Italian Language Rules

Jan 7, 2015


Life Rules, Italian Style

On my first trips to Italy, I often felt that I’d unwittingly committed a faux-pas. No one chided me, but I could tell by a shopkeeper’s frown or a waiter’s roll of the eyes that I had done something unthinkably un-Italian. “If only I knew the rules,” I thought to myself, “I’d play by them.”

Now an American, Ann Reavis, author of Italian Food Rules and the Tuscan Traveler blog, has provided an indispensable guide for foreigners. Her new book, Italian Life Rules, presents the unwritten code that governs daily life in Italy.

The rules, Italian style, apply to everything from food (no cappuccino after 10:00 a.m.), to wardrobe (no summer sandals on even the hottest October day), to keeping windows shut at night (for fear of the dread colpo d’aria, literally, the strike of air—a chill caused by a blast of wind).

Although all of Reavis’s brief essays are informative and witty, I especially appreciated her Italian language rules, including:


Although ciao is described as “the Italian version of aloha, meaning both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’” Reavis notes that if you use it at the wrong time with the wrong person, “you will leave a lasting negative impression.” In Italy ciao is “still a very informal greeting. To use it with a stranger or an elder is an easy and unknowing way to offend.”

The preferred salutations are buongiorno (good day) before 1:00 p.m. and buonasera (good evening) afterwards. Another alternative is Salve!, derived from the Latin verb salvere (to be well or in good health), which can be used with friends or strangers of your age or younger.  For saying goodbye, the safest word is arrivederci or, more formally, arrivederla (preferred with older strangers, priests, nuns and people in authority).


The dictionary defines allora as “then, in that case, thus, therefore, so.” But as Reavis points out, Italians use allora when they have no idea what to say–if only to buy time to think. “In reality, the meaning of the word depends on who you are and how you say it,” she says. When a teacher yells “Allora!” students shut up and pay attention. When a friend sighs “Allora,” it means: “I’m about to tell you a story.” Attach a question mark and “Allora?” signifies “Cut to the chase” or “The bottom line is?” An Italian might also use “Allora” as a way of saying “What do you think?” or “Where do we go from here?”  

Hidden Traps

When I once asked an Italian man if he had a pen I might borrow, he blushed. I’d meant penna, but I’d said pene, which means penis. Beware other such slips of the tongue, Reavis cautions: Pisolino is a cute word for a nap, but if you don’t enunciate clearly, you might say pisellino, which literally means “small penis.”

Then there’s scoraggiare, which by itself means to discourage, but there is the expression “non ti scoraggiare" or "non scoraggiarti,” which means "don’t be discouraged" or "don’t get disheartened." Change one letter to scoreggiare, and the verb translates as “to fart.”

Words and Expressions

apericena — a light dinner, a word invented, Reavis reports, to describe the finger foods served with an aperitivo before dinner

fantasmini — a dimunitive of the word for "ghosts," used for mini-socks “worn by men with deck shoes or car shoes or designer athletic shoes to give that sock-free look without the attendant sweaty feet”

entrata libera — literally “free entrance,” but Reavis observes that it is “simply an expression that the  shop door is open and you may go in.” Not to be mistaken as an offer of service.  

toccare ferro — touch iron (similar to knock on wood) to prevent something bad from occurring. “Italian men, knowing what must be protected at all costs," Reavis notes,  "may tap their testicles,"  a practice known as toccarsi le palle (touching one's balls).

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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