Roman Spirit for the Internet Age:

14 May

I probably shouldn’t post this, lest I offend someone’s delicate sensibilities, ma parliamoci chiaro, let’s be frank: Roman culture is embraced, shrouded, and engulfed in vulgarity. I think it would be safe to say that vulgarity, in fact, can easily be considered part and parcel of the true “spirito romano,” the Roman spirit, the “anima romana,” the Roman soul. I’m not making a judgement call, just stating the facts, ma’am. I call it as I see it.

Romans don’t really have a distinct dialect, per se, but they do have a heavy accent and specific sayings that other regions and areas don’t have. In my experience, Italians look down on the Roman way of speaking and when I was learning Italian, most Italians and even many Romans I encountered warned me not to “pick up the Roman accent” or “learn to speak from Romans.” Well, too late for that. I’ve become a strange hybrid creature who sounds remotely foreign yet kind of Roman at the same time. The Romans find this quite amusing and very strange.

Hand in hand with the verbal vulgarity of the Roman culture (formally known as “romanaccio”) goes a certain sense of humor that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. The spirito romano, in my experience, is completely and totally irreverent, and at times can be incredibly quick-witted. Take, for example, a random sampling of stories of Romans behaving as Romans do, found simply by typing “battute Romane” or “Roman jokes” into Google:

Realmente accaduto a Roma a bordo della Metro A
Una signora espone il biglietto integrato giornaliero al controllore. Signora: “Mi scusi, con questo posso viaggiare tutto il giorno?”. Controllore: “Si nun c’hai ‘n cazzo da fa’… Sì”.

True story from the Metro A Line
A woman shows her all-day bus pass to the inspector. Woman: “Excuse me, but with this pass can I ride all day?” Inspector: “If you don’t have a f***ing thing to do… yes.”

Realmente accaduto in via Nomentana
Un signore alquanto anziano resta immobile con la sua macchina allo scattare del verde e il ragazzo di dietro con una macchinetta alquanto sportiva abbassa il finestrino, si sporge e esclama: “A nonno, guarda che più verde de così nun diventa!”.

Really happened in via Nomentana
A rather elderly gentleman remains stopped in his car when the light turns green, and the guy behind him in a rather sporty car rolls down his window, sticks his head out and exclaims: “Look here grampa, it’s not going to get any greener than that!”

Sentita sulla Boccea
Un tizio di mezza età a bordo di una 156 rivolgendosi al vecchietto a bordo di una vecchia 600 ferma al semaforo: “Che aspettamo che se mette ‘n moto l’asfarto pe’ annassene da ‘sto ‘ncrocio!?”.

Overheard on Boccea St.
A middle-aged guy in a 156, to an elderly man in an old 600 stopped at a traffic light: “What, are you waiting for the asphalt to start moving to get you out of this intersection?”

And then there’s the never-ending lists of Roman one-liners, kind of like an Italian version of the dozens. (By the way, I find it hilarious that there’s a Wikipedia article on that phenomenon. But I digress…) Here’s what I’m talking about:

“Quanno ride pare ‘n cruciverba”
When you laugh, it looks like a crossword puzzle.

“Sei tarmente zozzo che quanno entri dentro casa mia er cane se va a mette er collare antipulci!”
You’re so filthy that when you come over to my house, my dog goes and puts on a flea collar.

“Sei tarmente brutto che tu’ padre ar firmino de quanno facevi n’anno c’ha messo a colonna sonora de X-Files”
You’re so ugly that when your dad made a video of your first birthday party, he put the X-Files as the soundtrack.

“C’hai er naso tarmente lungo che pare che te sei pippato er Viagra!”
Your nose is so long it’s like you’ve been sniffing Viagra.

And those are just some of the (very few) PG-rated ones. Most Roman battute really know no bounds of good taste and delve into areas of verbal vulgarity that I did not know existed, and yet still, I laugh. Looks like I have become Roman after all. Granted, I’ve never really heard anyone use any insults like this in “real life,” but they do get traded around at times, like, I heard this one, did you hear this one? I can already see the cultural heritage that will be passed down to my kids.

But the real inspiration for this post is the ubiquitous phrase “li mortacci” and the fact that it has spawned its very own website. Li mortacci is basically a vulgar Roman way of saying, well, I guess something like “may your dead relatives die again,” although I really don’t know for sure. Let’s just say it’s an all-purpose curse on your dead loved ones, or the dead loved ones of anyone or anything you care to insult. You say it when you’re ticked about what something or someone did, does, has, is, etc. And for a true Roman flourish, go ahead and pronounce the “L” like an “R” ‘cuz that’s just what they do around here. (All together now: “ree-more-TAH-chee”) I know, I shouldn’t be teaching you how to swear in Roman dialect, but, it’s fun. Avery had a post on Roman slang not too long ago as well, and there were bad words…it’s impossible to avoid, I’m telling you.

Now, for a very recent example. Ale and I were trying to install a showerhead set in our bathroom this weekend, one that turned out to be ridiculously complicated and cryptic, missing parts, and totally frustrating for something that should be stupidly easy. So, here we have “li mortacci loro.” Curse their dead ancestors. “Them” being all those even remotely involved with planning, designing, and/or building, packaging or selling aforementioned showerhead.

What is all this nonsense leading up to? A website that I found while innocently checking my Gmail. No idea how the Google ad-matching algorithm decided that an ad for a site called had anything to do with my email. For that matter, no idea why a site like this is investing in Google Adwords. But, the world is full of mysteries. Curious as I am, I clicked on it, and lo and behold I discovered an entire forum and virtual world where you can vent your frustrations and tensions, using the phrase to curse the dead ancestors of pretty much whoever you feel like. Clicking on the forum I found li mortacci my alarm clock, my math teacher, my neighbors… even illegible online nicknames (the example given being udsjhf69vdsi0op5465467, which I think we can all agree is quite illegible and perhaps even deserving of a li mortacci or two). The forum is subdivided into a few specific categories so you can send a hearty “li mortacci” to the government, your love life problems, and hospitals as well. (I am very troubled, but unfortunately not surprised, that “hospitals” has its very own category on the forum.)

In short, if you ever decide to move to Rome, and you really want to understand the local culture, you’re going to have to learn not only Italian, but “Roman,” or rather “bad Roman,” ie, Romanaccio. I am not ashamed to say that I love it, no matter how much the Italians wrinkle their noses at me. Complain as I might about how rude and crude Romans can be, I still heart ’em for it.


19 Responses to “Roman Spirit for the Internet Age:”

  1. JennDZ May 14, 2007 at 9:32 pm #

    That is too funny. My fiancee is a Roman, and I am learning Italian. I get really proud of myself when I can conjugate a bunch of verbs….but then he spends time having to unteach me the “Italian” and teach me the “Roman”. It frustrates me to no end some times, but it is quite funny and fun!

  2. Michellanea May 15, 2007 at 7:11 am #

    I’ve never heard that phrase – li (or “ri”) mortacci. But phrases like that I think I’d just feel ridiculous saying because they don’t come naturally to me. I would never call someone a “pirla” even though that’s a favorite Milanese (or do all Italians say it?) way to call someone a dickhead. Whenever I think of Romanaccio Romans, I think of that Floriana girl from Grande Fratello or Totti! Every time Totti sucks his thumb when he makes a goal (a tribute to his kids, right?) Cristiano screams at the TV: “Ma si succhia ancora questo qua?!” Cracks me up every time, I don’t know why.

  3. Jeff Gromen May 15, 2007 at 7:31 am #

    Is there a seperate category for “Li mortacci Alitalia?” I’ll add it!!I think I blogged about my favorites in Brindisi for this category. If not “Occe, non ti sta’ncodda!”, which means “Today, you aren’t doing sh*t!” Not really rude but get’s the point across.Jeffo

  4. Kataroma May 15, 2007 at 9:09 am #

    That’s so funny – I have to check out that website. I’ve heard “ri mortacci” as well as all the other romanisms, “anda manya” etc. I feel silly using them though. In fact, last night we were at my favorite pizza place and there was Totti-speak everywhere (along with fake tans and gold chains, pepto bismol pink skin tight jeans with matching shoes etc.)michelle – I’ve never heard “pirla” – that’s gotta be a Milan thing. But isn’t there a calcio player called “Pirlo”? That’s gotta be a hard name to have in the playground!

  5. Shelley - At Home in Rome May 15, 2007 at 9:21 am #

    Jenndz: I have to say, it’s fine to learn the Roman but just make very sure you know what is Roman and what is proper Italian. It’s funny if you want to use it to joke around but it doesn’t sound kind of ignorant if you’re not using it on purpose. Mich: I’ve never heard pirla, so we’ve traded. 🙂 And, Floriana? Ick. That was the only season I watched Grande Fratello. There is a word for “those people” and Totti-style as well: COATTO! Jeff: See, where you are it’s actual dialect…a whole other language…and I’m with you on Alitalia. They’re horrible!Kata: I know what you’re talking about… andà, manjà… the way they drop the last part of the verb off. Wait till you run into them changing the “si” of reflexive verbs into “se”, like instead of “vediamoci” they say “vedemmossse” — totally different but once you realize what it is you can recognize it. I rarely use any Roman slang and when I do it’s usually because I’m trying to make people laugh. It is kind of harsh sounding but funny all the same. Depends on who is using it though. When you get a big group like you’re describing, the gold chains, etc., in a restaurant where they are all loud and out of control, it is absolutely unbearable to hear it!

  6. Shelley - At Home in Rome May 15, 2007 at 9:23 am #

    PS Mich: I forgot to say, watch any movie with Alberto Sordi and you’ll most likely hear li mortacci. When he says it it’s actually pretty funny. But when I first watched Alberto Sordi shortly after I started living here, I had to put the Italian subtitles on, because the Roman accent was too thick to understand!

  7. sognatrice May 15, 2007 at 9:44 am #

    On Striscia last night, there was a piece on Totti and his kids–clearly he was having trouble understanding the question someone was asking him, so I said to my OH, speaking of the reporters, “Ma devono parlare romanaccio non italiano!” Am I learning or what?

  8. Shelley - At Home in Rome May 15, 2007 at 10:23 am #

    Sognatrice: There are loads of Totti jokes here in Rome, and a few books of collections of Totti jokes. He’s a pretty good sport about it all. The only one I know is: Totti opens a book, and the table of contents page says “Sommario” and he says, “Aò! Piacere! Io so’ Totti!” It’s dumb, I know, but… it’s the only one I ever learned. 😉

  9. Kataroma May 15, 2007 at 10:40 am #

    I’m ashamed to say it – but I understand any Roman accent, no matter how thick (Sordi – no problem!) perfectly. It just all makes sense to me and sounds like “proper Italian”. But when we have B&B guests from the North of Italy I often have no idea what they are saying. Especially people from Tuscany with that weird lisp – and the generally weird vowels which northerners have. Southerners I have no problem with though – I can hear that a Sicilian or a person from naples has an accent but I can understand it.So – now I’m slightly worried that I have some kind of weird foreign/Roman accent in Italian. no one here has said anything but that’s probably because they’re used to it.For any non-Italian speakers a Roman accent is kind of like a strong New York accent. Not the most beautiful or sought after accent to have!

  10. Michellanea May 15, 2007 at 11:48 am #

    Yep, then, pirla is a Milan thing, I guess. And there IS a soccer player named Pirlo. And one named Kaka! I’ll be on the lookout for a Sordi movie. I can understand RIGHT AWAY when someone is from Rome whereas there are plenty of other accents I can’t distinguish. Sometimes I understand they are from the north or from the south but will not be able to pinpoint exactly where, whereas Romans just stick out. I personally find them simpatici but they can be a bit in-your-face compared to the staid Milanese and I can understand why there’s not a lot of Romano-Milanese affinity. And Romans are proud (“Siamo Roma!”) whereas I don’t feel like the Milanese really are. Anyway, not sure why I went off on that tangent but there it is…

  11. J.Doe May 15, 2007 at 12:39 pm #

    I didn’t realize li mortacci…. was a Roman phrase,since I lived in Tuscany and they use it there. When I went to Rome though after a few words the Romans knew I was an American from Tuscany, so even if you try not to use Roman slang an Italian could always figure out where you’re from.

  12. nyc/caribbean ragazza May 15, 2007 at 3:17 pm #

    I refer to mortacci in my book. LOL. Erica (moscerina) had a post on this curse word as well.Re: the dozens. There was a show on MTV where people competed for the best put downs. I laughed out loud at the translations. Maybe they don’t seem so vulgar to me because I can totally see a bus driver in NYC saying that as a joke to a passenger. Where I grew up people (incl. those who are well educated) cursed alot. I had to reign it in when I moved. One thing that brings out my east coast cursing is driving in L.A. However, now I use every single curse word I know in Italian incl. my favorite that begins with a “V”. I know it’s not appropiate for women to say but I love the way it sounds. It really helps to keep the road rage in check when dealing with these idiot drivers who are sending emails on their Blackberrys while driving. ugh.

  13. FinnyKnits May 15, 2007 at 5:52 pm #

    Holy crap I totally LOL thinking of Ale in the tub trying to install the showerhead screaming “li mortacci loro!” while getting sprayed with the uncapped plumbing. Granted, it probably wasn’t this eventful, but you know that man cracks me right up. Thank you for all the Italian lessons baked into these last few posts. I can put about 1/2 to 3/4 of it together. Piano a piano.

  14. Valerie May 16, 2007 at 9:47 am #

    I love the Roman accent! It’s so funny to listen to and so characteristic. We spent our first three months in Anzio surrounded by Romani and unwittingly learned as much dialect as Italian. I didn’t realize it until one day friends of our hosts said, “ma lei parla bene romano!”

  15. Shelley - At Home in Rome May 16, 2007 at 5:16 pm #

    J. Doe: My expert in Romanaccio, mio marito, tells me that the Tuscan dialect is in some ways similar to Roman, so I guess that explains it…NYC: No, the translations I put up aren’t vulgar at all… it’s the stuff you can read in the original language that’ll gross you out. Use it as Italian practice. Or not. ;-)Fin: Luckily it wasn’t that eventful but it sure is a great imaginary scene. God forbid anything that terrifying ever happens, as we are 100% incapable of managing most home repairs by ourselves. Freakin’ book worms. Doesn’t help you in the real world, does it?Val: Lei parla bene romano! Ha! I love it! That’s a true sign of cultural integration, if you ask me…

  16. DiscoverSoriano May 16, 2007 at 8:51 pm #

    Ma va a’ mori’ amazzato!(Sorry, couldn’t help myself)

  17. Kataroma May 17, 2007 at 8:18 am #

    On the way to work this morning I saw a sign which said “10 Euro tickets? Mortacci vostri” and thought of your blog entry.

  18. Victor42 November 8, 2007 at 4:04 pm #


    As Milanese of Nepolitan parents, may I help you in connection with the origin of the roman espression as the contracted form of:


    Poetical Translation: Damn to the souls of your dead relatives (or parents).

  19. Grestch June 22, 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    Aho, m’avete fatto sbraga’ co sto modo de cerca’ de capi’ il perche’ e il percome della piu’ bella lingua der monno!!

    Forte che quarcuno sia li a pensa’ a Arberto Sordi e che ridete de Totti, ma li mortacci vostri aho!!

    Ok, seriously, it was great to hear that there are people from afar trying to analize and understand the Roman language. I am pleased to see you all understand that er Romanaccio is very different from Italian!

    Some imperfections along the way though, such as the fact that the Tuscany’s accent/slang is the same as the Roman. NOT TRUE! Romans don’t have a lisp. And for the record, ni potemo sopporta’ qui stronzi. (A true roman can’t stand those from Tuscany)!!

    For amusement: I recently met with a british officer who was dealing with some Roma Supporters and I was told they spoke Italian, having just been on holiday over there so they were dealing with the matter. I thought to myself, what do I do then, you know me being born and bred in Rome, I would have thought I could have communicated with them way better. Needless to say, while I was twiddling my thumbs on one side, half annoyed at having been sidelined, and half amused because I knew the officer was way out of his boundaries, (i.e. Roman IS different from Italian), I looked on. Soon enough the officer was in deep sh*t, and I had to go and rescue him, hilarious, I was doubling over with laughter, though I was also concious of the fact that the officer did not find it amusing one single bit! Ah, if only they let me help in the first instance…..

    Li mortacci d’a polizia inglese che nun ce capisce niente aho!! Ha ha.

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