A Mouthful of the Italian Language (Part 1)

May 19, 2016


La bocca italiana

The Italian Mouth

“You must see with Italian eyes,” one of my teachers would exhort me. “You must hear with Italian ears and, above all, you must speak with an Italian mouth."  As I learned, una bocca italiana is much more than a part of facial anatomy.  

In Italian, if you never lie, you are la bocca della verità (the mouth of truth). If you aren’t fussy about food, you are di bocca buona (of good mouth). If you take on a project halfheartedly or unwillingly, you do so a mezza bocca (at half mouth). If you interfere or assert an unsolicited opinion, you might be accused of mettere bocca in qualcosa (putting your mouth in something).

You don’t turn up your nose at something in Italian but instead storcere la bocca (twist your mouth) or make a funny little mouth (fare boccuccia). In Italian braggarts “fill their mouths” (riempirsi la bocca) with self-praise. Their behavior may leave you a bocca aperta (open-mouthed, or speechless) or a bocca asciutta (with a dry mouth, or disappointed). If you silence a blowhard with an irrefutable argument, you manage to chiudere la bocca a qualcuno (shut someone’s mouth). If you want to forget the taste of a bad meal or experience, you can rifarsi la bocca (remake the mouth) with something new or satisfying.

A naïve or gullible young person who would be described as “wet behind the ears in English “still has milk in the mouth” (avere ancora il latte alla bocca or la bocca che sa ancora di latte) in Italian. Someone with a bad memory can’t remember what happens "from nose to mouth" (dal naso alla bocca).

Boccone translates as a "mouthful"; a bocconcino, as a small bite or snack-sized nibble–although it's sometimes used to describe an attractive woman as a tasty morsel. A boccone amaro is something else entirely: a bitter pill

La lingua translates as “tongue” as well as “language.” Someone can have una lingua lunga (a long tongue, or be prone to gossip), una lingua sciolta (loose or glib tongue) or una lingua che taglia e cuce (a sharp tongue that cuts and sews). A treacherous liar or traitor has una lingua biforcuta (a forked tongue like a snake’s).  

A person can also be una cattiva lingua, malalingua or  linguaccia (bad tongue or scandal-monger) or una lingua sacrilega (a blasphemous tongue). A blunt talker who doesn’t mince words is described as not having “hair on the tongue” (peli sulla lingua). In Italy as elsewhere, children (and even grown-ups) sometimes can't resist sticking out their tongues (fare le linguacce).

Just as in English, you may find yourself scrambling to recall a word sulla punta della lingua (on the tip of your tongue). If you mis-speak , you may feel like mordersi la lingua (biting your tongue). And you may wish that you had learned an important lesson in any language:  to hold one’s tongue (tenere la lingua a freno).   

In bocca al lupo! (In the mouth of the wolf–the Italian way of saying "Good luck!")

Words and Expressions

Avere molte bocche da sfamare — to have many hungry mouths to feed, to provide for a large family

Respirazione bocca a bocca –- mouth-to-mouth resuscitation

Boccheggiare –- to gasp for air

Essere sulla bocca di tutti –- to be on everyone’s lips, to be the topic of gossip

Bocca di miele e cuore di fiele — A honey tongue and a heart of gall.

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.

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