Sunday, 5 August 2012

A Quick Guide to Italian English

While living in Italy, I’ve been struck by the saturation of English words in the Italian media and everyday conversation. There are common English loanwords such as bar, cocktail, and club which have retained their original meaning while others, such as tandem (a native speaker with whom you practice speaking a new language), had taken on completely new meanings in Italian. 

Comic Illustration
Naturally, the latter leads to a lot of confusion. I remember an Italian friend once sent me a lovely text message. Well, lovely until it got to end and said, "OK, see you later! SMACK!"  I was quite taken aback by this. Had my friend just e-hit me? What had I done to deserve this comic book style attack?? To my relief, it turned out that smack is the equivalent of 'mwah' as in 'smack on the lips' rather than striking someone, as I'd initially thought. 

After many similarly embarrassing 'lost in translation' situations, I was instructed by a native Italian speaker to relearn Italianised English words. He said, ‘your English is good. Now your Italian is good. But you must improve your Italian English!!’ Wishing to avoid such cringe-worthy moments in the future, I took his advice and began my education in Italian English. Here's a quick list of the most common examples that I came across:

Italian English

  Lo Slip
  Un Lifting
  Sexy Shop
  Un Smoking
 Translation Back into English 

  Female Air Steward
  A Small Child
  Sex Shop

The use of Italian English has grown immensely over recent years, spurred on by social media youth culture. This is surprising as Italian is quite a rigid language with complicated grammar which isn't as flexible as English, a language which absorbs foreign words like a sponge. Areas such as Computing (computer, password) and Business (manager, merger) are particularly saturated with English loanwords. In many cases there are Italian alternatives but the English equivalent is used as a status symbol. Italian adverts (or spot as their called in Italian) are often peppered with English words. I remember one advert where a glamorous model eschewed her lover's use of the Italian word delizioso to describe their new espresso and exclaims breathily, "No... SUPER!" instead.

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When it comes to making verbs, the rule for the English integration is the addition of the suffix -are to form a regular verb such as flirtare (to flirt), linkare (to link - within the context of the internet), and cliccare (to click). In fact, Italian verbs are often formed in this way despite the existence of a direct equivalent in Italian. In these cases, the English-Italian verb offers a more precise meaning, limited to one context. An example would be the verb shakerare which means 'to shake the ingredients of a cocktail). Here, a translation of shake already exists in Italian as the verb agitare (literally ‘to agitate’) which signifies the same up-and-down motion but shakerare is used within the specific context of drinks. 

Bond: 'Shakerato, non Mescolato'

The popular use of shakerato is probably due to its popular cultural connotations as 'shakerato is used in the James Bond's dubbed catchphrase, ‘shaken but not stirred’. In this context the phrase is consistently translated as 'shakerato, not mescolato' (literally, 'shaken, not mixed'). The common usage of the word also corresponds to the emergence of a style of coffee called caffé shakerato (‘shaken coffee’), an iced coffee widely drunk across Italy and an absolute lifesaver in the summer! (note: If you're suffering in the heat of an Italian city, then order an caffé in ghiaccio (ghee-atch-oh), an espresso poured over a refreshing mountain of ice. 

Photo via Blissful Adventurer

Social media has been so instrumental in the addition of English loanwords into Italian. Now, Italians know these English additions are not very eloquent and so they often use them in a tongue-in-cheek way, with a knowing chuckle or smile on their face. On Twitter for example, there's not equivalent for 'retweet' and so it is used as is. The past simple 'retweeted' however, has the unfortunate fate of becoming the very clumsy ritwittatoMeanwhile on Facebook, the English word tag has been absorbed into a hybrid Italian verb taggare which is often used in relation to FB. It's very common among young people but you won't find it in formal newspapers yet. Interestingly (for linguistic geeks anyway), taggare can also become the comical reflexive verb detaggarci (‘to de-tag oneself’).

Naturally, thing aren't always plain sailing for these Italian-English crossovers. For example, you couldn't simply add the prefix –are to the English word ‘scan’ because scannare in Italian means ‘to slaughter' or 'to butcher animals!!’ Therefore, instead, you have the slightly awkward scannarizzare. When asked about this particular word, a professor called Giovanni Nencioni said that although these English-Italian hybrids are not considered to be ‘good taste,’ those who work in technological fields regularly ‘italianizzare’ (‘Italianise’) English computing terms in order to make them more universal and/or to show off their awareness of English. 

Update via @newsfromitaly:  'New Italian verb! "Pinnare" = To pin things to @pinterest' > which adheres to the regular -are suffix rule.
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I hope you've found this useful and interesting whether you're learning Italian or just interested in Italian culture. Please let me know if you can think of anymore examples of Italian English and I'll include them in future posts or additions. 

Next post: Travel Journal: The Secrets of Bologna 


  1. I found this really interesting - I love that 'Bimbo'means small child - you'd hate to mix that up!

  2. I really enjoyed your post and I think this would be useful for my students. May I share it on my site? Thanks!!

    1. Yes of course. I'd be more than happy for you to share it with your students. Thanks!

  3. I like how sex shops are instead 'sexy shops'. In England they must feel shameful but in Italy those shops must feel really good about themselves.

  4. They certainly don't have self-esteem issues!

  5. my husband and i just nearly wet ourselves with laughter..

    1. Without a doubt that's the best reaction I've had to a blog post : D Thank you!

  6. Another interesting thing is potentially the pronunciation of English words - e.g. (an pc external) hardisk in Italian is l'ardisk-e... Or the fact that a G&T is gintonic...

  7. I enjoyed this post too: I'm an Italian living abroad and I use English in my everyday life, at least at work. And it happened to me to use some of this words in the wrong way in English!
    The only thing is that 'bimbo' is not an English word used to mean something different in Italian, but it is probably the other way around! :) English people adopted it giving it a different meaning.

    As 'latte', for example, which in English means the Italian caffelatte, but it is actually the Italian word for 'milk'.


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