates to “I wish you well”, which I know sounds an extremely weak and borderline insensitive statement for mom, but Ti Amo is reserved exclusively for very serious romantic love, period.  So you will wish well for mom, dad, brothers, sisters, kids, close friends, etc.  You will also wish well for a boyfriend/girlfriend that isn’t nearing the “pop The Question” stage.

Best put, I would say Ti Voglio Bene is like “I Love You”, and Ti Amo is like “I am IN love with you”.

Gattara (Gat-Tara)

Here is one that really isn’t in my vocabulary, but as I stumbled upon it, I couldn’t stop laughing.  You know the stereotype woman that lives alone with cats?  Yeah, you got it… She is a “Gattara”.

The English Language Gets Back with the verb TO GET

Seriously, there are countless words that don’t translate well from Italian to English, and from English into Italian.  Just ask any Italian that speaks English how they felt when they first learned the verb “To Get”.  Better yet, try it yourself!  Try to define every meaning of To Get that you can think of in 5 minutes.  While you do that, I’ll get to the end of this, since it is getting long and I need to get out of here.  If you don’t get what I am saying it, get a life and get over it.  Get it?




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