Italian Word of the Day: Cercare (to search for / to try)

Today, we’ll delve into an Italian verb that embodies dual meanings: “to search for” and “to try.” It comes from the late Latin term cĭrcare, meaning “to go around,” which in turn stems from the word circa, which translates to “around.”

/cer·cà·re/ – [tʃerˈkare]
italian word cercare

But before we unravel its two primary definitions, it’s worth noting that cercare is an -ARE verb, conjugated in the present tense as follows:

(io) cerco
(tu) cerchi
(lui) cerca
(lei) cerca

(Lei) cerca
(noi) cerchiamo
(voi) cercate
(loro) cercano

The first definition, which most learners encounter fairly early in their studies, is “to search for,” “to look for,” or “to seek.” It can be used in both the tangible pursuit of items like books, individuals, or job opportunities, as well as in the abstract pursuit of concepts such as fame, fortune or happiness.

By extension, it can also mean “to look up” something, such as a word in the dictionary or a name in a phone book.

Student consulting a dictionary while preparing for exams.
Sta cercando una parola nel dizionario. = She is looking up a word in the dictionary.

A common proverb in Italian is chi cerca trova which is the equivalent of the English proverb he who seeks shall find.

The second definition, “to try,” often catches learners by surprise, particularly those who have recently become familiar with the verbs provare and tentare, both of which traditionally mean “to try“.

When “to try” is the intended meaning, cercare is followed by the preposition di and an infinitive verb. Many English-speaking learners find themselves tempted to use a instead of di, since to often translates to a, but this is incorrect. For example:

  • cercare di fare qualcosa = to try to do something
  • cercare di leggere la scritta = to try to read the writing
  • cercare di dormire = to try to sleep

Note that cercare cannot be directly followed by a noun. If your English phrase involves “to try” + noun, you’ll need to use a different verb in your translation. For instance, “to try a cake” would be expressed as assaggiare una torta, and “to try a game” as provare un gioco.

Mother talking with her child.
Sta cercando di convincerlo ad andare. = She’s trying to convince him to go.

At times, cercare can also signify “to ask (for someone),” either on the phone or in person. For instance, when someone asks Mi ha cercato qualcuno? (literally “Did someone look for me?“), they are inquiring whether they have received any calls.

And paired with the preposition da, it can also mean “to ask (for something),” as in cercare denaro da qualcuno (to ask someone for money).

Anyone who has gone job or house-hunting in Italy has certainly encountered the words cercasi (singular) and cercansi (plural) written in classified ads. Both of these words translate to “wanted” or “looking for” in English. For example:

  • cercasi appartamento / cercansi appartamenti = “apartment(s) wanted”
  • cercasi abile pizzaiolo / cercansi abili pizzaioli = “skilled pizza chef(s) wanted”

And we mustn’t forget the pronominal verb cercarsela, composed of cercare + si + la, which means “to ask for it / deserve something”. Like all pronominal verbs, the addition of pronouns changes the meaning of the word completely.

Angry young man yelling at another man.
Te la sei proprio cercata! = You really asked for it!

In conclusion, here are a few common Italian idioms that contain cercare:

Cercare il pelo nell’uovo

English meaning: to nitpick
Literal translation: to search for the hair in the egg

Cercare per mare e per monti / per terra

English meaning: to search high and low
Literal translation: to search the sea and the mountains / the earth

Cercare un ago in un pagliaio

English meaning: to search for a needle in a haystack
Literal translation: to search for a needle in a haystack

Cercare il bandolo della matassa

English meaning: to search for the key to the problem
Literal translation: to search for end of a skein

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