Updated: Feb 26
Some of these Italian words are untranslatable, some are culturally powerful, and others are just plain beautiful: as a native Italian translator, here is my top 7.
Your Italian vocabulary hits a dead end after "pizza", "pasta" and "Casanova"?
Then this read is for you!
Italian culture is so much more than the stereotypes we see every day in ads, movies and TV series.
From North to South, the boot-shaped country is home to a myriad of local dialects, traditions, festivals, cuisines…and the Italian language reflects this richness.
In fact, each Italian word can shine a light on a different aspect of Italy’s rich culture.
That is why I hand-picked 7 of my favourite Italian words (believe me, choosing was sooo tough!), and in this article I will be sharing what I most love about them.
Plus, a little bonus word at the end of the article.
Let’s dive in!
#1: 𝗦𝗙𝗜𝗢𝗥𝗔𝗥𝗘 [sfio-rà-re]
: to almost touch, to touch very lightly
“Sfiorare” is the action of almost touching something, merely skimming its surface or brushing very lightly against it; for example, when you caress the petal of a delicate flower (in Italian “fiore”, which forms the very root of this word!); or when you place a very light kiss on someone’s cheek.
In a more abstract way, “sfiorare” is the act of getting very close to something without eventually attaining it; for example, “sfiorare la vittoria” means to almost reach victory - but not quite.
It is that spatial tension between contact and empty space, that single millimetre that separates a hit from a miss, that makes this word so poetic!
#2: 𝗜𝗡𝗧𝗜𝗡𝗚𝗢𝗟𝗢 [in-tìn-go-lo]
: dip, sauce, condiment, or any juicy leftover of a dish (especially meat)
The Italian language, culture and cuisine are closely intertwined, so this word comes straight from the kitchen!
“Intingolo” comes from verb “intingere” (to dip) which is the act of dipping something in a liquid or semi-liquid substance - say, a piece of bread, into the delicious leftovers of your meal that you can’t gather with a fork. Curiously enough, Italians commonly call this plate-wiping action “scarpetta” which literally translates as “little shoe”!
“Intingolo” can be seen as a broader term than “salsa” (sauce), but somehow it conveys a more precise image: that of yummy juices dripping from the piece of meat you are stewing in the pan; or the flavourful olive oil drops that linger on your plate after you had the last bite of that crunchy vegetable sauté.
To sum up, if it’s saucy, it looks delicious and you can’t resist scooping it up with a piece of bread, it’s an “intingolo”!
...Hopefully I haven’t made you too hungry?
#3: 𝗖𝗨𝗟𝗟𝗔 [cùl-la]
With its enveloping “u” and sweet double “l” sound, the Italian word “culla” is very effective at conveying the feelings of quietness and comfort that a cradle can provide.
Besides its primary meaning, which neo-mums and dads are very familiar with, “culla” retains a powerful symbolic energy looking back at our ancestors, which can be found in the phrase “culla della civiltà” (cradle of civilization).
More recently, with the rise of Circular Economy and Sustainable Fashion, the concept of “culla” has become central in defining the philosophy of “cradle to cradle” (“dalla culla alla culla”), whereby garments and materials are not discarded, but rather reused and re-purposed, to eventually return where they came from: nature.
And that’s why the term “culla” is powerful on different levels - from providing comfort and shelter to a baby, to expressing key ideas for a future-proof way of living on Earth.
#4: 𝗦𝗢𝗥𝗡𝗜𝗢𝗡𝗘 [sor-nió-ne]
: masking one’s true thoughts behind friendly manners or a hard-to-decipher smile
Most English-Italian online dictionaries will translate “sornione” with strongly negative terms such as “seemingly friendly”, “phony” and “fake”, but this interpretation might be a tad too simplistic. Someone who is “sornione” is not necessarily sly or interested in tricking others, although they might give that impression - whether willingly or not.
You may call “sornione” a friend who is smooth, smiling and playful, but not so quick at sharing their thoughts; or you could very well use this term for a cat that likes to stare at you with an enigmatic expression, making you wonder what it might really want from you.
You could even behave as a “sornione” yourself - for example, during a card game, when you realise you have a winning hand and allow yourself an inner smile while playing it cool until your turn.
Joking and mocking plays a central role in the Italian culture, and certain playful attitudes that might be misunderstood in other cultures could be just part of normal everyday communication in Italy.
It’s crazy how much hidden culture you can find in a word, right?
#5: 𝗙𝗥𝗔𝗡𝗚𝗘𝗡𝗧𝗘 [fran-gèn-te]
: wave that crashes into foam against an obstacle or when approaching the shore; predicament; situation, circumstance
The Italian word “frangente” went through an interesting journey.
It was born in the maritime domain, when seamen decided to give a specific name to the kind of waves that break against a surface, turning into white foam.
But in the 14th Century, with violent waves pounding against the side of your ship, things could easily get out of hand; so, the term “frangente” started to connote a “difficult situation” or “dangerous predicament”.
But just like waves moving towards the shore, the meaning of “frangente” expanded and lost vigour over time. Today, this Italian term is easily found in everyday conversations, where it simply means “point in time”, “situation” or “circumstances”.
Language is how we frame our reality, and as our reality changes, words evolve and acquire new meanings - that’s why I love them so much!
#6: 𝗡𝗨𝗩𝗢𝗟𝗔 [nù-vo-la]
There is something suave and poetic in the sound of the word “nuvola”.
The long “u” sound (which reads like “oo” in “zoom”) conveys a soothing feel, and the quicker, unstressed “-vola” that follows whirls playfully in your mouth, almost evoking the curvy and curly shapes of a white, fluffy cloud.
In Italian, just like in English, “avere la testa tra le nuvole” means to have your head in the clouds.
When we Italians are very surprised - and maybe a little disorientated - about something, we do not fall from the sky, but rather…from the clouds! Yes, “cadere dalle nuvole” (literally: to fall from the clouds) is our equivalent of “falling from the sky”.
If our ancestors used to look at the “nuvole” in the sky to spot any change in weather and for divination rituals, today we spend more and more time in the cloud.
Italian borrowed this IT term from English instead of translating it, so then talking about the digital space with Italian people, you will not hear “nuvola” but rather the English term “cloud” itself!
#7: 𝗦𝗘𝗚𝗡𝗔𝗧𝗘𝗠𝗣𝗢 [se-gna-tèm-po]
: timepiece, watch
This word comes straight from the watchmaking world!
It is a compound noun formed by the verb “segna(-re)” which means “to mark/track”, and “tempo” which means “time”.
The reason why I love this word is that it provides an elevated synonym for “orologio”, which is the term for “watch/clock” that we use in everyday language.
While “orologio” is a very concrete, specific term that immediately speaks of movements, springs and complications, “segnatempo” hints at the essential function of a watch - measuring something as ephemeral as time.
This word conveys a timeless and solemn feel; no wonder some luxury brands I have translated for - including Omega - prefer to use “segnatempo” rather than “orologio” when they localise their website and marketing content into Italian.
Did you know? Curiously, the word “tempo” has a double meaning in Italian: “time”, but also “weather”. So, when you don’t have time you say “Non ho tempo” and when the weather is good you say “Il tempo è bello”...
Funny, isn’t it?
*** BONUS ***
𝗣𝗥𝗜𝗡𝗖𝗜𝗣𝗜𝗢 🏁⚖️ [prin-cì-pio]
: start, principle, foundation
“Principio” is a solemn word with a rich range of meanings.
It comes from the word “primo” (first), and denotes what comes first in terms of space and time. For example, we start reading a book “dal principio”, i.e. from the start.
Similarly, when we study a new subject, we usually begin by tackling its basics or foundations - that is, the “principi” of that topic.
But we also call “principio” what comes first in terms of moral importance: the ideas we believe in, and that we use as a moral compass as we sail through life. So if you are “a principled person”, Italians would call you “una persona di sani principi”.
Fun fact: do you know that the words “principio” and “principe” (prince) are closely linked?
Is it because a prince comes first among its people in terms of status? Not exactly.
The original meaning of “principe” was totally different. In ancient Rome, the equivalent Latin word designated someone who was “primus inter pares” (first among its peers), namely a person representing a group of individuals who were equal to him in terms of dignity and importance. The original “principe” received no special treatments - he was merely a coordinator, and his powers were limited by his equal status to those around him.
There is a specific reason why I choose "Principio" as a bonus.
It's a word that speaks of important things and a new beginnings.
What better choice to kick off our new #FaveWord series, starting next week?
With one new article every week, I'll take you on a mini-journey where you can discover the most authentic Italian culture through the eyes of an Italian, one word at a time.
Connect with me and get ready for your Italian adventure!
Favella Translations is a Singapore-registered translation atelier specialising in Italian language and culture. We provide a range of language services, including creative translations and tailored Italian classes. Get in touch and tell us how we can help!