I was talking to an Italian friend and explaining how I was conducting a job interview for some new graduates at our office. I used the word ‘intervista’ to describe this–which, as I was rapidly pointed out, is of course incorrect. Indeed, ‘intervista’ is a classic example of a false friend, i.e. a word that sounds like a word in your native language but has an entirely different meaning in the one you are learning. Although an intervista is indeed an interview of sorts, it is only used to describe a meeting between a journalist or presenter and a subject. For example, “Il giornalista ha avuto un’intervista col ministro.” (The journalist had an interview with the minister).
No, the title of this post hasn’t become mangled in transmission. 🙂 There are a few of these almost-a-word expressions in Italian that are used quite frequently in informal settings. This is the kind of thing that isn’t (normally!) taught in language class and can only really be picked up properly when talking with Italians.
One of the most counterintuitive expressions I’ve come across is “essere al verde”, or “being at green”. If you aren’t familiar with it, any guesses as to what this could mean? What if I were to tell you that it has something to do with money? You might think it refers to the “greenback” or American dollar, or cash in general. You would certainly be forgiven (or not!) for thinking that it means you have lots of money (since you are ‘in’ the green). We also generally use the colour green to indicate a financial credit as opposed to red, which indicates debits. So if your bank balance is in credit, you would expect to see it in black or green, whereas if it was red (or indeed any other colour!), you might take a look to see what was up.
The word ‘magari’ is a little bit mystical. Just like ‘allora’, it’s a very Italian word which is used extensively in everyday speech. It’s origins are curious. It seems to come from the Greek word ‘makarios’, which means ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’. This implies that it must have originated in Southern Italy or Sicily, since the people of those territories were Greek-speaking for centuries.
The word ‘contento’ translates as content, happy, satisfied, or pleased. The exact word for ‘happy’ is ‘felice’ and happiness is ‘felicita’. However, the phrase ‘sono contento’ is used far more often than ‘sono felice’ in order to express happiness. It’s a nice of saying you are ‘content’, or that effectively you have ‘had your fill’ and need no more at present.
One of my favourite Italian phrases is “ti voglio bene.” Now, this translates literally as “I want good (for) you” or in a more refined way as “I wish you well.” However, neither of these translations captures the depth of the Italian expression.
I remember listening to an Italian radio news programme a couple of years ago on the introduction of whole body scanners to European airports. Apart from the topic itself, it was interesting to hear the commentators repeatedly using the untranslated phrase “body scanner” (pronounced in the Italian way). It wasn’t a one off occasion either. The use of English words and even phrases, particularly those related to technology, politics and entertainment, has become increasingly widespread in the Italian popular and mainstream media in recent years.