Each language features one-of-the-kind words that can never be comfortably translated into another. As a result, such words are a tough nut to crack for native speakers (and most importantly, translators – we feel for you).
While building your vocabulary is par for the course when taking up a new language – the beauty of language learning lies in uncovering those surprising words with no direct equivalent in any other language – and the accompanying hand movement makes it all the richer.
If you so happen to be a native French or Spanish speaker, the lexical similarity between Italian and French and Italian and Spanish is around 85 to 90%, meaning you might just get away with deciphering the words listed below. If you’re a native English speaker however, you’ll have no other choice but to learn what these words stand for before slipping them in naturally into your next conversation.
We’ve conjured up a must-know list of 5 untranslatable Italian words the English language ought to think about adding to its lexicon.
Italians sure do love their cats; when traveling to Italy, one might be startled at the abundant population of our feline friends, in small villages and big cities alike. Gattara stems from a combination of the word gatto (“cat)” and the suffix -ara which refers to the female gender, therefore translating to “cat lady”.
Over and beyond owning several cats and relishing their company, a gattara cares for stray cats and spends a fair amount of time and money on their wellbeing.
Example: Conoscete la gattara del paese? Si chiama Rosa e ogni mattina si sveglia presto per andare a dare da mangiare ai gatti del villaggio prima del trambusto. Questa sì che è una routine mattutina.
Translation: Do you know the local cat lady? Her name is Rosa and she gets up early every morning to feed the village cats before the hustle and bustle. Now that’s what I call a morning routine.
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No article even remotely linked to the Italian language would be complete without the mention of pasta, regardless of its shape or form. Italian native speakers will use the term spaghettata when they are about to indulge in a generous portion of spaghetti, whether it be the morning after a party or at your Nonna’s. What will it be? Puttanesca, amatriciana? The pastabilities are endless.
The closest translation our team was able to come up with is “spaghetti party”, but we’ve sadly never had one of those.
Example: Potrei essere ancora ubriaco da ieri sera – facciamo una spaghettata per assorbire tutto l’alcool!
Translation: I might still be drunk from last night – let’s have a spaghetti party to absorb all that leftover alcohol!
You really should give a damn about this next untranslatable word.
You may have heard the phrase Non me ne frega (‘I don’t give a damn”) used left right and center across Italy. This common Italian phrase dates back to Italy’s fascist and darker years and was sung by members of the special forces known as the Arditi (lit. “The Daring Ones”) as a way of showing they didn’t care if they lost their lives in battle.
But it’s come to our knowledge that Italian also has a noun to describe someone who’s particularly prone to this way of thinking – menefreghista. It is used to describe a selfish individual who shows indifference and extensively that couldn’t care less, usually about the community, social or political themes, or any other topic usually considered important in society.
An English translation of this word would be something along the lines of “Idontcareism”, but you’ll agree that it simply doesn’t do it justice.
Example: A volte, il tuo comportamento da menefreghista è esasperante e ti fa risultare immaturo
Translation: Sometimes, your selfish and mindless behavior is infuriating and makes you come across as immature.
We can all relate to that uncomfortable feeling of having overeaten after indulging in a generous breakfast, lunch, or dinner and in a desperate need to nod off for a few minutes. Thankfully, the Italians have made a point of summing up this feeling in one word: abbiocco.
The term abbiocco takes its roots from the central area of Italy and derives from the noun biocca (“hen”) and the verb abbiosciare which refers to the act of “curling up” just like a hen about to hatch, eyes closed, and head bobbing. It soon took on the meaning of “dozing off”. Talk about lost in translation.
While English speakers will use the adjective “stuffed” “overfull” or “full up” to describe such a feeling, it doesn’t quite capture the essence of abbiocco.
Example: Gustate questi ravioli ai porcini fatti in casa, ma attenzione, dopo vi verrà l’abbiocco.
Translation: Feast upon these homemade porcini ravioli – but beware, you’ll have the urge to hit the couch afterwards.
Some languages are better than others at crisply naming very specific states and emotions – Italian might be the absolute best in this regard.
Deeply rooted in Milanese culture, apericena is a contraction of the terms aperitivo (which refers to a late afternoon drink and a quick snack) and cena (“dinner”) and describes a situation where an aperitivo gets out of hand. This usually consists of an unlimited free buffet with a variety of food and drink, which can be enjoyed standing up. Think of it as a cross between your typical French apéritif and a three-course meal. We get why this term is so popular with students.
Warning: definitely not the same thing as Happy Hour.
Example: Ho sentito dire che fanno un apericena al bar locale: ci andiamo prima che faccia notte?
Translation: I heard they do pre-dinner drinks at the local bar – shall we head over there before the sun goes down?
Thinking of taking an afternoon stroll around the village risorante and chiesa? A passeggiata is in order. Much more than just your average post-meal stroll or walk, an authentic Italian passeggiata is all about seeing and being seen. It usually takes place around 7 pm on a Sunday and involves walking leisurely, greeting acquaintances as you pass by. Italians really do it better.
Pro Tip: The term can also be used to describe a straightforward or easy situation.
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