Italian is a Romance language (or series of dialects) that predominantly evolved from Vulgar Latin. English (I’m British, so I’m talking about BE) is a mongrel language, evolved from a blending of Vulgar Latin, Anglo-Saxon Germanic dialects, Norman French (another Vulgar Latin derivative spoken by a group of northern French of Viking descent), and all the rest (notably words added to BE from the British international imperial and post-imperial experience, eg anorak, canoe, pyjamas, curry, etc etc).
So English shares a lot of language roots with Italian, but not all.
Quite often, if you’re an Anglophone learning Italian, you’ll encounter a word that looks and sounds like an English word and assume it has the same meaning. And quite often you’ll be right, the words will be cognates – with the same linguistic roots – and friends – with the same meaning. But not always. They might have the same etymological Latin DNA, but it will have got twisted somewhere along the way.
So here’s my ongoing list of false friends and English-Italian linguistic confusables. Along with a bit of etymology, because that’s how I roll.
Word list, A-Z
accidenti! – this is a fun one. It sounds like ‘accident’, ‘accidents’, but actually can be translated in a number of ways, depending on your favoured English idiom. I like ‘crikey!’ ‘Bimey! ‘Flipping heck!’ It’s a cute, non-religious, old-fashioned way of saying ‘dammit’. So the more US English equivalents might be ‘dang it’, ‘gosh darn it’, etc. I suppose it’s also not unlike mamma mia! An accident in Italian is un incidente, which is also a cognate for incident. Phew.
affermazione – is a cognate of ‘affirmation’, but more in the sense of a statement that provides motiviation. The other English sesnse, of a statement that confirms a fact, is una conferma, from the verb confermare.
annoiato – doesn’t mean ‘annoyed’. It means ‘bored’. But the word ‘annoyed’ is related to ‘ennui’, so there is an etymological connection in there somewhere. Noioso means ‘boring’.
attico – rather than being a direct equivalent for the English word ‘attic’, meaning a loft or roof space for storage, it more normally means a top floor flat or penthouse appartment. A loft storage space would instead be called a soffitto. Which is slightly confusing as the word for ceiling is soffitta. Other words for a loft (storage, not fancy urban living) or attic are solaio and sottotetto. The latter is nice as it literally just means “under-roof”. You have to watch it a little with tetto though, as I mentioned here. Both attico and ‘attic’ are from the Greek ‘attikos’, meaning from Attica, the region around Athens. The term(s) came to be used in architecture to refer to a certain type of pilaster used to decorate top storeys, so the migration to the related modern meanings in English and Italian becomes slightly clearer.
camera – the old classic. It doesn’t mean camera in the English sense, it means ‘room’, and relates to the English word ‘chamber’, which derives from the Latin word for room, camera, which is from the Greek kamara. A camera, ie a device for taking (primarily still) photographs, is a macchina fotografica, or fotocamera in Italian. A video or film camera is a telecamera. The English name for a camera comes from camera obscura, an early set-up for capturing images that was original just darkened room with a hole in the wall. Camera obscura literally means dark room in Latin. The room became a box, the box became a device with film in it. And so it goes.
capitolo – doesn’t mean capital in the sense of capital city (that’s capitale), and doesn’t mean capital in the sense of upper case letters (that’s maiuscola). It doesn’t mean the capital of a column either (that’s capitello). Nor does it mean ‘capital!’ in the sense of a blustery Victorian gentleman praising the latest imperial victory from the confines of a leather armchair in the tabacco smoke atmosphere of his private members club (that would be eccelente! meraviglioso! stupendo! or even splendido!, all good friends). No, it means ‘chapter’, in the sense of a section of a book or a biker gang. All these cap– words are related to caput, the Latin for head, which lives in in capo, the Italian for boss, leader or even head (still).
casino – literally means ‘little house’. In modern English it’s become almost exclusively used for a gambling house, but in Italian it means a brothel. It’s also used figuratively in the sense of “what a shambles!” – “che casino!“. A place for gambling in Italian is a casinò, with the emphasis on the final o, or a casa da gioco – ‘a gaming house’.
confetti – during carnival (after Christmas and before Lent, so usually around February), confetti is thrown around all over the place to celebrate. Or at least it is here in Rome, where the streets are liberally sprinkled with the stuff. You’d assume that in Italian confetti was confetti, as it’s clearly a loanword. You’d be wrong. It’s actually called coriandoli. Coriandolo is the herb/spice coriander. So it’s plural coriander that’s thrown around. Confetto (singular of confetti) is actually a type of sweet, a sugared almond, or a pill (as in medicine).
confezione – I was buying a Christmas poinsettia yesterday, and the vendor offered me some confezione. It’s not unlike the English word ‘confection’, and even the word ‘confectionary’. In the sense the vendor was using, it’s more like the former: he was offering to decorate or gift-wrap the pot. So it means ‘packaging’, but it also means ‘tailoring’, ‘sewing’ or, more broadly, making. This latter is closer to the English sense. ‘To confect’ means ‘to prepare’, even if it’s most used in the sense of preparing something sweet, confectionary. Both the Italian and the English (via old French) have their roots in the Latin verb conficere, to make, which itself is derived from facere, to make. In modern Italian to make is fare but its conjugation has more overtly Latin forms such as faccio, I make.
confidente – we were talking about this one last night. A Sicilian friend said it’s not actually the Italian word for ‘confident’, in the sense of having confidence, being self-assured, though it has come to be used in that sense. For confident in that sense the Italian word is sicurezza. Confident in the sense of ‘in confidence’, it’s confidenza. For being ‘confindent in someone’, in the sense of having trust, it’s fiducia. Confidente can also be translated into the gender-variable English nouns ‘confidant’/’confidant’e, ie someone you have entrusted a secret to.
conveniente – although it can mean ‘convenient’, more normally it means means ‘suitable’, ‘appropriate’ or ‘favourable’, ‘advantageous’. So it’s a cognate – ie it has the same linguistic roots – but it’s distinguished by nuance and context. For ‘convenient’ in the sense of useful, easy for that particular moment or opportunity, a better Italian word is comodo, but that also means ‘comfortable’. And relates to the English word ‘commodious’ – which comes from the commodus, meaning ‘convenient’. Though ‘convenient’ and conveniente themselves, as well as ‘convene’, ‘convention’, etc come from the Latin convenire, that is con + venire, where venire is still the verb ‘to come’ in modern Italian (and pretty much the same in French and Spanish: venir): ‘to come together’.
deluso – You might assume this means ‘deluded’, but in fact it means ‘disappointed’. The verb deludere is ‘to disappoint’, ‘to betray’ or ‘to let down’. The verb ‘to delude’ on the other hand is illudere. They all have roots in the Latin ludere – ‘to play’. So the English ‘to delude’ is from the Latin deludere, ‘to play false’, but the meanings have evolved in slightly different directions over the centuries.
doloroso – is arguably both a cognate and a good friend of the English adjective ‘dolorous’, but I feel there’s some distinction. In English, we generally use in the sense of emotional pain, anguish, grief, and in Italian I believe it’s used more in the sense of physical pain, ie when an injury is painful, it is una ferita dolorosa. Both are from the Latin dolere, ‘to feel pain’.
etichetta – while this does translate as the English ‘etiquette’, meaning ‘code of conduct’ or ‘manners’, it also means ‘sticker’, ‘tag’, ‘label’, ‘docket’, ‘ticket’. Which at first seems odd. But with a bit of digging, the relationship becomes clear (ish). Apparently, it’s from Old French, and mid-18th century French, when rule of decorum were written or printed on small cards. Which is all very well, but surely it would have been rude, in specific social situations, to keep having to say “Hold on a mo,” then flick through your deck of crib-cards? BTW, the verb etichettare does mean ‘to stick a label on’. You’d think the reflexive form etichettarsi would mean ‘to behave oneself’, but it doesn’t seem to exist.
eventualmente – no, this doesn’t mean ‘eventually’. It’s a classic false friend. It actually means ‘possibly’, ‘in case’. Thankfully possibilmente is a true friend. Eventuale means ‘possible’. Thankfully eventualità is a true friend – it means ‘eventuality’. Though ‘eventually’ itself can be translated as alla fine, infine, finalmente – more literally ways of saying ‘finally’, ‘at last’.
fattoria – means ‘farm’, not ‘factory’. A factory is a fabbrica, ie a place where things are fabbricated or manufactured.
fiasco – it’s another one of those words where you get a clue by replacing the i with a l: it literally means a ‘flask’. From scouring all of two different dictionaries it seems to be the case that the feminine form, fiasca, does strictly mean ‘flask’, though the masculine form fiasco can be used figuratively in the same sense as we know it in English: a farce, a shambles. Though I’ve never heard this; more common terms are a casino (see above), macello (slaughterhouse – so literally the same as ‘shambles’), or even bordello (which we also have as a loan word in English, meaning ‘brothel’). “Che casino!”, “Che macello!”, “Che bordello!”
genitori – no, not ‘genitals’. It means ‘parents’. What are parents? They are people with children. How are children made? From matter originating in the genitals. It’s all from the same Latin root. The Latin genitalis means ‘relating to birth’, it’s from the past participle of gignere, meaning ‘to beget’. The Italian for genitals is a nice neat cognate actually: genitali, or organi genitali.
gentile – it can mean ‘gentle’, but the more typical translation is ‘kind’, or even ‘gracious’. The ‘gens’ part of these words all has the same Latin root meaning, gens, meaning ‘family’, ‘race’, ‘people’ (see genitori, genitals etc). Somehow, perversely, the idea of being of noble lineage got mixed up with the idea of being gentle and kind. The mind boggles.
ginnasio – does mean ‘gymnasium’ in the British sense, but more typically it’s used to mean a secondary school or high school. The word is apparently used in various countries in this sense. I’d never encountered it before as a Brit whose longest time overseas was living in New Zealand (where all the linguistic education I got was an accent, pronouncing “peg” as pig, “pen” as pin etc). In ancient Greece, the gynmasium was a place of exercise for body and mind. Naked (gymnos means naked). So it’s no surprise that in different countries it’s taken either one meaning or the other: place of physical exercise or place of education. For those who like to go to the gym and use environmentally costly electricity to run on the spot, , like so many giant hamsters, what you’re looking for in Italy is a palestra. Though today neither places involve requisite nudity.
macchina – this isn’t a false friend, but it can be a little confusing. It does literally mean ‘machine’, but for the most part it (at least in the Italian I’ve encountered, mostly in Rome) it means ‘car’. It’s the quintessential Italian metonym. Italians are so obsessed with cars it’s no wonder the car is their ultimate machine, the machine. (Rome has an obscene amount of internal combustion personal transportation, something that’s just not viable for a 21st century civilisation that needs to move beyond fossil fuel gluttony.) Other examples of where macchina is used in the non-car sense include: macchina da scrivere (“machine for writing”, ie typewriter); macchina da presa (“machine for gripping”, meaning movie film camera, gripping ye old celluloid); macchina fotografica (see camera); macchina da guerra (war machine), etc.
magazzino – nope, not a magazine. That’s a rivista (ie “re-viewed”, reviewed). A magazzino is a warehouse, storeroom or store. It’s not such a false friend really, though, as English still uses ‘magazine’ to refer to a store of explosives or ammunition, for example. Apparently, books and periodicals acquired the name ‘magazine’ in English, directly from the Italian word, in the mid-17th century; it was being used figuratively, as publications were stores of information. Oh, and this one isn’t from the Latin, it’s from the Arabic: makhazin, meaning storehouses. In Latin, a warehouse is an horreaum. No idea what the ancient Romans called a magazine, like ‘Ampitheatre Times’ or whatever.
mansione – doesn’t mean ‘mansion’. It means ‘task’, ‘job’, or ‘function’. A mansion – a grand house – can be translated with palazzo (which also means apartment building, or the more obviously related palace) or villa (which means a detached house or large country house or… villa). A manor house is a maniero. I can’t quite get my head around the etymology here. The English ‘mansion’ is related to the French maison (house), and both have the same root in the Latin manere (itself from the Greek, from the Persian), which means ‘to remain’ (in Italian rimanere); as such a house was a place to stay or remain. But quite how the modern Italian meaning of task emerged I can’t say. Especially as this (old) Italian etymological dictionary seems to say mansióne (with an acute on the o) does mean ‘staying place’, a definition I can’t find in any other (newer) Italian dictionaries like Wordreference & Collins here, or the offline ones we have at home.
occorrere – this verb’s primary meaning is ‘to be necessary’, ‘to be required’. It can mean ‘to occur’, but the most direct translation for this English verb is succedere. (see below)
pavimento – doesn’t mean ‘pavement’. It means ‘floor’. Pavement (or ‘sidewalk’ in North American English) is marciapiede, which is a lovely word that makes me think, semi-literally, of “marching feet”. Pavimento, like ‘paving’ etc, is derived from the Latin pavimentum, a hard floor, from the Latin verb pavire, ‘to beat hard’.
piano – isn’t the musical instrument. That’s called a pianoforte in Italian, and indeed that was the name originally used in English. Piano is one of those interesting words in Italian where, if you replace the I with an L (think piatto, ‘plate’; piazza, ‘plaza’), it gives you some idea of the translation. So think piano, ‘plane’, in the sense of an even, level surface. Also think piano, ‘plan’. It also means ‘smooth’, ‘gently’, ‘softly’, ‘easy’, ‘floor’ (in the sense of ‘storey’), etc. The instrument – pianoforte – means ‘softloud’, ie the instrument was capable of this range. Though in English we’re just really calling it a ‘soft’ now.
radice – looks and sounds (“radishay”) like the English word ‘radish’. But it ain’t. That’s ravenello or rapanello. What is a radish? It’s a root. Radice means root. It’s from the Latin radix, which is also the the root of such English words as ‘radical’ and ‘eradicate’.
reduce – related to the English word ‘reduce’, sure, but in Italian it has two meanings: il reduce is the veteran, or the survivor, while reduce da means returning from, back from.
rumore – doesn’t mean ‘rumour’, it means ‘noise’. Fare rumore means ‘to make noise’. For ‘rumour’, Italian uses voce (literally ‘voice’); pettegolezzo (which is closer to ‘gossip’), chiacchiera (which is closer to ‘chatter’). There’s also the Neopolitan dialect word inciucio, which has apparently become more widespread throughout Italy. Rumore and ‘rumour’ may or may not have the same roots. The English word comes from the Old French, and thence the Latin (rumor – common talk), but the roots may go deeper than that, to the Old Norse rymja, ‘to roar’, and even possibly to the Sanskrit raut, rauti, ravati, (he) cries.
simpatico – this is a classic semi-false-friend-that’s-really-quite-friendly. An Anglophone might well assume it means ‘sympathetic’ when more commonly it means ‘likeable’ or ‘pleasant’. Someone can be molto simpatico – very nice. Though if they’re that nice, they’re probably going to be sympathetic too, which is lucky as it helps clarify the shared etymology, which is from the Greek sympathetikos, via Latin sympatheticus, meaning ‘having fellow feeling, affected by similar feelings’. (With+pathetic, where pathetic is based on pathos, feeling, suffering.) Having said all that, simpatico – in the Italian sense – can be found in English dictionaries….
succedere – this verb’s primary translation is ‘to occur’, ‘to happe’n, not ‘to succeed’ in the sense of ‘to accomplish something’. A better verb for that is riuscire. Which I find confusing, as uscire means ‘to go out’, ‘to exit’, so literally riuscire also means ‘to re-exit’, ‘to go out again’. Succedere can mean ‘to succeed’ in the sense of to be successful, to be good at something.
vizioso – this is another one of those nuanced ones. It is related to the English word ‘vicious’, but is another example owhere the words in Italian and English have evolved in slightly different directions. So, by and large we use the word vicious increasingly to mean savage, ferocious, ‘a vicious dog’. Officially and literally though, it means ‘characterized by vice’, ie ‘depraved’. Which is closer to the Italian sense. For vicious in the sense of ‘ferocious’, there’s the nice feroce, un cane feroce. Confusingly, Italians do use the expression un circolo vizioso, but, like in English, it’s less to do with depravity and more to do with generic, unfortunate cause-and-effect.