Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Little green penises, and other foibles of the Italian language

It all started innocently enough. My friend Sarah, a fellow expat, and I decided to call on our mutual friends Maria Grazia and Sauro, to show Naomi off a bit. Maria Grazia went on and on about her chubby little cheeks, and how she wanted to take a bite out of them. (Not literally mind you, but this is a modo di dire, or figure of speech in Italian; she was basically saying the baby looked adorable.) Sarah countered that it was the baby’s toes she really wanted to munch on, like piccolo piselli. Sauro, Maria Grazia and I all burst out laughing, and Sarah looked confused. She didn’t realize that she’d just said that Naomi’s toes were like little penises, and that she wanted to eat them. “But piselli are peas! Her toes remind me of little peas in a pod!” she defended. And she’s right, piselli are peas, and Naomi’s cute little toes do resemble a neat row of little peas. But when it comes to anatomy, I explained, piselli are something entirely different.

A more edible version of piselli
Thus was Sarah’s introduction to the minefield of homonyms that is Italian slang. A pisello is a single pea. It’s also a penis, as a pisella is its female counterpart. So for our sophomoric senses of humor, she was likening Naomi’s toes to delectable little penises, not little green peas.
And the list goes on. Bocce balls are used for the popular lawn game that’s like croquet without the mallets, but bocce are also breasts, as are pere, or pears. When I was pregnant with Naomi, Paolo’s Aunt Graziella was forever warning me not to wear jeans, as these would brucia la patata. Literally, she was saying I would “burn the potato.” But figuratively, she was warning me against…well, I’m still not sure what, but her concern seemed to be that jeans would be too tight on my nether regions, and therefor cut off air, or circulation, or smother the fetus, or something like that.
Don't burn these.

Then there are the words that just sound similar to other words, but have completely different meanings. A fico is a fig; many figs are fichi. Figo is a term that means cool, the way Fonzie was cool. However, fica is yet another term for female anatomy, and it’s more vulgar than patata, which, like pisello, is fairly innocent. All of these words sound very similar, since the Italian i is pronounced like a long ē in English. Feeko, feekee, feego, feeka. So when my friend Laura, a New Yorker who lives in Allerona part time, visited a plant nursery to ask for an albero di fica, she was essentially asking for a pussy tree. When I repeated this story to Sauro, who’d giggled with us about little penis-like toes, he marveled, “If only they grew on trees.” Laura is the same otherwise cultured and civilized person who asked for a sprinkling of caca (poop) on her cappuccino instead of cacao; or cocoa. In a less scatological but equally gross foible, I once ordered a glass of fish juice (succo di pesci) at a bar. Fortunately the barrista did not fill my original order, and asked me instead if I wanted succo di pesche, or peach juice.
Nor is this.
This is not a vagina

Not to be left out are the cocks and cabbages. Cazzo is a slang term for a male appendage, and it is an offensive word, used interchangeably as noun, verb and adjective, much the way “fuck” is used in English. The word peppers so many Italian sentences it’s hard to keep track of its many connotations. But in rough translation, the expressions are, to name a few: “I don’t give a cock.” “What the cock is happening?” “Mind your own cock.” “What the cock do I care?” “What’s this cock?” And the more simple, “What the cock?” Most recently, Gregorio Maria De Falco, the Italian Coast Guard Commander who has emerged as the hero of the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, used the term when attempting to order the ship’s captain, who had abandoned the sinking vessel, to return onboard and oversee the evacuation: “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” Only De Falco knows whether the cazzo! at the end was an expletive directed at the situation in general, much like we would say, “Go back on board, dammit!” or whether he was indeed calling Captain Schettino a cock.
Since more polite Italians don’t run around calling everything and everyone a cock, they use the word cavolo instead. Cavolo is a head of cabbage. (Not to be confused with cavallo, which is a horse.) “Cavolo!” is used to express anger, frustration and even wonder. Its most common appearance in Italian vernacular is when one Italian reminds another to mind his or her own business: “Fatti i cavoli tuoi.” That literally means “make your own cabbage,” but it rarely refers to cooking a pot of goulash or sauerkraut. The “mind your own cabbage” attitude is prevalent in Italy, or at least in our village, to the point that residents often don’t step in to help, even when they should. So when Sarah or I find one another frustrated at what we perceive as a lack of civic pride, or at the slow progress on a disruptive construction project, or at anything with which we are concerned but not directly involved, one says to the other, “Cabbage!” as a reminder to accept the things we can’t change. The word “cabbage” has become our Serenity Prayer for life in Italy.   

Mind your own cabbage.
And in fairness, it’s not just Italian words that are confounding for foreigners. English can be just as tricky to Italians, especially since they have difficulty with h and th sounds. (Here, my name is usually pronounced Elisabet Eat, even by my husband.) Our friend Alessandro confuses hungry and angry. Too much of one can make you the other, I tell him. Our doctor frequently asks me to explain the difference, in spelling and meaning, between hate, ate and eight. For Paolo, it’s chicken and kitchen that sound too much alike.

So, for the foreseeable future, I guess we Americans will continue to ask for fish juice, a dusting of poop on our cappuccinos, and a side order of little penises. And the Italians will get a good laugh from our ineptitude, correct us and hopefully, present us with something much more appetizing. Like maybe a nice steaming plate of cabbage. 


  1. Thanks for a morning smile and a lot of info!

  2. Ha! It's been an education for me, for sure! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Ha ha ha! Pisella is a relatively new addition to Italian slang for genital female parts. It is way rougher than the usually cuter names vagina is given. For example, you would say that baby boys have a Pisellino, but saying a a female babies have a Pisellina is quite rough! Great post!

  4. Thanks - Paolo's take on "pisellina" is that it's still a pretty innocent word. I wonder if its severity varies from town to town? And at least no one is calling me "trippatina" anymore, like they did when I was pregnant!