In the movie Spiderman: Far From Home, protagonist Peter Parker and his classmates travel to Venice where they are unexpectedly attacked by the Water Elemental. But before the chaos ensues, Peter’s love interest MJ tells him that she’s learned “the most perfect word in the world” while exploring the city – and this happens to be our word of the day: boh (I don’t know)!
Now, before we talk about boh, I should mention that the most standard and polite way of saying I don’t know in Italian is actually non lo so, which is a word-for-word translation of the English equivalent.
The Italian slang word boh is simply a shorter and very colloquial way of saying the same thing. It isn’t dissimilar to the abbreviated I dunno or the audible shoulder shrug English speakers use when they can’t be bothered to say the whole phrase.
Because it is informal, you’d never use it with a teacher, your boss, and older person outside of your closest family or someone you don’t know well. It’s not impolite or offensive by any means, but you’ll give the impression that you are not interested or you don’t care. This is because boh, in addition to translating as I don’t know, can also imply the following:
- “I don’t know and I don’t really care.”
- “I don’t know and I can’t be bothered to find out.“
The implied meaning ultimately depends on the tone of voice the speaker uses when saying the word.
Vieni alla festa stasera? – Boh, forse.
Are you coming to the party tonight? – I dunno, maybe.
(The speaker hasn’t thought about whether he’s going or not.)
Sai mica dov’è la stazione? – Boh…
Do you know where the station is? – No idea…
(The speaker isn’t interested in helping the other person.)
Sometimes Italian speakers elongate the boh sound. Doing so emphasises the fact that the speaker really has no clue, and sounds even more informal than boh on its own.
Perché sta lì in mezzo alla strada!? – Booooh!
Why is he standing in the middle of the street!? – Noooo idea!
You can use boh on its own, or follow it up with non lo so (I don’t know) or che ne so (how should I know) to reinforce your answer.
Tu sai con chi sta uscendo Marta? – Boh, e che ne so io?!
Do you know who Marta is dating? – Nope, how should I know?
Some other phrases that are similar to boh in meaning (but not nearly as short or convenient) are:
- Non ne ho la minima idea. = I have no idea.
- Chi lo sa? = Who knows?
- Non chiedere a me. = Don’t ask me.
- Non posso neanche indovinare. = I can’t even guess.
- Non saprei. = I wouldn’t know.
- Non ne ho la più pallida idea. = I haven’t the faintest idea.