“We’ve rented a wonderful apartment,” I gushed at dinner at Camponeschi, our favorite restaurant in Rome, “with a great view of the roofs of Rome.” The Italians at the next table giggled. The young waiters nearby burst into laughter. A friend leaned over to point out my mistake: Instead of the masculine noun tetti (teht-tee) for roofs, I had used the feminine tette (teht-tay), slang for “tits.”
As in French and Spanish, everything Italian is sexed—and somehow sexier. Il mare (the sea, masculine) laps against la terra (the land, feminine). La luna (the moon, feminine) lights up il cielo (the sky). Italians point out that the arm—il braccio (masculine)– has the power, but the head—la testa (feminine)—controls it.
Sometimes a single letter switches the gender of a word from masculine to feminine (or vice versa) and transforms its meaning. You might wear un cappello (hat, masculine), for instance, when you visit una cappella (chapel, feminine). You open la porta (the door, feminine) but sail into il porto (the port, masculine). You use la testa (the head, feminine) when you read il testo (the text, masculine). You may get a pain in il collo (neck, masculine) but you could never fix it with la colla (glue, feminine). You write on il foglio (the sheet of paper, masculine), but snip la foglia (leaf, feminine) from a plant. At times I want to press la mia fronte (my forehead, feminine) against il fronte (front, masculine) of the nearest building and sigh.
The words for trees are masculine, but the names of their fruit are feminine. La mela (the apple) comes from il melo (the apple tree); the cherry (la ciliegia) from il ciliegio (the cherry tree); the peach (la pesca) from il pesco (the peach tree). If you want un’arancia but ask for un arancio, you could end up with an orange tree on your plate.
Some Italian words switch gender from masculine in the singular to feminine in the plural. You have one braccio (arm) but two braccia; one dito (finger) but ten dita; one lip (labbro) but two labbra. The same transformation occurs with walls (il muro, le mura); linens (il lenzuolo, le lenzuola), and eggs (l’uovo, le uova).
Certain animals, including the dolphin (delfino), rabbit (coniglio), and mouse (topo), have no feminine form. Others, such as the eagle (aquila), whale (balena), monkey (scimmia), tiger (tigre), and fox (volpe), have no masculine. So if you’re trying to distinguish the sexes of these species, you have to say la scimmia maschio (the male monkey) or il topo femmina (the female mouse).
It’s enough to make you want to jump off un tetto.
Sayings and Expressions
Gli dai un dito e si prendono il braccio – Give them a finger (an inch) and they'll take an arm (a mile).
Meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani – Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow
(A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush)
farsi cadere le braccia - to make the arms fall (to feel discouraged, to lose heart)
Non è sempre d’accordo il labbro e il cuore - The lip and the heart don’t always agree (Sometimes we say things we don’t really think)