This is the first in a series of weekly posts on some of my favorite Italian words–in alphabetical order:
During Grand Rounds at a university hospital in Pisa, an earnest psychiatric resident, a young woman with long blonde hair and amethyst eyes, presented my husband Bob with a diagnostic dilemma: Italian emergency rooms were seeing an increasing number of agitated young men, sometimes babbling or crying. Although they complained of being too restless to sleep and too distracted to work or study, medical tests found nothing physically wrong.What could be the culprit?
My psychiatrist husband listed the usual suspects, such as drug abuse and the manic stage of bipolar disorder.
“No, most often it’s something else,” she said: “Amore!” Not just love, but crazy love (amore alla follia). I wasn't surprised.
The Italian word innamorare was defined in the 13th century as "suscitare amore" (to arouse, provoke, stir, excite love) in someone, but my dictionary adds a special word—innamorazzarsi—for falling deeply, passionately, head-over-heels in love. Perhaps only in Italy can love’s colpo di fulmine (lightning bolt) set off spasimi (spasms) of infatuation of such Richter-scale force that they transform love-struck suitors into spasimanti, corteggiatori, or pretendenti.
In English a heart breaks just like a dish, but a lovesick Italian soul claims a word of its own—spezzare—when it shatters into bits. It’s no wonder that pop singer Tiziano Ferro croons of love making him so imbranato (slang for clumsy or awkward) that he’s like a silly little dumpling .
In his monumental Dizionario de’ sinonimi (Dictionary of Synonyms), published in 1830, the wordsmith Niccolò Tommaseo dissected the linguistic nuances that differentiate affetto, affezione, amore, amorevolezza, benevolenza, inclinazione, passione, amicizia, ardore, amistanza, amistà, carità, tenerezza, cordialità, svisceratezza and ardenza. This obsessive poet and novelist also charted the shades of difference among a voglia (wish or longing), the first degree of desire; desiderio, born of true love; brama, a still-stronger craving; and unbridled appetito, “il primo moto d’amore, e l’ultime furie” (the first motion of love, and its final furies).
As Tommaseo definitively showed, Italian qualifies hands-down as the language of love. But why does almost all classic Italian music and writing seem to be about love? When I ask this question of an Italian composer and Petrarchian scholar, he breaks into a smile and responds: “What else is there?”
I cannot imagine a citizen of any other nation—certainly no buttoned-down Brit or ambitious American, not even a flirtatious Frenchman or seductive Spaniard—making this statement.
Ah, amore! What could be more Italian?
Words and Expressions
essere innamorato di – to be in love with
amante, innamorato/a – lover
amorazzo – an affair (often illicit and non-commital)
amorevole – loving, affectionate
Solo chi ama conosce - Only he who loves understands.
Quando si ama, anche i sassi diventano stelle – When you are in love, even stones look like stars.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH ITALIAN, THE WORLD'S MOST ENCHANTING LANGUAGE and MONA LISA: A LIFE DISCOVERED.
Click below for the Italian lyrics to the American classic "That's Amore!"