5 English – Italian false friends that will betray you when you least expect it.

Keep your friends close but your enemies closer – that’s what any sensible person with a ton of enemies would say.

False friends (or falsi amici) are words that are similar or identical in spelling or sound in two languages but actually have significantly different meanings. 

English and Italian are both part of the large Indo-European language family that goes back centuries – which explains why a fair amount of the English language (around 40%) is rooted in Latin. Be that as it may, you’re likely to encounter some treacherous false friends along the way who may lead to (many) awkward situations for you and your conversation partner. 

In this article, we review 5 false friends in Italian. Beware, they might someday leave a horse head in your bed.

#1 Terrificante vs. terrific

In Italian, describing something or someone as terrificante actually means that they send shivers down one’s spine – “terrifying” would be a better analog in English. If you want to say something is “terrific”, you ought to go for the term magnifico

ItalianEnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in Italian as
TerrificanteFrighteningTerrificMagnifico, fantastico

Example: Il film è stato semplicemente terrificante, non ho chiuso occhio stanotte.

Translation: The movie was quite simply terrifying, I didn’t sleep a wink last night.

#2 Magazzino vs magazine

Casually browsing through your local newsagents looking for the latest edition of Grazia? You may find yourself in an awkward position at the cash register when asking for your favorite read. That’s because in Italian, magazzino actually means “warehouse”. Use the term rivista or periodico in the future.

ItalianEnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in Italian as
MagazzinoWarehouseMagazineRivista

Example: Quel magazzino abbandonato potrebbe ospitare un modesto rave party.

Translation: That abandoned warehouse seems like it could host a modest rave party.

#3 Morbido vs morbid

We can’t help but have a soft spot for this next false cognate. Picture this: you’re on your long-awaited romantic weekend getaway to Milan, you take a wrong turn and end up walking through the city’s cemetery. Bummer for you. You want to escape this gloomy tour as fast as you can and blurt out that the place is morbido on your way out. Congratulations, you’ve just made a few heads turn. 

Why? Because the Italian adjective morbido doesn’t mean “morbid” but “soft”. In the future, you can use morboso to describe all your morbid fantasies. No judgment.

ItalianEnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in Italian as
MorbidoSoftMorbidMorboso

Example: Maria ha appena comprato il maglione di cashmere più morbido (che esista). Voglio letteralmente viverci dentro, ma non posso permettermi l’affitto. 

Translation: Maria just bought the softest cashmere jumper. I literally want to live in it, but I can’t afford the rent.

#4 Annoiare vs annoy

Think of that over-the-top coworker who won’t stop talking about their allegedly brilliant ferret. Sound familiar? Well, if you’re tempted to tell them to stop annoiare you, think again.

The Italian verb annoiare translates to “to bore” in English, quite different from the meaning of our verb “to annoy”. If you want to describe someone or something as being “annoying”, we suggest you use seccare or irritare. A thin line between hate and bore. 

ItalianEnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in Italian as
Annoiare(to) bore(to) annoySeccare, irritare

Example: Questa lezione sulla fisica quantistica è noiosa come la morte. Vorrei aver saltato la lezione e imparato una lingua online.

Translation: This lecture on quantum physics is boring as hell, I wish I’d skipped class and learned a language online.

#5 Pretendere vs pretend

Objectively one of the toughest false friends out there, this false friend can trick beginners and advanced learners of Italian alike. The verb pretendere actually means “to expect” and not “to fake”. We believe the verb fingere is the one you were looking for. You’ll thank us later when you’re fingering the Italian version of “What to expect when you’re expecting”.

ItalianEnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in Italian as
Pretendere(to) expect(to) pretendFingere

Example: Non puoi aspettarti di imparare l’italiano in un mese! Ciò di cui hai bisogno sono brevi e divertenti lezioni giornaliere di contenuti italiani, inviate a raffica, per ottimizzare le tue possibilità di ricordare ciò che hai imparato nel lungo percorso.

Translation: You can’t expect to learn Italian in a month! What you need is short, fun daily burst of Italian content to maximize your chances of remembering what you’ve learned in the long run.

Bonus: Rumore vs. rumor

Rumor has it you’re glad to be at the end of this list. We are too.

The difference between rumore and rumor is uncanny. While rumore refers to a sound or noise, pettegolezzo describes the gossip or unverified tale you’re about to tell the world.

One word of advice: if you hear something through the grapevine, keep it to yourself.

Did you know? The term “rumor” stems from the Latin word rumorem which means “commotion, widespread noise or report”.

ItalianEnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in Italian as
RumoreNoise, soundRumorPettegolezzo

Example: Il rumore del martello pneumatico è insopportabile. “Martello pneumatico” è il soprannome di mia figlia. 

Translation: The noise coming from that jackhammer is unbearable. My nickname for my daughter is “jackhammer”.

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