The language of Italia belongs to the illustrious club known as the Romance group of the Italic subfamily of the Indo-European family. Although it’s considered a single language you’ll find a great degree of variance in dialect from one area of the country to the next. There are over 65 million people in the European Union alone who speak Italian and that speaks volumes. It’s very similar in structure to Latin, that’s one thing you’ll notice right away.
The popularity of Italian spans far and wide. In Switzerland, it’s one of the four official languages. However, it’s only the fourth most taught language here in the U.S., after Spanish, French and German. The modern Italian of today is the product of three Italian masters who spoke a certain dialect in the 13th and 14th centuries in Florence. Although it has evolved through the years, it flourished back when art was also starting to take flight.
From region to region you can detect the differences in dialect in different ways — the length of the consonants and any local language influences. In the north east of Italy, roughly 1% of the entire population, the dialect spoken is called Friulian, and it’s on the tongue of nearly 600,000 people.
But no matter what version you hear, Italian is a language that just seems to flow from the tongue with the grace and beauty of a sonnet. And much like with our English, Italian slang is a necessary — and entertaining — part of the vernacular.
Here are a few Italian slang phrases that you won’t find taught in the halls of universities or in textbooks, but they communicate in their own little round about way and help you speak Italian like an Italian.
This is the Italian equivalent to when we say “no worries.” It essentially means it’s nothing, or don’t worry about it. So for example if someone says, “thank you for the coffee” a correct response would be the Italian slang Figurati. It can also be used when you’re trying to be nice but really want to scream at someone. “I apologize for rear ending your brand new Maserati.” “Figurati.” Okay, so maybe one wouldn’t be so kind.
Che schifo (keh SKEE-foh)
This is a term used to express disgust over any situation that is disturbing, rude or down right ridiculous. For example, your cat killed a bird and left it outside by your front door. “Che schifo!” How disgusting.
If you’re not quite sure how to answer a question with a definitive yes or no, Magari is the slang word you need to have in your back pocket. Let’s say you’re in the Italian countryside sipping a Sangiovese overlooking a Tuscan wonderland and your travel partner asks, “Do you think you’ll ever come back here?” Magari, or “I hope so” is a great response. It’s translated literally as “I wish” or “Let’s hope” and also “Maybe.”
Che palle (keh PAL-leh)
This is quite literally translated to “What balls!” and it refers to anything that is a pain in the rear end. There is no Internet access at that café in Milano. “Che palle!” I parked my car illegally and it just got towed. Che palle. I failed my Italian slang quiz… you get the picture.
If you say it with just enough inflection, tone and a slightly raised volume, dai can mean “stop it” or “come on.” Here’s a good example — an Italian friend is teasing you over the way you pronounce an Italian wine. You simply say “dai” to shut him or her up. Ma dai is a variation on this and can convey surprise or suspicion. Dai is the second singular person of the verb dare, to give.
Meno Male (MEH-noh MAH-leh)
When your flight touches down in Rome you might use the Italian slang Meno Male, which means “less bad” but is used more like “Thank God.” Of course, you could also just say thank God and that would be Grazie a Dio! I have a gelato and my sweetheart on my arm and we’re about to explore the Italian countryside. “Meno Male.” “Si.”
The Italian Mafia and Slang — Sopranos Style
If you’ve ever been a fan of the television show the Sopranos, chances are you heard some Italian slang a few times before. The Mafia is a network of organized crime groups based in Italy and America and it originated in Sicily, an island ruled by foreign conquerors, including the Romans, Arabs, French and Spanish. The term Mafia originated from a Sicilian-Arabic slang expression that means, “acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful.”
The Mafia was a strong and powerful force in Sicily until the 1920s. Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, the controversial ruler took over and embarked on a crackdown on mobsters who threatened his Fascist regime. That was only a temporary setback and the Mafia came back stronger than ever in the post-World War II building boom.
The specialized vocabulary of mob families makes it easy for them to recognize their own. They have their own secret language and set of rules for their own cloistered world. Goombah, goomba or gumba is Sicilian slang for the Italian word compare — a close friend or buddy, literally “godfather” in Italian. Babbo is a dope, idiot and useless individual. Borgata is a crime family. Goumada is a mafia mistress. Cosa Nostra is Italian for “this thing of ours.” Omerta is the code of silence and one of the first vows one takes when being sworn into a Mafia family. The penalty for violating this vow is death.
Italians are notorious for talking with their hands and much like the language dialects, hand gestures mean different things depending on where you’re at in Italy. For example, to point up to your eye signals someone who is a cunning manipulator. Swiping the hand under the chin in a forward motion means I do not give a damn. There are easily 250 hand gestures, which are understood by most of the Italian population. It would not be uncommon to see Italian footballers who are losing a game lifting one or both hands up and pressing the fingers together in and upward motion and that means, “What the hell?”
Working-class urban Italian Americans are known by the slang term guido. It used to just be a derogatory term for Italian Americans and general. Today, it refers to the Italian Americans who act overly macho in an obnoxious way. You’ll really only find this where burgeoning Italian-American populations exist, such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and Ohio. It’s an ethnic slur anyway you look at it and is derived from the verb guidare, to drive. Italian fishermen in medieval times were called guido.
MTV innocently became involved over a controversy with the term guido in 2009 when it launched the reality television show Jersey Shore. By using the term while promoting the show they sparked outrage with organizations like Unico National, NIAF and the Order Sons of Italy in America. So what does a guido look like and how do they perfect their look? By loading up on gold herringbone chains, saint medallions, pinky rings, plain white T-shirts or muscle shirts, leather jackets, tracksuits, overly gelled hair and pompadours.
Image is Everything
Despite Italian slang as a casual form of the language, “bella figura” or a good image is very import to Italians. First impressions are lasting ones. Italians will judge you in the first few seconds of meeting you and unconsciously assess your age and social standing, often before you even say a single word. You will be judged on your clothes, shoes, accessories and your English. Clothes are extremely important to Italians and they definitely have the fashion know how that earns them the right to judge. So if you do find yourself in Italy and people shun you for wearing sweat pants and a worn-out tee, simply sigh and say “Figurati!”