Every country has its share of jerks, clods and ignorant slobs, but Italian reserves the word “cafone” (pronounced cah-fon-ay) for its home-grown variety. This utterly Italian insult traces its history back to Cafo or Cafonis, a centurion of Mark Anthony, mentioned several times by Cicero. Its linguistic pedigree includes a debut in Italian literature in 1861, the year of the nation’s unification, in a publication called La perseveranza (Perseverance).
Cafone can apply to any generic dork, but Italian offers distinctions for the son of an ignorant bumpkin (figlio d’un cafone), a crude slob (cafone rozzo), a tasteless boob (cafone sciocco), an ill-mannered fool (cafone maleducato), an officious ass (cafone impertinente), a tasteless jerk (cafone senza gusto), and a disgusting boor (cafone ripugnante).
The most recent Galateo (Italian etiquette book) includes a “dizionario delle cafonate,” an alphabetical listing of boorish behaviors that include throwing chewing gum on the ground per la gioia delle suole altrui (for the joy of others’ soles); sticking a finger into un pertugio del corpo (a body opening), grattarsi ostentatamente (scratching oneself ostentatiously) and using fingernails as stuzzicadenti (toothpicks).
I have used cafone exactly once—at a free concert celebrating April 21, Rome’s official birthday, at the city’s opera house. The mainly elderly Romans, dressed smartly (as their generation always does), were already seated when a pudgy foreigner in shorts and a tee shirt squeezed into our row to take the empty seat next to mine.
“Please don’t let him be American,” I prayed, but as soon as I heard his string of “Excuse me’s,” I knew he was. Just as he sat down, he erupted into a volcanic sneeze. Obviously lacking a handkerchief, he blotted his nose with the back of one hand and then wiped it dry on his hairy thigh. The appalled woman on my other side and I locked eyes and almost simultaneously mouthed the same words, “Che cafone!”
Sayings and Expressions:
If you encounter a cafone:
Ma Lei, cafone ci è nato o ci è diventato? — Were you born rude or did you become rude?
Synonyms (useful if you ever find yourself trading insults with a cafone): rozzo, villano, zotico, buzzurro, maleducato
Cafone also can refer to something molto buono (very good): pane cafone,
the simple daily bread of Naples and the surrounding region. You don’t
need Italian to follow this basic recipe. Just watch Mr. Bread at work: