Five Italian Expressions You Won’t Find in Your Book

15 Jan

Now that I’ve lived in Rome for a while, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember each individual moment that I learned a new phrase that you never find in a textbook.

For some reason this morning, I was reflecting on some of these. If you don’t learn them by being immersed in the local language, or at least learn them directly from an Italian in conversation, you most likely aren’t going to find them in your Italian 101 textbook.

Granted, if you’re only learning Italian for tourist purposes, these phrases probably won’t be of much use to you. But when I was learning Italian, for example, I was learning it for the express purpose of being able to come live here and learn the culture in general, and having known to expect a few of these before they popped out of nowhere on me, would have been helpful.

I’ve written on this in the past as well: Italian Lessons I Learned After Moving Here.

So let’s test your knowledge, if you’re ready. See if you know these!

1. Figurati!

I remember the first time that someone said “figurati!” to me instead of my textbook-taught “prego” as a response to grazie. It was like, whaaa?

The verb “figurarsi” would be literally like imagine something, I suppose, but I’ve never even really looked it up. I’ve just always understood it to mean something equivalent to the English “don’t mention it” when someone says thanks. It’s a rather informal way of saying “you’re welcome,” but that being said, I often also hear it used in the formal form, and I have often said to an elderly person, after they’ve thanked me for holding the door for them or giving up my seat on the bus, “ma si figuri signora!” like a formal way of saying “by all means!” And then there’s also “figuriamoci” which I often use when I’m trying to emphasize in speaking to someone that I don’t expect whatever I’m about to say, would ever happen. For example if I have a friend who’s always late, and I’m talking to another friend about how important it is that this friend be to a meeting with me on time, I might say something like “Figuriamoci poi se lei arriva in orario.” Like saying, “Forget about it, she’s never going to be on time (even though she should be, it’ll never happen).”

2. Capirai!

This was another really weird one for me, because if I really sat there and translated it literally, it would come out as some kind of declarative statement akin to “You’ll understand!” Well that just made no sense in any of the contexts in which I’d ever heard this phrase spoken, because it was always in this way of some kind of incredulous reaction to something. Something like, “Oh, well, that’ll be the day…” It’s really hard to pin this one down. In this online translation they say it means “big deal” but, even still for me that doesn’t fully capture it. I read through some other people trying to pin it down on this forum, and I think this person did a fairly good job of explaining it, although it’s still basically convoluted no matter which way you slice it:

More context: it means that it’s taken for granted what was said before, because the character that spoke earlier has a very strong identity and we can almost predict what his answer will be like.

3. Non c’e’ di che!

Another weird way of saying you’re welcome, kind of like “don’t mention it!”

4. Ma per carita’!

This one to me is closest to something like, “Oh please!” in the sense of an eye-rolling, God-help-us-all kind of way. Now that I think about it, you can use this one too instead of “you’re welcome,” but it would be a much more emphatic way of trying to communicate that there is absolutely no reason that person should even be thanking you. Like, “are you kidding me? I would have done that regardless! No need to say thank you!” all of that wrapped into this one phrase, which when translated literally means “for charity!” Maybe it’s like “well for heaven’s sake!” I’ve also heard “Per carita’ di Dio!” which, you know, adding in God and all, gives it that extra power.

Oh my gosh, look! I just checked out this forum and they agree with me. Good call, Shells, good call. You must really speak Italian or something! (pats self on back)

4. Ci hai azzeccato! Often in Rome spoken like this: “C’hai azzeccato!”

You’ve guessed it! No, that’s what it means. “You’ve guessed it!” Azzeccare is a colloquial way to express having figured something out, to be right on the mark.

5. C’ha ‘na capoccia….

Ha, this one is hidden away on an anonymous but very entertaining page of Roman sayings. I hear it all the time. It’s a fun one. “Capoccia” is a Roman dialect way of referring to the head. But you can’t really translate it so literally. This phrase would be like saying “he (or she) has a head” but it really depends on how it’s used. Sometimes people say “Mi ha fatto ‘na capoccia cosi'” and that would mean something like they totally annoyed you, like, made your head nearly explode from the annoyance, the “cosi'” (like this) part to just randomly refer to the way your head felt. Italians are so expressive with their hands that it makes it really hard to translate some phrases in words. (Note to self: video post on Roman hand gestures). “C’ha ‘na capoccia grossa” I’ve also heard, to mean someone is smart “they have a big head.”

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13 Responses to “Five Italian Expressions You Won’t Find in Your Book”

  1. Debra January 15, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Is there a way to private message you? Love your blog ….I have been following you for Years! I tried to send to the contact info and it bounced back.. Thanks, Debra

  2. Catherine January 15, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    In the beginning I never understood ‘magari’. It was just beyond me. I think it’s a flexible word that doesn’t really translate. Love all your Roman sayings! I am steeped in Veneto dialect..

  3. Eleonora January 15, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    “C’ha ‘na capoccia così” could also mean “He/she is such an intelligent person”.
    Big head = big intelligence I suppose 😉

    Shelley, your italian.. Ops… roman! is just amazing.
    I hope I will be able ti speack Dutch (Amsterdam version) like you are speaking Italian some day!

  4. loquensmachina January 15, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    As always, it’s so fun to learn about these expressions from you! Another helpful bookmark for my future dream life in Rome…

  5. gillaf1@yahoo.com January 16, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    Interesting pot. Too bad I’m tone deaf and will never get more than a dozen or so Italians words pronounced correctly.

  6. gillaf1@yahoo.com January 16, 2013 at 12:45 am #

    Post! Too bad you edit your own comments!

  7. Diana Mahmoud January 16, 2013 at 12:55 am #

    When I lived in Barcelona, I learned all sorts of phrases from friends that I was never taught in Spanish class. Sadly, there aren’t any I could politely write in the comments.

  8. angelatini January 16, 2013 at 2:07 am #

    Actually, two of those words were/are in my Italian book, Shelly! Both figurati and capirai are words I learned in Italian 102. 🙂

  9. Tiffany January 16, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    I love this post and all these sayings!! Beautiful! I think my favorite is: “Anvedi” especially when uttered with feeling and enthusiasm. The first time I heard it was when I randomly rang the buzzer of a friend I hadn’t seen in ages, and after annoucing who I was heard her husband shout warmly through the intercom, “Anvedi!!” It means, more or less, “look who it is” or “look what we have here” in a surprised way. Italian is so rich with these expressions. I love magari too. I have graduated from using in the simply expressive “Magari!” context, meaning, “if only” or “I wish”, to using it in a full sentence with the subjunctive verb following. Isn’t it great when you start to really get a grip on a language? We are so lucky to have this opportunity! I want to tackle French next!

  10. D'Amore January 17, 2013 at 2:52 am #

    Two more favorites: “magari” and “mi raccomando”… there really are just no suitable English equivalents!! 🙂

  11. D January 19, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    Usually means like “I wish!” but can also mean “maybe” (magari domani andiamo al mare, magari riesco a fare la spesa dopo lavoro) or can also take on a meaning like “even if”.

  12. Fa January 21, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    E il bellissimo magari? Che ne pensi? 🙂

  13. tracie p January 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    i miss these phrases! thanks for reminding…but you know, i don’t remember capirai. must’ve been one of those things that they didn’t say much in the south!

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