“T” Is for Tempo in the Italian Language

May 12, 2014

Timeflies blog



"Sai il tempo?" I once asked an Italian friend.

"Che ora è o che tempo fa?" (What time it is or what the weather's like?) she replied. I’d forgotten that tempo carries dual meanings in Italian: time, as in tenere il tempo (keeping time), and weather, as in prevedere il tempo (predicting the weather). Even though they share the same name, both time and weather strike me as different in Italy than in other places.

Italians believe in dare tempo al tempo (literally giving time to time or letting things take their course). Several expressions—”c’è un tempo per ogni cosa,“ “ogni cosa a tempo debito” or “ogni cosa a suo tempo”—translate more or less into “there’s a time for everything.” And remember: Il tempo è galantuomo (time is the best healer).

This doesn’t mean you should let time slip by. “Chi ha tempo non aspetti tempo,” advises an Italian proverb. (If you can do something now, don't postpone it.) In English time flies (il tempo vola). In Italian it tightens (il tempo stringe).

“Il tempo è tiranno” (time is pressing), a boss or teacher may warn, urging you to stringere i tempi (tighten the rhythm or pick up the beat). While English speakers play for time, Italians earn it (guadagnare tempo) or take it (prendere tempo). And rather than killing time, they cheat it (ingannare il tempo).

You may also have plenty of time (aver tempo da vendere–literally time to sell), be in step with the times or up-to-date (essere al passo coi tempi) or be obsolete or old-fashioned (aver fatto il proprio tempo).

“Da quanto tempo?” (Since when?) you might ask in Italian. Sometimes the answer is tempo fa (long ago) or even prima del tempo (before time). If you’re working against time (lottare contro il tempo), you may have to do two things allo stesso tempo (at the same time) or a un tempo (at one time, simultaneously).

“Come passa il tempo!” (How time passes!) Italians sigh con l’andare del tempo (literally with the going of time). They refer to spare time as tempo perso (lost time) and a loafer or time-waster as a perditempo (time-loser).

If an Italian exclaims "Che bel tempo!", he is more likely referring to beautiful weather than to a lovely time (un momento piacevole). "Tempo permettendo" (weather permitting) is a phrase you often hear, along with complaints about brutto or cattivo tempo (ugly or bad weather).

Con ogni tempo (in any weather), Italians so heartily embrace darsi buon tempo (having a jolly good time) that they coined one of my favorite words for an easy-going, fun-loving individual: un buontempone (a big good-timer)–someone who realizes that everyday joys are senza tempo (timeless).

Words and Expressions

primo tempo, secondo tempo –- first half, second half (of a game or show)

tempo di cottura –- cooking time  

tempo pieno –- full time

passatempo – hobby, pastime

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.


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