In her ever-charming “French Word a Day” blog, author Kristin Espinasse recenty noted that “the French, widely regarded as one of the most sophisticated and beautiful people on the planet, use some of the most strange (and not so beautiful) terms to refer to their belle/beau, or loved one." Cases in point: ma puce (my flea) and mon chou (my cabbage),
Italians do the same—as I learned years ago when I saw a young man passionately embrace una bella ragazza (a pretty girl) whom he called “la mia patatina.”
“Did he just call her his little potato?” I asked. A Facebook friend has since explained why: La patata cotta bene diventa morbida e gustosa (The potato, cooked well, becomes soft and tasty).
Some Italian vezzeggiativi (pet names) are simply diminuitivi, shorter forms of a given name, such as Vale for Valentina, Lele for Raffaele, Eli for Elisabetta, Pippo for Filippo or Cri for Cristina. Or they may be playful variations on a name: Peppino, Beppe, Peppe or Peppuccio for Giuseppe,for instance, or Nina, Vanna or Vannina for Giovanna. Also popular are suffixes such as Stellina for Stella and Renzetto or Renzuccio for Renzo.
Over the centuries villages bred a host of nicknames that don't sound endearing but were used with great affection: Grissino (Breadstick), Stecchino or Stuzzicadenti (Toothpick) or Stangone (Beanpole) for a skinny guy; Ciccione (Fatty), Palletto (Little Belly), Panzone or Pallone (Big Belly) or Botte (barrel) for someone heavy. Monikers such as Piezzuocchie (One-eyed), Nasecano (Dog Nose), Scugnato (Toothless) and Stuorto (Crooked) sound more playful in local dialects.
Children’s behavior inspires nicknames such as Saglienne (Climber), Chiacchiere (Chatterbox) or Ercolino (Little Hercules, for a strong boy). A friend scampered so much as a child that her family dubbed her Capretta (Little Goat). When we spent a summer in Italy years ago, our young daughter earned a pet name of her own: Coccolona (Cuddly One).
So the next time you want to woo your darling with sweet nothings, you might try whispering some of these:
*passerotto mio — my little sparrow
*la mia metà — my "half"
*pulcino mio — my chick
*pulce mio — my flea
*zuccherino — little sugar
*cucciolo / cucciolotto — puppy
*orsetto – little bear
*tesorino – little treasure
*topolino — little mouse
And what does a patatina (little potato) call her romantic partner? Cipollino (little onion), of course!
Words and Expressions
Fiorello — Little Flower, for New York City’s former Mayor La Guardia.
Cicciolina — literally “cuddly,” the stage name for Ilona Staller, a Hungarian-born Italian politician, porn-star and singer
Lucianone — affectionate name for the late “Big Luciano” Pavarotti
Il molleggiato –- springy, bouncy, a nickname for Adriano Celentano , a popular Italian singer in the 60’s and 70’s
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.
Click below for a classic song about a woman nicknamed Bocca di rosa (mouth of a rose), who moved to a small village and shared her love with all the men, married or not. The angry townswomen teamed up and convinced their priest to send Bocca di rosa away.