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).
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 being confused the first time I heard an Italian talk about his ‘paese’, having assumed that he was talking about Italy but gradually realising he was only really referring to his home village. What does this word actually mean?
In English, we typically use the word ‘Romans’ to refer to the inhabitants of the ancient city of Rome and the citizens of the Roman Empire. It feels a little strange to use the word to refer to the modern-day inhabitants of the Italian capital. We’d probably say something on the lines of “He’s from Rome,” or “It’s a style seen in Rome.”
The phrase ‘fare la bella figura’ is commonly used to describe the supposed (often true, though stereotypes are unfair) Italian preoccupation with keeping up appearances. It translates literally as ‘making a beautiful figure’ or more accurately as ‘making a good impression’. It is not, as is often assumed, simply to do with how you dress, or just looking good. It is also about how you behave and the kind of impression you leave on other people, particularly in public. The last thing you want to do is to ‘fare la brutta figura’, or ‘make an ugly figure’. In English, we’d translate this as ‘making a bad impression’.
Yes, this indeed a post about the green sprouting vegetable called broccoli. In fact, the English word ‘broccoli’ originates from the plural of the Italian ‘broccolo’, which–according to English Wikipedia–refers to the flowering top of a cabbage. I haven’t found this definition anywhere else so can’t confirm it. However, a ‘broccolo’ can also be used as a fun insult: e.g. “Che broccolo!” or “What a dumb/stupid person.”
Have there ever been three more similar sounding and confusing words? The first one (perché) will be almost immediately familiar to students of Italian–it is of course the word for both ‘why’ and ‘because’. Confusing enough in itself. Back at school in Florence (goodness knows I’ll be talking about this often enough), I remember being struck by the fact that the teacher would ask a question “Perché…?” and the unfortunate classmate would also answer beginning with “Percheeee…”