I’ve written about my favorite German words and my favorite Spanish words, two languages with which I am fairly well acquainted. My experience of Italian is nothing like as rich as my German or Spanish – I have never lived in the country, I have never walked in their shoes. But I have visited on a fair number of occasions, and each time I’ve scrabbled words together from a hodgepodge of dog-eared phrasebooks and chance encounters.
My relative unfamiliarity is not the only obstacle to the compilation of a list of favorite words – there are simply too many wonderful ones in Italian. I know, I know, there are in every language. But Italian just rolls off the tongue, winks at your cochlea and tonotopically tickles your inner ear. A colleague of mine recently commented, “Italian even sounds stunning when you’re saying something unpleasant”.
So I’m spoilt for choice, but hopefully not by it. Here goes.
1. Allora (conjunction) – Then, so
When you start learning a language, there are always some words that jump out from otherwise incomprehensible sentences. It gives you the hope that one day, maybe, the rest of the sentence will become equally as easy to process. So it is with the word allora, which your Italian counterpart will draw out prior to plunging into a scintillating sentence. It’s one of those slightly fuzzy words whose translation all rather depends upon the context in which it is used, but it can most typically be translated as “so” or “then”.
Alloooora, andiamo avanti con questa storia?
2. Rocambolesco (adj.) – Fantastic, adventurous, nail-biting
The language nerds and linguists among you will no doubt point to the French origin of rocambolesco. Rocambole is a fictional character developed by the French writer Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail in the 19th century. The French word rocambolesque then evolved from this character’s predilection for swashbuckling adventure, and the Italian word denotes a heady fusion of the fantastical, the adventurous, the daring, the nail-biting and the downright incredible. This is the romanticised image I had in my head as I boarded the plane to Italy as an 18 year old readied for a solo romp around western Europe.
3. Chiacchierone/a (noun) – Chatterbox
I had planned a trip around Italy, Austria, Switzerland and southern Germany to eradicate any remaining savings hoarded during a year of work and travel. In Venice, I met an old school friend of Italian descent and proceeded to mull around the canals trying to take stock of this surreal theme park of a city while she prattled on about the gossip from her first year at university. And then she paused in a moment of self-reflection;
“Ah I’m such a whatchamacallit.”
“Well, yes, perhaps, but that rather depends on what you mean by whatchamacallit”, I responded.
“I’m a proper … chiacchierona. I never shut up! How do you say that in English again?”
A chiacchierona, we quickly established, is a chatterbox, a prattler, a tattler, a loose-lipped blabbermouth. It’s also a fabulous word with bundles of chit-chattering cha-cha-cha sounds and a shovel full of imagery. And what’s more, all of the derivatives are equally as beguiling; Chiacchiera or chiacchierata (chit-chat) and the verb chiacchierare (to chatter). If you take your chiacchiera one step toward the more malicious, you’ll stumble across another lexical gem; pettegolezzo, or gossip.
4. Sfizio (noun) – Whim
I’m not a big shopper. My shopping trips are executed with military precision and discipline; tunnel vision in aisles of distraction. And yet as I boarded the train to be whisked away from Venice Mestre to Ferrara, I found myself weighed down by an assortment of carnevale paraphernalia, the utter uselessness of which became increasingly manifest with every meter gained between Venice and this otherwise thrifty traveller. I now attribute the momentary lapse in providence to lo sfizio del vacanziere – the whim of the holidaymaker.
Sfizio: the tongue sizzles and fizzles with the two opening consonants, achieving an even higher frequency vibration on the third. It sounds great, and I like the meaning, too.
As much as I would have liked to see myself as a vero viaggiatore – a true traveller – it’s ever so hard to convince oneself of this with a plastic carnival mask in hand. Not rocambolesco. Not at all.
5. Struggimento (noun) – Misery
From Ferrara I bundled into Bologna, trusty guidebook in hand, expecting a bustling student town. One of the drawbacks of guidebooks is that they sometimes cause one to abandon common sense and curiosity. University was out, the sky was overcast, and the conference brigade was in town. I flicked through to the accommodation section and was alarmed to see one measly hostel. I phoned. Full. I trotted from one budget hotel to another. Full. All full. Awful. I turned to tourist information for the first time in my life.
“Non sapevi che c’è una conferenza in città? Gli hotel sono tutti pieni.”
Scheiße! Eighteen years young with nowhere to go.The trains had stopped running. I suddenly felt my age – my own personal struggimento as a consequence of the capitulation of my illusion of assured independence.
An Italian friend of mine recently expressed frustration at the lack of a satisfying translation for struggimento and its wobbly mix of gut-churning misery and yearning. I don’t think I’ve fully grasped the concept. Then again she suggested that the English simply don’t know how to suffer, protected by a stiff upper lip on our island of emotional detachment, so perhaps I never will, and perhaps I’ll be better off for it.
6. Dondolare (verb) – To rock, swing, wobble
From the struggimento of my night in Bologna, where I ended up sleeping in an extraordinarily dirty flat belonging to a friend of the lady at the tourist information, I arrived in Florence. I’d learned from my mistakes and booked ahead, selecting a fine looking establishment to compensate myself for the squalor of the day previous. I entered into a broad, ornate common room decorated with travellers’ bodies enjoying a post lunch inertia the Italians refer to as abbiocco. Pride of place in this room was reserved for an old rocking chair which was currently occupied by a bedraggled Australian intent on impressing the receptionist with his few accented words of Italian. Beside him was a sign which read, “Non dondolare troppo sulla sedia a dondolo, dondolone!”
Dondolare means to swing or to rock. And, apparently, a dondolone is literally someone who rocks and wobbles, and figuratively is a loafer or idler. A word can’t get much more onomatopoeic than this, although sussurrare (to whisper) certainly comes close.
7. Mozzafiato (adj.) – Breathtaking, riveting
I arrived in Rome having ticked off Pisa and Siena en route. I had visited these cities with ruthless efficiency, dividing my time and attention equally between photo taking, sightseeing, guidebook reading and pizza eating. And now I’d had enough. We often find ourselves led by guidebooks and an insatiable need to confirm that we have seen in person what we have seen a million times on television; a city’s tired celebrities.
In Rome I sought to get irretrievably lost among the city’s alleys and avenues. I enjoyed the inevitability of a reward for my misorientation, whether it were a fountain, a church or a well haunted café. The merits of this approach were emphasised following a visit to St. Peter’s. My father’s words resonated in my head.
“The Pieta is the most extraordinary piece of rock you will ever see.”
No doubt it would have been had I caught a moment’s glimpse among the irritable swarm of flashy photographers. I retreated and escorted myself to a small church near the Colosseum where Michelangelo’s majestic Moses perched patiently, waiting to share a moment of solace away from the collective confinement of St. Peter’s. It is this visione mozzafiato, standing alone before this godlike creation of man, that will always welcome me to this particular memory lane.
Mozzare means to cut or chop off, and fiato is your breath. Mozzafiato therefore follows the collocative pattern of its closest English equivalent, “breathtaking”, but the act of amputating one’s air feels more sudden and extreme than the simple act of taking, and somehow more appropriate for a country possessed of such “breath-chopping” beauty.
8. Dietrologia (noun) – The belief in hidden, underlying realities
And so we come to the final word in my list, which, I must admit, I didn’t learn on my Italian skidaddle. I learned this word only weeks ago whilst reading Matt Rendall’s sublime biography of the Italian cyclist Marco Pantani. The story of Pantani’s life is embedded within a rich portrayal of Italian history and culture, and Rendall delineates the very Italian notion of dietrologia, the “conviction that hidden dimensions underlie surface reality” and the “madcap search” for them, as fundamental to understanding Pantani’s rollercoaster ride of a life.
I learned my first Italian words out of nutritional necessity as my stomach rumbled, and jumbled words came tumbling urgently from my very English mouth. The arrival of the dish you ordered is an affirmation of the utility of your new words, your new language, and a further mini-motivation to continue learning. These mini-motivations are fundamental to the language learning process, and continue to fuel my interest in languages in general and Italian in particular.
Words like dondolare and sfizio offer an enjoyable euphony, whilst mozzafiato and struggimento provide a deeper, more nuanced angle on their English equivalents, to which I am always destined to refer back. Dietrologia sheds light on a particularly Italian worldview. When we weave these levels together we form a map by which a culture can be navigated. It is my belief that this map will deliver you to a destination infinitely more rewarding than any guidebook, and it is this belief that continues to drive me to learn languages.
From Rome I headed back north to Milan and then across the border to Switzerland, where I had to oil the rusty gears of my school French, but that’s another story for another time, and another collection of favorite words.