Five favorite Italian words

I was tagged by Melanie at the Italofile blog to write a post about five of my favorite Italian words, which I thought would be a lot of fun. So here they are, plus the reasons I picked them: 

Bologna Italy Bell Tower

Photo by Sanjay Jhawar



Pronounced: VEE|ah

Via means “street” and several other things, but the “via” I love always has an exclamation mark at the end, and means “let’s go!” or “we’re off!”. It’s simple and short yet signifies the beginning of an adventure. One of my closest friends is Italian, and whenever we head off together somewhere, whether it be out for aperitivi or off for a weekend at the Ice Hotel in Sweden, we start with “via!”.


Pronounced: n~|OH|kee

Apart from the fact that gnocchi are yummy and a gnocchi board is one of the best Italian souvenirs, ever, the successful pronunciation of the “gn” sound in gnocchi represents an accomplishment with the Italian language. When I taught Italian, the correct pronunciation of this word accompanied students’ happy faces, which is the reason I picked it. (Runners up in the same category: correctly pronouncing the rolling ‘r’ as in “arrivederci”, the double vs single ‘p’ as in capello and cappello).



Pronounced: kum|pun|eel|EEZ|moh

When I first moved to Italy, I naively thought that everyone in Italy must be cultured, sophisticated, and international – for the simple fact that they lived in Italy. (Okay, I was 17.) But many Italians don’t see themselves as from Italy, rather they are from the town their family is from, and have an enormous pride and belonging to that place first and foremost — even if they moved away when they were 1 year old. This is an important concept in Italy, and I understood it much better when I learned the word “campanilismo”, which is from the word “campanile”, meaning bell tower. So it sort of means loyal to your original bell tower.


Pronounced: SHOH|per|oh

The only Polish word I remember from my 10 day trip to Poland in 1994 is the word “brak”, or “empty”, which I figured out after about the 5th time I saw it written on a sign at a gas station. I was introduced to “scioperi”, or strikes, in much the same way in Italy, and now when planning a trip to Italy for a client, I always check the dates of Italian strikes.


Pronounced: oo|minga|cup|EE

This is actually Milanese dialect more or less meaning “I don’t understand”, and it’s the only word of Milanese dialect (or any Italian dialect) that I know. Dialect is more commonly spoken in older generations, and most of my Milanese friends don’t know much of it – but they all know this word. It translates into Italian as “non ho mica capito” which I need to point out is not quite the same as “I don’t understand” (“non ho capito”). The “mica” adds a bit of attitude, so the speaker is often frustrated or annoyed while saying it, with accompanying hand gestures. But I love that this word is dialect, and it’s amusing to see the look on people’s faces when they hear a foreigner using it. I’ve never seen it written, so I wrote it above the way I think it would be written.

And I’m tagging Roberta K of Thinking Allowed and Sergio (who I don’t think has a blog – leave your words in the comments please) for their five favorites!

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Posted by on May 3, 2010 in Italian Language | 4 Comments


  1. Sergio
    May 11, 2010

    Hi, can i add my list? this is fun.
    1- Effimero
    This composed (epi + emera) word has a greek origin, meaning “it only lasts for one day”. I used for the English translation (ephemeral).
    In italian this word just sounds too nicely, it’s like the sound of the word itself describes its meaning even if it isnt onomatopheic in it’s etymology; it can be used also for non temporal matters as in “inconsistent”.
    2- Rintuzzare
    It means to “insist repeatedly”, with a beat or a sharp tool. It is obviously used for behavioural matters too.
    3- Innamorarsi
    If italian is the language of love, then there is no need of a periphrasis for “falling in love”, “tomber amoureux” etc.
    You only need one word. Innamorarsi. And I sono innamorato with the way it sounds, almost as much with the “effimero” ;).
    4- Omertà
    You need to understand the meaning of this word in order to get closer to southern italian cultural atmosphere behind the mafia phenomenon.
    Omertà has no literal translation in other languages (conspiracy of silence), and it includes a very weird blend of elements. It basically means “to stay silent” or “refusing to talk” for one of this reasons:
    1- pride: your sense of honor doesnt allow you to talk about someone you know (relative, friend, paesano) even for criminal facts: if there is a problem it is a me-and-you kind of thing, and noone else’s. Especially the police.
    2- fear: if you talk, you or some of your family members will be killed.
    3- not being a spy: it is connected to the pride thing, but add the fact that being a spy in southern italy is second insult after offending mothers.
    4- Minding your own dicks (literal translation is funny), farsi i cazzi propri. Minding your own business, because you dont care, you dont want to get involved, you are lazy.
    Omertoso’s motto is: “io non c’ero, e se c’ero dormivo. Se non dormivo, guardavo dall’altra parte”: i wasnt there, and if i was i was asleep. If i wasnt asleep, i was looking the other way.
    Contraction of “va bene”. You use it at the end of a conversation, it is a tolerance thing: there are parts of the conversation i dont agree with, but vabbè, i have got the big picture, we’ll see what happens. You often say “da word” while smiling a little.

  2. Madeline
    May 11, 2010

    Sergio I love your list, thanks so much! I could include vabbe’ as among my favorites too, and innamorarsi has a great ring, but my favorite that you list (completely new to me) is omerta’ which is *so* Italian because of all the connotations. Especially love the motto…

  3. Villa
    May 19, 2010

    It’s so tricky to get priceless info on the web. I loved reading your story. I think you supply helpful info. Congratulations, and constantly posting to us.

  4. Adm
    December 22, 2015

    Great advice! Thank you for this.I would go for the mddlie way if I haven’t previously mastered the dialect. Maybe saying: I don’t have a lot of experience with this dialect but I would love to give it a shot . Let’s them know I know my skill level but that I’m willing to dive in!I love the idea of recording oneself right there. Very helpful.


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