ITALIAN IS A BEAUTIFUL LANGUAGE. Because of the purity of its vowels, Italian is the first language in which opera singers learn to sing. It’s also an incredibly fun language to speak, full of expressive hand gestures and colorful phrases. Here are a few to get you started.
[Editor's note: Click on the subheading for an audio file of the author saying the word. Below each subheading is the phonetic pronunciation in English with the word stress in italics, along with the pronunciation written using the International Phonetic Alphabet.]
kay kazeeno – /ke kazino/
Originally the word for brothel, casino is now used to describe any situation that’s a bit out of control, confusing, or crowded, meaning “what a madhouse!” I heard che casino even before I got to Italy on my last trip: Italians waiting on the security line at the airport were using it to express their frustration. Since many events in Italy are not overly organized, this phrase gets a real workout.
magaree – /mɑ:gɑ:ri:/
Magari is the word used to express hope. For example, I could have said to the Italians who were eager to board our delayed flight, “Don’t worry, you’ll make your connection.” They would have responded with “magari!”
kay barba – /kəbɑ:rbɑ:/
Literally, “what a beard,” che barba means “what a bore.” I’m not sure whether this comes from the idea that it takes a long time to grow a beard, or that whatever’s happening is as boring as watching a beard grow. In any case, if you see someone stroking an imaginary beard, she is making the che barba sign.
Example: Q. How was Italian class today? A. (Silent stroking of chin.)
non chentra – /non ʧɜ:ntrɑ:/
Entrarci is an extraordinarily useful verb, especially in the negative, when it means “that has nothing to do with it,” or, “this has nothing to do with you” (i.e. mind your own business). It’s also used in the interrogative: che c’entra? Or che c’entri? (what’s it to you?) If you disagree with the sentiment you simply counter with c’entra! (does so!) or c’entro! (it certainly does concern me!).
Example: È troppo caro. (It’s too expensive.) Che c’entrano I soldi? Pago io! (Forget money. I’m paying!)
prenderay een jeero – /prɜ:nderei:nʤi:rɔ:/
Prendere in giro (to take in a circle) means to be joking. As in, c’entri, c’entri, ti prendo in giro – of course you have a say in this, I’m just pulling your leg.
may nay frayga – /menefregɑ:/
Me ne frega is a slightly rude way of saying, “I couldn’t care less.” For example, as a response to “whatever happened to your ex?”, me ne frega means, “I don’t know and I don’t care, and I hope I never see him again.”
een bohkaloopoh – /i:nbɔ:kɑ:lu:pɔ:/
Literally, “in the mouth of the wolf,” in bocca al lupo is the Italian version of “break a leg.” The reply is crepi il lupo – “may the wolf die.” It’s used religiously in the theater and opera houses, but can also be said to someone about to take a test or engage in any challenging activity.
ohnyee mortay di papa – /ɔ:ŋi:mɔ:rtedi:pɑ:pɑ:/
Literally, “every death of a pope,” ogni morte di papa is the equivalent of the English “once in a blue moon.” It seems so much more colorful to me because it conjures up visions of crowds mobbing St. Peter’s when a new pope is being chosen. How often do I go to Italy? Ogni morte di papa. Not nearly often enough.
reechayvootoh kohmay oon kahnay een kyayza – /ri:ʧevu:tɔ:kɔ:meu:nkɑ:nei:nkjezɑ:/
Another colorful phrase is ricevuto come un cane in chiesa, which means, “received like a dog in church.” It is similar to the English “like a whore in church,” but the alliteration in the k sounds of come, cane, and chiesa seem to give it more punch.
Example: What did your parents think of your Italian boyfriend arriving on his Vespa? L’hanno ricevuto come un cane in chiesa.
non vaydoh lohrah – /nɔ:nvedɔ:lɔ:rɑ:/
Literally, “I can’t see the hour,” this is the phrase you use for looking forward to something. As in, non vedo l’ora di tornare in Italia – “I can’t wait to go back to Italy”.
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Ellen Rabiner has been writing about travel since her teenage years on the road as a violist in a youth orchestra. After college her focus shifted to singing, although she did some creative writing as a lawyer. She returned to singing as a soloist at the Metropolitan Opera and is currently traveling and writing from her home in Antalya, Turkey. She blogs at Talking Turkey.