My struggles with learning the Italian language are legendary. I’m not sure I will ever be able to use the correct verb tense and pronouns. But despite my poor communication skills, I do have some favorite Italian words and phrases.
Boh. This means kind of what it sounds like. Me: “What do you think of the new prime minister?” The Italian: “Boh.” Could mean “I dunno”, “What can I say?”, “Where do I start?”, or “We have a prime minister?”. The thing that makes this word so appealing to me is the way it’s said. If it’s said as a sigh, it means you’re so overwhelmed by the question that you have to take a minute. If it’s said in a sharp, guttural way, accompanied by a sour expression and a turn of the head, it means “Please tell me you’re kidding”. If it’s said as a question, it means “I never knew Luigi could cook cinghiale ragu”. Boh is almost always uttered with some facial expression or gesture (I know, most Italian words are uttered this way, but boh is different). You know when you hear “Boh” that there’s a story behind it. And it’s not always a pretty one.
Allora. Probably my favorite Italian word. Allora means so. But it means much much more than that. When you ask an Italian a question and they begin their answer with “Allora”, you’d better sit down. There’s a lot coming. Me: “Which do you like better – fettuccine or tagliatelle?” The Italian: “Allora.” I know I’ve opened a can of worms and am about to get a lecture on how to match pasta and sauces (because there is a way to do this that Italians seem to be born knowing). Allora is almost always said in a reverent way, as if the topic is so sensitive that many sleepless nights have been devoted to it. Hand gestures play into allora as well. Usually it’s a bringing together of the hands, almost prayerfully, conveying that we’re getting down to serious business now, so listen up. But just as often allora is used to indicate that things are over. After the diatribe on which sauce to use on what pasta, the Italian will pause for a moment and then say “Allora” again. Meaning, we’ve said all we can say on this subject so let’s move on now. This is also punctuated by hand gestures. It could be bringing the hands together, but in more of a clap. Or putting both hands down on the table in a move that says “Next topic, please”. Allora is also used as a filler. When you really don’t know what to say or if you’re trying to figure out which direction to go, you simply pause and say “Allora”. ‘Nuff said.
Prego. A multi-function word that leaves most Americans scratching their heads. Strictly speaking, it means “you’re welcome”. You hear it used in that way all the time. When a waiter brings your food and you say “grazie”, they will always say “prego” in response. This makes perfect sense. Then one day you’re in St. Peter’s after a long day of tromping around Rome and you want to sit down and take a rest while gazing at this magnificent church. So you discreetly sit on the floor up against the wall, out of the way. And then a uniformed security guard walks up to you and says “Prego”, motioning up with his hands. At first you think he’s welcoming you to sit on the floor, but that upward hand gesture means “get your keister off this holy floor, you crass American”. You rise and he nods his head and walks away. (This is a true story that happened to someone I know – OK, it was me.) Or you poke your head into a store that you’re not sure is open and are greeted with a hearty “Prego, prego” with a wave of the hand. Come on in. It’s a word that is used in many ways and you can almost always figure out what the meaning is by the context and the gestures. Just don’t ask what the word really means or you’ll get an answer that starts with “Allora”. Then all you can say is “Boh”.
Pronto. This means “I’m ready” and is how Italians answer the phone. No sappy “hello” or informative “Cathy’s phone”, just “talk to me cause I’m ready to listen”. There’s a certain economy to this, in this land where efficiency in language is unheard of. I guess if you’re not ready, you just don’t answer the phone. You can also answer the phone by saying “Dime” (this is not a 10 cent American coin, but is pronounced dim-me). This is even more efficient – it means talk to me. I love how they dispense with niceties when answering the phone. It’s all about getting down to business. This is a perplexing thing about this culture – these are people who are all about the relationship, taking time to talk and extending courtesies. But not on the phone. It’s like the phone is a zone where small talk is not allowed. Let’s get this business conducted and over with so we we can get on to more important things, like pairing the pasta with sauce. Allora.
Ciao. This means hello and goodbye. Don’t you love that? Whether you’re coming or going, you say ciao. But ciao is a term reserved only for people you know well. You would never say this to a stranger or a casual acquaintance. It’s for friends. When you greet a friend, you only use one ciao and it’s usually drawn out into a cadence that would put any Southerner’s drawl to shame. “Ciaaaaaaoooo!”. It’s said with warmth and feeling and it makes you feel like they are so incredibly glad to see you. Then when you leave, ciao is used again, only this time it’s said repeatedly. Let’s say you’re having espresso with your friends and it’s time to go. As you walk away, everyone says “ciao-ciao, ciao-ciao-ciao”. There’s always a rhythm to it. It’s never just ciao, or even ciao-ciao, it’s always multiples and said rapid fire. Then for good measure, there’s usually another one or two called out as you walk down the street. It’s like they really don’t want the meeting to end, so they drag out the “ciaos” as long as possible.
You’ll notice that I didn’t include “sprezzatura” on this list. That’s because this is a word that most Italians don’t even know. You would never hear this in a conversation – it’s not a casual word or a common word. For me, sprezzatura is a word that sums up everything that makes Italians unique. It means unaffected nonchalance and effortless dignity. It’s a word coined by an Italian in the 1500s to describe Italians. And having lived here for over a year, I can tell you that almost every Italian I’ve met oozes sprezzatura. They just don’t know it – which I guess is kind of the point.