Water, Water Everywhere in the Italian Language

Sep 7, 2016



When in Italy, I spend as much time as possible in, on and under water (in, sull’ e sott’acqua).  In Italian water itself takes many forms—and names:

                *Acqua marina  — sea water 

                *Acqua salsa — salty, saline water (in a pond or river)

                *Acqua viva, sorgiva, di fonte — spring water

                *Acqua sudicia  — dirty water

                *Acqua dura  — hard water

                *Acqua piovana  –  rain water

                *Acqua potabile — drinking water

                *Acqua morta — dead or still water

                *Acqua santa — holy water

                *Acque termali — spa waters

                *Acqua di rubinetto — tap water

                *Acqua alta  — high tide (in Venice)

                *Acqua frizzante (o gasata) -– sparkling water

                *Acqua di cottura –- cooking water

You don’t even have to get wet (bagnarsi) to find yourself afloat in watery Italian words. American kids cry out “hot” and “cold” when playing games like hide and seek; Italian youngsters yell “fuoco” (fire) and “acqua.” 

“Acqua in bocca!”  (water in the mouth!) means “Keep it quiet” or  “Mum’s the word.” A wholesome beauty is described as acqua e sapone (as fresh-faced as soap and water). Suggesting an obvious solution is as trite as scoprire l’acqua calda (discovering hot water or stating what everyone already knows). That’s almost as bad as being all’acqua di rose (wishy-washy).

English speakers may find themselves in a tempest in a teapot; Italians, in una tempesta in un bicchier d’acqua (a tempest in a glass of water). If they have to navigare in cattive acque (sail bad or dangerous waters), they may soon avere l’acqua alla gola (have water at one’s throat or be in trouble up to one’s neck). If they try to to lavorare sott’acqua (work underwater or do something underhanded), they may end up a pane e acqua  (on bread and water or imprisoned).

Acqua trickles into the Italian equivalent of many English proverbs. Two peas in a pod are as similar as due gocce d’acqua (two drops of water). Rather than waiting for the dust to settle, Italians would rather bide their time fino a che non si siano calmate le acque (until the waters calm  down).

“The past is past”  translates as “acqua passata non macina più (past water no longer grinds) while “portare acqua al mare” (carry water to the sea) expresses the same futility as  bringing coals to Newcastle.  Pestare l’acqua nel mortaio (pounding the water in the mortar) is a waste of time and effort. Someone who backs down from a belligerent position puts acqua nel proprio vino (water in one’s wine), while those who  draw l’acqua al proprio mulino (the water to one’s own mill) are looking out only for themselves. Keep an eye on someone who’s unusually reserved. You already know that still waters run deep, but in Italy“l’acqua cheta rovina i ponti”  (quiet water damages bridges).

Words and Expressions

Acquoso –- watery

All’acqua pazza –- (lit. crazy water style) refers to a recipe for poached white fish

Acqua di colonia –- eau de Cologne

Dianne Hales is the author of the New York Times best-selling La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered.

 Click below to listen to a lively tribute to water–blue and clear:


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