Italy Roundtable: False Friends & A False Sense of Security


I was pleased enough to resurrect the Italy Blogging Roundtable last month, so imagine how thrilled I am to tell you that this month we welcome a new contributor! My friend and long-time blogger Michelle Fabio joins the roundtable, and I’m sure she’ll bring her signature blend of wit, careful analysis, and overall thoughtfulness to our group.

This month, the theme is TRANSLATION.

When I was young, I heard the word “pithy” and assigned my own meaning to it – one that was utterly disconnected from the word’s actual meaning. To me, “pithy” perfectly described the texture of an apple that’s gone slightly soft, so that it has a somewhat grainy texture. You bite into it, unaware of what awaits you, and immediately want to spit it out, making “pthpthpth” noises with your tongue to get all the offending apple pieces out of your mouth.

In other words, pithy.

(And yes, I still use it that way. Even though I know better.)

If there are instances of this sort of mixup within one’s own language, the “this word seems like it should mean X when it really means Y” experience, imagine how complicated it can get when you’re trying to translate one language to another.

False Friends

Libreria Acqua Alta || creative commons photo by Stefano Montagner

Libreria Acqua Alta || creative commons photo by Stefano Montagner

Early in my Italian studies, one teacher warned us to be on the watch for falsi amici, or “false friends” – Italian words that look similar enough to English words we know that we assume they mean the same thing. Sometimes, the assumption that the words mean the same thing works just fine. Many times, however, the meanings differ signifcantly and can cause confusing misunderstandings or (even worse) cultural faux pas.

Some common examples of falsi amici are:

  • camera – You’ll think it means, well, camera – but no. It means room.
  • fattoria – You’ll think it means factory, but it doesn’t. It means farm.
  • libreria – You’ll skip this storefront because you don’t have a local library card. Go in – it’s a bookstore.
  • peperoni – You’ll think you’re ordering cured salami on your pizza, but you’re not. You’re ordering peppers.
  • stampa – You’ll want to ask for one of these to mail a postcard, but this word means press or print.

There are lots of lists of Italian false friends online (this is one of the longer lists I found, and even navigable by the alphabet tabs on the side – handy!). It can be confusing at first, of course, and as you learn the language – or, really, any new language – the list of falsi amici giving you problems will grow shorter.

There’s something that I find more difficult to get over than the false friends, however.

False Sense of Security

American spaghetti & meatballs || creative commons photo by Taz

American spaghetti & meatballs || creative commons photo by Taz

Italian culture is so pervasive around the world – how could it not be, when it’s so appealing? – that many of us are lulled into a false sense of security when we finally begin to plan a trip to Italy. It’s not our fault – these are easy assumptions to make when we’ve grown so accustomed to believing things are a certain way.

I started writing about Italy in part because I wanted to help people get past that false sense of security, so that they would face fewer cultural misunderstandings and have a smoother trip. As a result, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to deliver the equivalent of the “you think you know, but you have no idea” speech on a whole range of topics.

I’ve spoken before about why you shouldn’t say “ciao” to everyone in Italy, nevermind how inoffensive it seems when used all the time around the globe. Here are a few more examples of the false sense of security we bring with us to Italy.

Coffee Italian

I’m not the coffee aficonado some of my friends are, but I’m also no fan of Starbucks. Yes, it’s sort of an “any port in a storm” coffee stop when traversing any espresso wasteland, but I think their coffee tastes like crap. What really bothers the Italophile in me about Starbucks, however, is that it gives us the idea we speak coffee Italian when we really don’t.

A latte in the U.S. is espresso with lots of milk, but the word itself simply means “milk” in Italian. Order a latte at an Italian bar and you’ll get a glass of milk, simple as that.

Another coffee-related language gripe is the jar of crispy cookies near the cash register. In the U.S., you’ll ask for “one biscotti.” In Italy, “biscotti” is a plural term that means cookies, and you would never ask for “one cookies.” To ask for one, you would ask for one “biscotto.”

I’m guessing Italian baristas have come to terms with this over the years, giving non-Italians the benefit of the doubt and only handing over one cookie despite the inelegant phrasing, but it’s yet another moment when we’re apt to puff up with pride upon completing a transaction only to find out later about the gaffe.

If you want to get really picky, you can dissect how many ounces are in the drinks at Starbucks – that “venti,” which means “twenty” in Italian, contains 24 ounces; the “trenta,” which means “thirty,” contains 31 ounces.

(As a details person, this drives me nuts.)

These are minor things, sure. I can’t help but think, though, how easy it would have been to just translate things correctly upon their introduction into U.S. coffee culture. Why the intentional misinterpretation? Why reinvent the wheel?

Transactional Italian

Many years ago, there was an ad campaign for Visa check cards that implied anyone paying with cash – for even the smallest item – was (at best) a luddite and (at worst) screwing life up for everyone else.

In the U.S., I’m one of those people who rarely carries cash these days, but in Italy that mindset – the one Visa’s commercials praised – doesn’t work. Sure, hotels and larger stores accept plastic, but lots of places won’t (or they’ll say they won’t, either because it’s a hassle or because cash payments mean it’s less trackable).

In Italy, cash is king.

Food Italian

Perhaps the biggest area where we go into an Italy trip with a false sense of security, however, is dining.

We’ve all eaten in Italian restaurants outside Italy, many of which claim authenticity, so we think we know our way around an Italian menu. I used to tell my introductory Italian students that whatever else happened during their trips, they wouldn’t starve in Italy, since they knew so many food words.

It’s true, to an extent, but of course Italian restaurants outside Italy are catering more to their local clientele than they are trying to remain authentically Italian. Even a mostly-authentic Italian place where I live serves spaghetti and meatballs as one of their specialties – a dish that doesn’t exist on menus in Italy. Fettucine alfredo is another American invention, based loosely on the innocuous dish Italians serve to expecting mothers to soothe morning sickness tummies. And, as mentioned earlier, kids who may be excited to order their first pizza in Italy are likely to be crestfallen with their “peperoni” pizza turns out to be covered in – gasp! – vegetables instead of salami.

It Works Both Ways

Router che rebooting || creative commons photo by Luigi Rosa

Router che rebooting || creative commons photo by Luigi Rosa

The Italians have adopted a number of English words – you may be reading this article on “il computer,” for instance – but sometimes they’ve twisted them into new meainings that are distinctly Italian. They use the abbreviated “basket” for the sport of basketball, the word “smoking” to refer to a tuxedo jacket, and when they say “fare footing” (literally, to make footing) they’re telling you they’re going jogging.

I’ve no doubt these sorts of things trip them up when they visit English-speaking countries just as our misused Italian words confuse us in Italy.

There are so many translation errors we can make even when we’re paying close attention, and the crossover of so many words between our languages only serves to confuse the issue further. It’s unlikely you’ll have all the falsi amici learned before your Italy trip, and you may forget to ask for “un biscotto” instead of a single “biscotti.” We all make mistakes, and – if we’re conscious beings – we can learn from them.

And hey, you never know – maybe you’ll accidentally order a pizza with peppers all over it and you’ll find you like it better than the spicy salami you had in mind.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

Click through to each of the links below to read this month’s posts on my fellow Roundtablers’ blogs – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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10 responses to “Italy Roundtable: False Friends & A False Sense of Security”

  1. The funniest false friends story I heard was from my old boss in Calabria. The first time she met her now-husband’s family, they cooked a special meal to welcome her. She, of course, started waxing lyrical about how wonderful all the food was, especially the fact that it was ‘senza preservativi’. She was very red-faced once she realised what she’d said!

    • Jessica says:

      Damn, I knew I had forgotten the best false friend in my list!

      (For non-Italian speakers, “preservativi” in Italian are not preservatives – they’re condoms. Which, let’s be fair, food should always be prepared without.)

  2. I’ve been known to pop into a Starbucks when I’m in the US, and I promise the next time I do, I will order a ventiquattro just for you, Jess 😉

    • Jessica says:

      Omigod, that would be hilarious. I’m sure they’d seek their revenge on you the way all Starbucks baristas do, by completely butchering the spelling of your name on your coffee cup.

  3. Tabitha says:

    A) Thank you for featuring a picture of the Best. Bookstore. Ever.

    B) I’ve tried many times to explain about the fettucine alfredo to my friends and family, but none of them will accept it. As my old college professor would say, “Who is this ‘Alfredo’ and how did he convince an entire country to name a dish after him?”

    • Jessica says:

      Ha! That’s funny that your family won’t accept the explanation. Thing is, if they like fettucine alfredo? Fine – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But let’s call it what it is – basically an Italian-American invention. 🙂

  4. Caterina B says:

    While I am FAR from being an expert on Italian I do know of one really big
    error that I hear or see all the time. It is, of course, the misuse of PANINI!
    Nobody seems to know that ONE of those sandwiches is a PANINO, not a
    panini. Panini is plural, panino is singular. People who don’t study language just don’t understand that and here in the US that would be a lot of people. I suppose I have to say it’s just an honest mistake.

    • Jessica says:

      Yep – that one falls into the same category as biscotto/biscotti that I mentioned above. I don’t say anything int he U.S., but it’s amusing when I hear someone ask for “one panini.” I hear it as “one sandwiches” and I giggle a little inside. 🙂

  5. I completely agree. The “latte” reference always makes me laugh. I imagine someone asking for a “latte” in Rome and,deservedly, getting a glass of milk. And whoever came up with the awful idea of watering down a delicious espresso with hot water and naming it an “Americano!” Blasphemy.

    • Jessica says:

      That’s actually a good question, about the Americano. I’ve never heard where that name comes from – I would guess it has to do with Italians trying to turn their shot of espresso into something akin to what comes out of a drip coffee maker, as the Americans drink? Perhaps?

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