Welcoming May in the Italian Language

Apr 28, 2017




One of my favorite months anywhere, May is a particularly special time in Italy. As an old saying goes, “Di maggio s’innamorano anche le civette.” (In May even the owls fall in love.)

The month’s name derives from the Roman goddess Maia (dalla dea romana Maia), mother of Mercury, but in Christian culture (nella cultura cristiana) maggio is dedicated to the Madonna, the mother of Jesus.

Devout Catholics often will fare il mese di maggio (do the month of May) by reciting il rosario (the rosary) every day. This consists of a series of fifty prayers called the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), divided into five groups of ten.  Catholics keep  track of the number of prayers with una corona del rosario (a rosary crown, more commonly called rosary beads in English).

May in Italy also is known as  il mese delle rose e delle spose (the month of the roses and of the brides).  Le rose (roses) blossom during May, a popular time for le nozze (weddings).

May starts with il Primo Maggio (the first of May) and la festa del lavoro (the equivalent of America’s Labor Day) and includes a host of celebrations, including la festa della mamma (Mother’s Day).  But Italians never stop keeping an eye on the weather (il tempo) during this unpredictable month.

On May 16, the feast of Sant’Ubaldo, they warn: “Per Sant’Ubaldo, guardati dal freddo e non dal caldo” (for St. Ubaldo,  watch out for the cold and not the heat).  On May 22, the feast of Santa Rita, they delight that “per Santa Rita, ogni rosa è fiorita (for St. Rita, every rose is blossoming). On May 26, they observe: “Se piove per San Filippo, il povero non ha bisogno del ricco” (If it rains for St. Philip, the poor won’t need the rich).  Yet another weather prediction: Quello che fa maggio, fa settembre (what May does, September does).

Rain is the biggest preoccupation. According to one proverb, “una piovuta a maggio, se è sola che vantaggio!” (A rainfall in May, if just one, what a gain!).  Another cautions: “Maggio ortolano, molta paglia e poco grano” (The greengrocer’s–or a rainy–May, lots of straw and little grain). 

If the sun shines, maggio brings ciliegie per assaggio (cherries to taste) and well-priced produce. “Maggio soleggiato, frutta a buon mercato.”  (Sunny May, cheap fruit.)

The bottom line on this merry month:  Maggio caldo ti arricchisce, freddo ti impoverisce. (A hot May makes you rich; a cold one makes you poor.)

Words and Expressions

Maggiolata –- May song

Maggiolino –– May bug, beetle

Maggiostrino -– May or straw hat (archaic)

L’inverno a metà maggio riprende breve ingaggio –- Winter briefly takes up the fight again in mid-May

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.  

 If you're in Italy in May, listen for the sound of the bird that inspired this song:

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