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Italians Say It Better: 5 Untranslatable Words

“I have learnt one thing in my ten years of living in this beautiful Country; that although Italians do what they do and do it to a fault, they are a nation, as a general rule of the thumb, with a little less action and a lot more talking.”

 

 

Italians do it better. The saying, set in motion by the Portland-based music label who named themselves as such, has become universal and brings much joy and pride to those who bear Italian blood in their veins. Search the phrase as a hashtag on Instagram and you will be overloaded with images of breathtakingly beautiful Renaissance palaces, glitzy Ferraris sporting glamorous Italian men and plate after plate of scrumptiously presented margherita pizzas and spaghetti alle vongole. 

 

I have learnt one thing in my ten years of living in this beautiful Country; that although Italians do what they do and do it to a fault, they are a nation, as a general rule of the thumb, with a little less action and a lot more talking. So, if we were to trade the ‘do’ for a ‘say’, shout it out with an irresistibly Italian accent and a couple of hand gestures to boot, we may have just devised an expression even more fitting: Italians say it better

 

The Italian language is no exception to the Country’s pride for all things beautiful. It is wonderfully lyrical; the double consonants and vowel ending words flow melodiously from the mouth and the accompanied hand movements make it all the richer. These theatrical mannerisms and the romantic spirit of the language aid any foreigner learning it to feel that little bit more Italian with each word grasped. However, an outsider’s true and honorary welcome to the inside comes with the mastery and wholehearted comprehension of specific Italian words, those that remain untranslatable for their unique illustration of the country’s culture and way of life. Here are five of the best: 

 

Boh

Top on the list for its brilliant simplicity, this three letter word is used so frequently amongst Italians that if you were to receive a penny or a gelato every time you heard it, you would either become incredibly rich or the embodiment of the proverb ‘too much of a good thing’. 

Usually partnered with a shrug of the shoulders, this little genius of a term carries a lot more meaning than the phrase ‘non lo so’ (I don’t know) from which this slang originates.  

“Beats me!”, “Whatever shall be, shall be!”, “I don’t know”, “I don’t give a damn”, “I may never know so leave me alone!” all sum it up nicely but to all be said in a single-syllable; well there we have its magic. 

 

Sprezzatura

This fun to say word has to be the ultimate untranslatable word that encapsulates Italianism to its core. It was a term coined by the 16thcentury writer Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier to describe “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought.”

If this definition sounds all too familiar and conjures to mind images of those same glamorous Italian men mentioned above, we are on the same page. These men will be boasting flawless figures and the perfect summer tans, yet their hair will be left long and slightly tussled rather than neatly cut and combed. They will be adorned in exquisite tailored suits yet the jackets of which will be left undone, the same said for the collar buttons of the button-down shirts and their watches worn over their shirt cuffs, as if thrown on in a last-minute rush. But do not be fooled; this simultaneously together and laid-back look is of no accident, nor due to the dash to get to work on time. Instead, pristine planning was involved to perfect this look of effortless elegance; the art of Sprezzatura at its finest. 

Meriggiare

Hot summer days, at the height of noon and you’ve found a place to sit and relax under the shade, soaking in the sweet smells of summer grass and the soft buzzing of the bees. You’ve guessed it, the verb merrigiare, stemming from the word merrigio (noon) defines exactly this. 

Coming from the UK, I found myself experiencing a pang of jealousy when first introduced to this word. Us Englishmen along with a few mad dogs have the reputation for going out in the midday-sun, whilst the Italians take the same moment to find refuge under a shady spot, put their feet up and enjoy a couple of blissful hours of meriggiando. The moral of this story; it’s never too late to adopt a habit! 

 

Pantofolaio

Days in which you barely leave the house, idle around in your nightwear and all in all relax in doing nothing; we all have a day as such from time to time. But for individuals who tend to lean towards this as a way of life rather than the occasional affair – in Italian they would be referred to as a pantofolaio; a beautifully befitting word that derives from the Italian for slippers (pantofole).  

Although the term may also be used to describe the maker of slippers and indeed Italy prides itself on exquisite indoor footwear (the velvet Venetian variety are perhaps as elegant as they get) – it is the mastery of the leisurely art of doing nothing, ‘Il Dolce far Niente’, for which Pantofolaio is mostly widely used.   

 

Passeggiata

When visiting a friend in Siena she suggested that we embark on her usual evening passeggiata, around Piazza del Campo, the city’s principal square. Entering the beautiful Piazza, I turned right but before I could take two steps forward, I was pulled back by my friend, who I was surprised to see appalled at my move. She took my hand and led me the other way explaining that in Siena, it was imperative that this evening passeggiata around the square was walked in a clockwise manner. 

So, for those who might argue that a ‘walk’ or a ‘stroll’ convey a similar meaning, both words, which I only understood in full on this escapade in Siena, lack the weight and importance that the passeggiata has in Italian culture. Italians will use the verb camminare to simply signify the act of walking whereas the passeggiata, lies deeply rooted in the country’s tradition. Usually taking place around 7pm, it is to walk leisurely and talk with the occasional stop and salute to familiar passers-by. Those who take part are just as much observer as they are performer in this long-established Italian spectacle that enriches the lives of its people.

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