7 ‘Italian’ Words And Phrases Native Speakers Never Use

Just be careful with your assumptions, capisce?
7 ‘Italian’ Words And Phrases Native Speakers Never Use

English and Italian share a decent amount of language between them. Part of this is because Italian is a direct descendant of Latin, and Latin and English were in direct contact long ago. Another more recent factor is the commingling of the English-speaking and Italian-speaking cultures. In fields like music, art and food, Italian is very present. But there are also certain phrases that have slipped into English that maybe aren’t so useful. Whether they’re fully incorrect or just a little off, you’ll want to watch out for these Italian phrases native speakers never use.

7 Allegedly Italian Phrases Native Speakers Never Use

cannolis, paninis, cappuccinos and more

This will be pretty elementary to anyone who’s studied Italian for a bit, but one of the most common mistakes English speakers make in Italian is improper pluralization. While English makes a word plural by adding an s onto the end, Italians instead change the vowel at the end of the word The proper plural of the examples above, then, would be cannoli, panini and cappuccini, while the singular versions all end in o. People will still understand you if you use the English versions, but you’ll want to use the correct plurals if you’re trying to sound more authentically Italian.

Capiche?

Some English speakers might punctuate their sentences with capiche as a way to check that the listener is following along with what they’re saying. Those same speakers will probably pronounce it ca-PEESH and tell you it’s Italian. And while the word does have its roots in Italian, it has been changed in English. You’ll never see the word “capiche” in actual Italian.

What you’ll see instead is capisci (ca-PEESH-ee) or capisce (ca-PEESH-ay), which are both conjugations of the verb capire (“to understand”). It can be used similarly to how English speakers use capiche, but just be warned that capiche is definitely an Americanism. 

alfresco

One of the simple joys of life is dining alfresco, or eating outside (it literally means “in the cool”). It comes from the Italian phrase al fresco. But Italians don’t use the phrase in the same way. When referring to outdoor dining, you’re more likely to see a restaurant in Italy use the phrase all’aperto, meaning “in the open.”

latte

Modern American coffee culture takes a lot of its cues from Italy. But in the process of translation, Americans have gotten quite a bit of it wrong. The word latte means just “milk” in Italian. If you want to avoid getting a cup of milk, you’ll want to order a caffè latte.

The differences don’t end there. If you try to use any of the vocab you learned at Starbucks, you’ll probably run into problems. Their size chart — tall, grande and venti — translates in Italian to tall (actually not Italian), large and twenty (referring to the 20 ounces of liquid in it). And if you order a caffè, you’ll be getting an espresso, not a drip coffee. Italian coffee culture is a big deal, so you’ll want to go in prepared. 

pepperoni and bologna

Are there any two meats more quintessentially Italian than pepperoni and bologna? As you might guess from the context of this article, the answer is yes.

The word pepperoni comes from the Italian peperone, which means “pepper.” The sausage we know as pepperoni was created by Italian-Americans. If you go to Italy and order a pizza with peperoni, you’ll get a pizza with…peppers.

Bologna, the common lunch meat, is indeed named after the region of Italy of the same name. The pronunciation is pretty different, however: compare the American “ba-LOAN-ee” and Italian “bo-LOAN-ya.” And what Americans call “bologna” is based on mortadella, a kind of meat that did originate from Bologna. They aren’t exactly the same, though. Mortadella is a cured pork sausage with visible chunks of pork fat, pistachio and peppercorn. Bologna can be a number of different meats, and there are no visible chunks in at all. You probably won’t find any bologna in Bologna.

vendetta

The idea of a blood feud goes deep in the cultural conceptions of Italy. Part of this can be traced back to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the most famous story of two families that are constantly at each other’s throats. And where do they live? Northern Italy.

The word vendetta, however, does not mean “blood feud.” It does mean “vengeance,” which is a similar concept, but if you call something a vendetta in Italian, you won’t necessarily get across just how serious a feud is. If you need to tell an Italian about the bad blood between you and another family that has lasted for generations, you’re better off using the word faida.

Mamma mia!

This doesn’t technically fit under the list of Italian phrases native speakers never use. There is actually a strong chance that you will hear some Italians saying mamma mia, but you probably know it’s become a cultural cliché. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to use it. Just that if you are going to say it, you should understand exactly how it’s used. And if you’re ever thinking of saying it with an exaggerated Italian accent, you should keep your mouth shut.

Mamma mia, which means “my mother,” is kind of like “Oh my God” in English. While Americans often think mamma mia is only an expression of surprise, Italians might say it when they’re angry, upset, surprised or sometimes even amused. It really differs from person to person.

Another thing about this particular phrase is that it’s only one of many options an Italian speaker might use. You might hear ma donna, cristo, accidenti or — also common — a whole slew of curse words. Italian is also made up of many dialects, and so a phrase you hear in one part of Italy might be uncommon in another. The most general advice is to listen to what people around you are saying and learn from that.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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