How to Learn Italinglish

After reading a recent post on the Italian alphabet by that excellent blogger ‘Almost Italian’ at my thoughts naturally turned to the lovely Italian language. One of the greatest difficulties in expanding one’s Italian vocabulary is learning that words that are ‘loaned’ from English often have a very different meaning in Italian.

I learnt much of this while teaching English over the years here. For example,’ fare lo shopping’ in Italian doesn’t mean to go shopping for e.g. a can of beans or a loaf of bread. It means a full-scale expedition in which window-shopping is included, from looking at the latest Alfa-Romeos to buying griffe summer fashions.

‘Il night’ doesn’t mean night-time but a night club. This comes from the Italian habit of taking English ‘double ‘words’ and just pronouncing the first part. Typical of this is ‘self’ written on petrol(gas)service stations. It actually stands for ‘self-service’.

‘Guarda che bel spider’ doesn’t mean ‘look at that nice spider’ for example. It refers to a sports car with spider-wheels i.e. spoked wheels. Properly speaking these wheels should be translated as ‘ruote a ragno’. But an English word where an Italian one will do appears to give much more authority and impressiveness to people in this country. A wheel spoke is actually a ‘raggio’. Through some transmutation it became’ ruote a ragno’, thence spider-wheel and, using the truncated formula, turned into spider.

There are some very nice classic spiders in Italy.  Take this example we saw in Florence the other week. (Although some might disagree since for them a spider must have a soft, convertible top.)


There also words which seem English but give rather different results. Just try going to a ‘sexy shop’ in Lucca for example (yes they do exist). You won’t find an enticing display of sexy fashions or décor. Instead, you’ll be able to pick up a vibrator or any other orgasmic aid since you have walked into what in the UK would be called a sex shop. Here it’s a case, not of truncating, a word but of extending it. Further examples of English-sounding words in Italian are:

Anglo-Italian       Actual meaning

autogrill               service station self-service restaurant (not car-burning centre)
autostop              hitch-hiking (not meaning that your car will conk out at this point)
box lock-up         garage (not safe)
camping               campsite
dancing                dance-hall
eskimo                 parka
flipper                  pin-ball machine (not a swimming aid)
footing                 jogging
golf jumper         jersey
notes                    notebook
parking                 car-park, parking garage
plaid                     travelling rug (not necessary Scottish)
slip                        underpants / knickers(now let’s not get confused with US English!)
smoking               dinner jacket / tuxedo
spot                      commercial (advert)
stage                    training course
starter (of car)   choke
tight                      morning suit
toast                     toasted sandwich, not necessarily between two slices of bread. (If you want a standard sandwich then you must ask for a ‘tramezzino’. Don’t get this confused with a ‘tramezzo’ which means a dividing, non-supporting panel-wall in a building)

Pane a cassetta.  this is your standard sliced ‘wonderloaf’ type bread. Literally, it means ‘boxed bread’ since a ‘cassetta delle lettere’ means a letter-box.

The correct way for Italian politicians and others in authority to trick their long-suffering populace is to introduce English words (often incorrectly) in their speech where an Italian word exists and would do perfectly well. Thus, instead of saying ‘new work contract legislation’ they talk about ‘jobsact’ and instead of ‘giro d’affari’ or even ‘rotazione’ they mumble ‘turnover’ or rather, in their pronunciation, ’toorn-over’.

The confabulations don’t stop here, of course. There’s an incredibly knowledgeable and wittily scathing professor on ‘unomattina in famiglia’ on Rai 1 on Sunday mornings. Professor Francesco Sabatini is quite amazing and is also the honorary president of l’Accademia della Crusca which tries to perform the same task as the Academie Française achieves with greater success (as it has more government backing): that is, to preserve the purity of one of  the world’s two most beautiful languages. (The other is Welsh, of course: ‘iaith paradwys’). Listen to Sabatini explaining the phraseology and correct way to express things in what used to be known as ‘lingua volgare’ in Dante’s time and you can learn a lot!


Here are some more ‘Italenglish’ (or is it ‘Anglitalian’) phrases to confuse you further:

Slow: meaning a smooch dance in which you just shuffle your feet and hug your partner (if they let you).

Tilt:  pin-ball machines sometimes go dead and display TILT when shaken Hence ‘andare in tilt’ means ‘go haywire’). E.g. Il traffico va in tilt or , even worse, ‘sono andato in tilt questa mattina.’ This is a great phrase to use if you loose your cool!

‘Authority’ should mean authority. But first you must understand that it’s pronounced ‘out-or-eetee’. Then once this word is deciphered it actually means ‘regulating agency.’ So, perhaps this is an English word, pronounced in an Italian way which means the same as the French Autorités? What a mish-mash!

More confused or happier?

Actually, for me the best way to pick up the language is to look at my Italian dictionary published by De Agostini and available for a few euros at any discount supermarket, especially at the start of the new school term,. The section I love to look at is the end part where these delightful pictorial diagrams are shown. They cover everything from parts of houses




Historic architectural details:


Birds (among lots of other animals)


Mediaeval fortifications:




Space travel (specially to prepare you for your next trip to Mars (or will it be Venus?)

It’s very good on football (soccer) terms:


And, of course that essential part of the Italian character, cars:

Buon divertimento!






8 thoughts on “How to Learn Italinglish

  1. I have a similar pictorial dictionary. The Oxford- Duden Pictorial Italian and English dictionary which is the most detailed and obsessive in my collection of Italian dictionaries.
    There are a whole list of Italian words that look like English words but have quite different meanings which we called ‘false friends’ when I used to teach Italian.
    A very interesting post. I have just been reading about L’accademia della Crusca. I wonder what this organisation would make of ‘ke fai’? But then the English forms of texting are just as annoying, such as c u.

  2. Great blog.I have attended whole hour conferences on the very subject. It is truly fascinating, the trouble is though that the Italian language becomes somewhat vulgarised with the introduction of foreign words which not everyone will understand besides which, as I am bilingual, I perceive this as a form of mental laziness but at my age it is also a so called senior moment or memory loss or fatigue and the word in whichever language pops up more easily than in the Italian or English language. However, with Italians it is a form of stating I know the English language then they happily insert an English word furthermore I believe that this 2016 is the year when in Italy English words have been banned from being so liberally inserted into the Italian language public speaking as well as private. I am glad that this will be so maybe a fine for a good cause (like a swear box whereby if a person swears they put an amount of money to hopefully stop swearing) could be a welcome aide to help maintain the purity of such a beautiful language of opera literature art and of course LOVE.

    • If an Italian introduces an English word (usually incorrectly pronounced) when there’s a perfectly good Italian equivalent, when talking to me I often answer (in Italian) ‘do you mean….?’

  3. Ps could you add the animal pictures those I am most interested to see. Also I have just remembered that the Institute of Linguists coined a new word for bilingual people which is as follows ambilingual meaning that one is in command or benefitted of both languages as well as culture equally now that is an honour of a label most acceptable as far as labels go as we in the UK are most fond of labels some I must add are not so complimentary. Funny though Mrs Malaprop comes to mind but that really is a whole new other kettle of fish malapropisms they are great!

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