Do you love Italian food? Are you planning to travel to Italy someday? Considering learning how to speak Italian? Do you love eating at the authentic trattoria run by the lovely family from Italy? Would you intentionally use words that are insulting, obscene, suggestive, and downright disgusting to the locals in a foreign country? Here’s the thing. In Italian, the difference between an innocent dish on the menu, and something really vulgar can be minute.
Most English speakers can’t fathom that something as small as saying a word with an ‘-o’ on the end instead of an ‘-a’, or vice versa can make much of a difference, but it can. And you don’t want to find that out for the first time when some Italian Mamma chases you down the street with her rolling pin, while everyone else howls with laughter. Read, and burn the following words into your brain – you will thank me one day!
(Disclaimer – I’m going to be as tactful as I can, but I can’t change what a word means, so in the spirit of higher learning, bear with me if you are sensitive or easily offended).
Let’s start with Pecorino. It’s not even complicated to pronounce. Everyone who considers themselves a food-lover knows pecorino romano cheese made from goat’s or sheep’s milk, and yes, take note that is ‘pecorino‘ with an ‘-o’, because if you say it with an ‘-a’ at the end (pecorina), you have left the realm of cheese, and are now talking about a sexual position. And while there may be a couple of fetishes out there (don’t tell me, I don’t want to have to bleach my brain), not many people really want to be confusing their cheese with a suggestion from the Kama Sutra.
I love figs. So do many other people. You get fabulous figs in Italy, juicy, sweet luscious figs like these:
Yum. Best figs int the world. If you ever travel there, and figs are in season, I urge you not just to try them, but to gorge on them. One caveat: be very cautious that when you ask for a fig, you say ‘fico‘, and not ‘fic
a‘. If that’s too much for you to remember, just learn the plural, ‘ficchi‘, and desist from the singular, because, in Italian, ‘fica‘ is the equivalent of the extremely derogatory ‘c -word’. It really, really is that bad. Trust me, you do not want to say that anywhere you can be misunderstood.
Recently I chatted to the Italian owner of a restaurant. He actually turned bright red and snorted coffee through his nose recounting some of the innocently inappropriate pronunciations of Italian food he head heard. He gave me one I hadn’t come across – ‘penne‘ – you’ve seen it – the quill shaped pasta:
I wasn’t aware that you could get this simple word wrong, but you can. You know how Australians tend to drag out the ‘a’ on ‘pasta‘, so it comes out ‘paasta‘? Yes, well apparently there are people who do the same to the ‘-e’ on ‘penne‘.
What you need to know is that if you don’t make quick with the first ‘e’ (pen/neh), and drag it out to ‘pehh/neh‘ you are phonetically saying ‘pene‘, which is the Italian word for the appendage which distinguishes the male of the species from the female, if you get my drift.
No, I don’t want my Marinara sauce served over ‘p*nis’. And if you end up with a slow-witted waiter with a high libido, and unused the failings of English speakers, you don’t want him thinking that’s what you just ordered either.
On a similar, though mercifully unrelated to food note, don’t confuse ‘anno‘ (a year, as in Anno Domini – the year of Our Lord) with ‘ano‘. Subtle one again – the first ‘a’ is brisker, the second is longer ‘aaah/noh‘. The second one means ‘ass‘ and I do not mean ‘ass‘ in a ‘Donkey from Shrek’ way. Go ahead and replace ‘anno‘ with ‘ano‘ in a phrase like ‘Anno Domini‘
if you’re feeling brave, but don’t complain to me when the righteous folk beat your sorry ano.
There is another relatively common mispronunciation that I can’t really fathom getting wrong, but then I’m diligent about details: ‘Calzone‘ – the folded pizza thing seems simple enough, but apparently people sometimes leave out the ‘l’, especially when they are trying to get the Italian pronunciation right, which is very unfortunate. ‘Calzone‘ means ‘trousers’ (and folded pizza) in Italian, but when you remove the ‘l’, you are being rude again. Very rude!
It means…well, work with me here: male appendage, 1 syllable, 4 letters (aren’t they all…) first letter ‘d’, last letter ‘k’. Or change the first letter to a ‘c’. Capisce? Saying this to an Italian is inflammatory, to say the least. Saying ‘vorrei ca*zone‘ (‘I would like ‘****’) to a waiter is just nasty, no matter how many fillings you add.
Another verrrry common error (and one I’ve dealt with before) is ‘mozzarella di bufala‘. If you are going to say it either get it right, or say buffalo mozzarella. Don’t say ‘mozzarella di bufalo‘ which translates directly as ‘mozzarella from a bull buffalo’. Because I’m telling you now, no-one (with the exception of deviants and perverts) wants to go there. It brings up a whole Pandora’s box of unseemly, distasteful and upsetting connotations which I don’t want waltzing through my mind while I’m enjoying my Caprese salad, thank-you very much.
Casalinga is Italian for a housewife, and there are loads of dishes described as ‘alla Casalinga‘, which is used much like Bonne Femme in French – it implies a simple home-style meal. Just don’t say ‘Casalingua‘, (linga – leen/gah; lingua – leeng/gwah) because that adds another seamy dimension which you may not be looking to explore when really all you want is a nice glass of wine, and a good meal.
‘Lingua‘ means ‘tongue’. You don’t need to be a linguistic genius to figure out why the little word play between ‘housewife’ and ‘tongue’ is mighty popular in porn titles in Italy.
Just for good measure, let me add that ‘preservativi‘ are not preserves. If you want preserves, ask for conservativi. When the hot Italian girl asks you if you have preservativi, she isn’t asking if you have jam (that somehow sounds wrong, but I can’t quite work out why). She’s asking if you have condoms….which may be a relief to you, or not.
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