British journalist John Hooper got to know the country, its people and its language by spending decades living and writing in Italy as a correspondent for The Guardian. In his best-selling chronicle, The Italians, Hooper provides droll insights for casual or seasoned tourists as well as enlightening definitions of Italian words one rarely finds in dictionaries or learns in classes. Here are some examples:
*copiare: literally, to copy, but used “euphemistically,” as Hooper puts it, for cheating at school. (Cheating in other contexts is barare, truffare or imbrogliare.) A successful Italian industrialist once bragged that “at school, I was the world champion at copiatura.”
*furbo: an almost untranslatable word with “a range of meanings that in English go from ’smart’ to ‘cunning’ and from ‘crafty’ to ‘sly.’” Fare il furbo means to cut into a line. Non fare il furbo translates as “Don’t try to get clever with me.” “Furbo is not a compliment,” says Hooper, but Italians praise furbizia “in a tone of mixed surprise and complicit approval.”
*fesso: idiot or fool, often used in contrast to furbo. A fesso isn’t dumb, but he’s foolish enough to go to the end of a queue and wait his turn or to tell the tax collector his actual income—unthinkable for a furbo.
*ometto, stampella, angioletto, gruccia, attaccapanni, croce, appendiabiti, cruccia, stanfella, crocetta, crociera, appendina: all these words are used in different parts of Italy to refer to the same thing — the humble coat hangar.
*mammismo: “the phenomenon of sons unduly dependent on their mothers,” which, Hooper reports, may be unique in the Italian language but differs only in degree from the close relationship between mothers and sons in most Mediterranean societies.
*il piacere di stare insieme: “the joy of being together,” the Italian love of communal social action.
*il salotto buono: a term for an imagined refined drawing room where the powerful leaders of finance and industry make insider deals.
*nepotismo: the giving of jobs to relatives, a word derived from the Latin nepos (nephew), inspired by the privileges once showered on the “nephews” (in reality, illegitimate sons) of Catholic prelates and popes.
*raccomandazione, indicazione, segnalazione, spintarella: terms used for any exchange of reciprocal favors or the intervention of one person with another on behalf of a third. Italy’s Supreme Court declared the practice “so deeply rooted in custom and practice as to appear in the eyes of some people to be an indispensable instrument” for society to function.
*bustarella: a “little envelope” packed with money that helps pave the way for needed permissions or extensions
*più amato dagli italiani: most beloved by the Italians, a phrase used in advertisements or commercials for everything from sofas to crockery to rental firms.
John Hooper’s engaging book inspires a single word for the author: “Bravo!”
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.