In the quest for fluency in Italian, it’s not enough to recite the definition of a word. One must delve deeper to unravel its true essence.
Anybody embarking on learning Italian will find himself surrounded by unfamiliar terms and phrases. Untranslatable Italian Words that make no sense. In those cases, the advice is: ‘Don’t seek logic, seek meaning.’
So, please take this counsel to heart, immersing yourself in the language and seeking its rich and varied complexities. In doing so, you’ll discover that the true beauty of words lies not in definitions but in their meanings.
If you wish to grasp a language, you must surrender to its allure, bask in its nuances and soak up its context. And who knows, you may even discover the perfect way to slice cheese the Italian way.
List of untranslatable Italian words
Below you will find some of the most popular Untranslatable Italian Words. You may check each one and discover they don’t have an exact equivalent in English.
1. Al dente
In culinary art, a phrase captures the essence of pasta perfection: ‘al dente’.
This Italian term, meaning ‘to the tooth’, speaks of pasta cooked just right – with a tender bite that offers a satisfying resistance.
The English language lacks an equivalent, so we have adopted this charming expression, a testament to the cultural exchange between our two tongues. To achieve the coveted al dente texture, one must strike a delicate balance between boil and bake, resulting in pasta that sings with flavor and embodies the essence of Italian culinary tradition.
Italian: Cuocere le tagliatelle e scolarle quando sono al dente.
English: Cook the tagliatelle and drain them when they are al dente.
In the land of la dolce vita, where cuisine is a grand festival, it was only a matter of time before the concept of ‘apericena’ was born. The union of ‘aperitivo’ and ‘cena’, blends the idea of an appetizer with that of a dinner. So the result is a bountiful spread of bite-sized delicacies accompanied by beverages. On hot summer nights when no one’s in the mood to cook a big, heavy meal, the apericena shines as a beacon of culinary delight.
Italian: Dovreste fare almeno un apericena.
English: You should at least go once for an apericena.
When you’re luxuriating in the plush embrace of the sofa, your senses lulled into a state of profound repose. In other words, you’re overcome with the gentle embrace of abbiocco. It is a feeling that is known only to Italians. Its closest counterpart in English, “drowsiness,” fails to capture the sheer elegance and indulgence of this state.
Italian: Mi viene l’abbiocco solo a pensarci.
English: That makes me want to take a nap just thinking about it.
Amidst the festive chatter of a warm Italian family gathering, the topic of matchmaking was, of course, not to be missed. And so, with love on the minds of all, a young man at the table was presented with the news that the neighbor’s daughter was now unattached, her former relationship had ended. But to the surprise of the gathered, the man’s reply was not of intrigue or interest, but rather a simple exclamation of “She’s a baffona!” – a casual term for a woman with a mustache. The family nodded and chuckled in recognition, understanding all too well the connotation of the word. And so, while no love match was made that evening, a new word was learned amidst the laughter and revelry.
Boh is a word as vital as a key to unlocking the secrets of Italian conversations. In countless interactions with native speakers, one is sure to encounter this versatile term. With no direct equivalent in the English language, boh is a chameleon, adapting to the context and tone of each unique situation. When uttered with alacrity, it conveys a sense of doubt, much like the familiar phrases, “no clue” or “I don’t know”.
Italian: Boh, però è un genio.
English: Dunno, but he’s a genius.
6. Buon appetito
Buon appetito, is the very epitome of Italian hospitality. In the English language, we are bereft of a similar expression, unless one were to turn to our Gallic neighbors, “bon appétit.”
Buon appetito, with its rolling vowels and musical cadence, holds a special place in the hearts of those who have been greeted with its warmth before a meal.
Italian: Buon appetito!
English: Bon appétit!
7. Buon proseguimento!
Buon proseguimento is a phrase that imbues the recipient with good wishes. Meaning “good luck with” or “enjoy whatever you are in the middle of doing.” It is a greeting unlike any other, encompassing the entirety of one’s endeavors, be it a job, activity, trip, or meal. The literal translation of “good continuation” belies its true significance, as it serves as a farewell that is elegant and sincere. When a conversation ends, and the time has come to part ways, buon proseguimento is the perfect way to do so, a grace note that lingers long after the conversation has ended.
Italian: Buon proseguimento di giornata.
English: Enjoy the rest of the day.
The malady La cervicale is a curious affliction peculiar to the Italian language. Its source, a pain that dwells in the neck at the very crest of the cervical vertebrae, seems to take hold only in those of Italian descent above the age of thirty.
Italian: Non ridere del mio cuscino cervicale.
English: Don’t be laughing at my neck pillow.
9. Colpo d’aria
Not much time will go by until Italians warn you about the dreaded colpo d’aria. To evade its grasp, Italians adorn themselves in the protective cloak of a maglia della salute and a warm sciarpa during the bitter winter. They heed caution, never daring to go out of the house with wet hair from showers, lest they fall victim to the ‘hit of air’, as the expression crudely translates. The colpo d’aria, unlike its English counterpart chill, encompasses not only the cause of the malady (the wind) but also the illness itself (be it cold, flu, or the torment of a rumbling stomach).
Italian: Ho preso un colpo d’aria.
English: I was exposed to the wind and got sick, as a result.
10. Colpo della strega
And lo, we come upon another word, imbued with the prefix colpo, marking yet another malady unique to the Italian people. Il colpo della strega, or ‘the strike of the witch’, is what they cry out in moments of sudden, sharp pain that grips the lower regions of the back. This curious expression dates back to the days of yore when belief in the dark magic of witches ran rampant. The notion that these sorceresses, with but a single touch, could render men powerless and immobilized, lives on in this age-old phrase.
Italian: Quanto tempo ci vuole per guarire dal colpo della strega?
English: How long does it take to heal from lower back pain?
The Italian language, like life itself, often defies logic. Such is the case with the word culaccino, a term used to describe a particular phenomenon, the round watermark left behind on a wooden surface, most often a table, from the placement of an ice-filled, sweating glass. It is not an ordinary blemish on a piece of furniture, but a specific and recognizable mark, created with a purpose. Its circular form, echoing the bottom of the glass that left it, is the hallmark of the culaccino. It is a word widely understood and used, despite its lack of logic, a testament to the power of language to capture the essence of life’s little moments.
In the English tongue, we refer to the aged woman surrounded by an army of felines, either her own or strays she has taken under her wing, as the ‘old cat lady’. The Italians take this concept a step further, bestowing upon it a word of its own – gattara. It derives from the Italian word for cat, gatto. There is no mention of ‘old’ in the term. Yet, the connotation of advanced years is implicit. The reason for this remains a mystery, a quixotic aspect of the language that defies translation. Yet, referring to a gattara in Italian, all shall understand the exact meaning you intend to convey.
Italian: Sembri una sorta di gattara pazza.
English: You kind of look like a crazy cat lady.
The word magari holds a depth of meaning far beyond that of the simple translation ‘maybe’. When used in reply to a question, it carries the definite air of a desire, a yearning, yet remains non-committal (a confusing paradox indeed).
Consider its usage in certain situations:
Your boss asks if you want to take home equipment that the company will no longer use (but you would use extensively). Before that inquiry, you hesitate to reveal your eagerness. So, magari is your answer.
Or, when your employer beckons towards a gleaming red sports car, asking if you would not like to see it stationed in your driveway. Once again, magari is your reply.
It speaks of your wish to someday have the equipment, car, or anything else.
Yet, do not confuse the word with forse (maybe), for there lies a subtle difference between the two. While forse carries the implication of uncertainty, a possibility that something may or may not come to pass, magari speaks to dreams, hopes, and wishes.
So, when considering your maybe-someday aspirations, turn to magari, for who knows what fate may bring, what dreams may come true.
Italian: Magari hanno dello scotch per aggiustarlo.
English: Maybe they got some duct tape to fix it.
The meaning of the expression eludes even the most astute linguists, as it is a mere conglomerate of the common idiom Non me ne frega. The term denotes someone who exudes a complete and utter disregard for the subject at hand. It is often bestowed upon others, never claimed by the individuals themselves. It is a label used with careless abandon, a brand of apathy that is both ridiculed and envied.
Italian: Mi hanno accusato di essere fredda, senza cuore, e menefreghista.
English: I was pretty much accused of being cold, heartless, and uncaring.
Mica is a word that confounds many with its multitude of meanings. Yet, when it is paired with the term “male” (mica male), it conveys the sense of “at all,” – a concept that is as slippery as a fish in water.
Italian: Non è mica male questa pizzeria.
English: This pizzeria isn’t bad at all.
Yet when it stands alone, it is reminiscent of the English expressions “it’s not like…” or “it’s not as if…”
Italian: Dai, mica l’ho fatto apposta.
English: Come on, it’s not like I did it on purpose.
In its most subtle manifestation, it functions like an inquiry, echoing the intonation of “isn’t it?” or “aren’t you?”
Italian: Non saranno mica partiti senza di noi?!
English: They wouldn’t have left without us, would they?!
A word of such intricacy, mica serves as a testament to the complexities of the Italian language and the nuanced manner in which it is spoken.
The word mozzafiato embodies the essence of breathtaking. Translated literally as “to cut off breath,” its roots speak to the overpowering allure that steals away our very breath. Something so breathtakingly gorgeous, so magnificent, that it leaves one awestruck.
Italian: Prenota Qui Gusta la colazione davanti una vista mozzafiato.
English: Discover our tasty breakfast with a breathtaking view.
The pantofolaio, a character known to every culture, is the very embodiment of leisure and idleness. A person content to while away the hours within the comforts of home, draped in a luxurious robe, slippers firmly on their feet. Their only ventures beyond the sofa lead to the kitchen, in search of sustenance to fuel their binge-watching habits. The word itself, derived from the Italian pantofole, meaning slippers, perfectly captures the essence of this character, never venturing far from the familiar and comfortable trappings of home. The literal translation of “couch potato” in Italian is patata sul divano. However, Italians would not understand what that means. The other way around, if we translate pantofolaio into English it would be “couch slipper.”
Italian: Non vedo l’ora di fare il pantofolaio per un po’.
English: I look forward to being a couch potato for a while.
A pennichella is not simply a slumber, but a specific type of rest, steeped in tradition that has stood the test of time. It is the nap taken during the hazy hours of the early afternoon, following the midday meal. It is a time-honored custom, a quiet moment to recharge and rejuvenate, a respite from the frenzied pace of life.
Italian: Lì di solito ci facevo la pennichella.
English: I used to nap in here.
Scarpetta, a phrase that translates simply as “little shoe,” takes on a completely different connotation when considered in the context of cuisine. It refers to the artful and satisfying act of collecting the remnants of sauce from one’s plate, using a piece of bread as the tool of choice. It is a small gesture, yet one steeped in indulgence, a testament to the enjoyment of a meal well-eaten. A scarpetta is not just a simple act of clean-up, but a celebration of the pleasures of the table, a ritual that speaks to the delights of dining.
Italian: Faccio la scarpetta…questo sugo è troppo buono da buttare via!
English: I’m going to mop up the sauce with this piece of bread… it’s too good to throw away!
Struggimento is the epitome of intense yearning. This word transcends the mere definition of a simple longing and embodies the essence of suffering from intense yearning. It conveys a level of misery and torment, an aching that permeates one’s very being, as a result of yearning. Struggimento is a yearning that consumes one’s mind, heart, and soul, causing nothing but anguish. The word is very dramatic and portrays the toll they can take on a person.
Italian: Ho visto le lacrime e lo struggimento.
English: I’ve seen the tears and the heartache.
21. Ti voglio bene
In the art of love and affection, Italians distinguish between the depth of their emotions for their romantic partners and their beloved family and friends. The phrase “Ti voglio bene” which translates to “I want the good for you,” is reserved exclusively for the latter category of relationships. To hear “Ti amo” spoken, outside of the realm of romantic love, is an uncommon occurrence, a testament to its power and significance. In essence, it is easier to “friend-zone” someone in Italy simply by uttering the words “Ti voglio bene,” suggesting a friendship unencumbered by romantic attachment. Yet, to declare “Ti amo” is a bold declaration of love, an unequivocal statement of the depth of one’s emotions.
Here are some examples:
Italian: Mamma, ti voglio bene!
English: I love you, mom!
Italian: Alessandro, io ti voglio bene, però non ti amo.
English: I like you a lot Alessandro, but I do not love you (in a romantic way).
Italian: Ti voglio un mondo di bene.
English: I love you so much (platonically).
22. Mamma Mia!
And, oh how we must not forget this timeless Italian utterance! We do not dare to conclude this post without mentioning a timeless Italian exclamation, one that transcends all boundaries and serves as a ubiquitous solution in moments of speechlessness. This expression is an indispensable aspect of the Italian language, capable of filling the emptiness of any conversational void.
Utilize these versatile but untranslatable Italian words and expressions, and be prepared to evoke a sense of timeless charm in any situation. Are you interested in learning Italian? Click here to test drive a podcast-style Italian course for free.