Italian Word of the Day: Nero (black)

The word for the darkest colour in existence owing to the complete absence or absorption of light is nero in Italian, or black in English. Its form changes to nera when modifying feminine nouns, and their respective plurals are neri and nere.

cover image with the word “nero” and its translation written on a notepad next to a cup of cofee

Un vestito nero means a black suit, whereas a person who is vestito / vestita di nero is wearing black or is dressed in black.

Mi piace il tuo vestito nero. Dove l’hai comprato?

I like your black dress. Where did you buy it?

As in English, nero can also indicate something that is dark in colour, but not necessarily black in its purest sense. For example, caffè nero (black coffee) is how you would describe coffee without milk, and vino nero (lit: black wine) is simply another way of saying red wine.

Mio papà prende sempre una tazza di caffè nero al mattino.

My dad always has a cup of black coffee in the morning.

If you want to describe something by saying it is as black as black can be, you can use the augmentative nerissimo, or the expression nero come la pece. The latter literally means as black as tar/pitch, and it can be used to describe things that are pitch black / dark (as in lacking light) or very dark in colour.

Mid section of man having black coffee during morning
Beve un caffè nero. = He drinks a black coffee.

Nero is also the word used for black people. As a noun, un nero means a black person. When used as an adjective, it can refer to a person (e.g. cantante nero = black singer) as well as black culture (cultura nera), black music (musica nera) and so on.

Regarding the latter, you will see words such as africano or afroamericano used instead of nero. Interestingly, you can also find the English adjective black in Italian written work, such as for example, a newspaper article with the words cultura black instead of cultura nera (where black is a substitute for African-American).

Some other common terms containing nero include:

  • buco nero = black hole
  • pane nero = rye bread
  • nero di seppia = squid ink
  • scatola nera = flight recorder (black box)
  • oro nero = black gold
  • pepe nero = black pepper
  • mercato nero = black market
  • notte nera = dark night

Did you know?
To elect a new Pope in the Vatican, 115 cardinals go into isolation to cast a vote. If a single name doesn’t get 77 votes, or a two-thirds majority, a fumata nera (black smoke signal) is released from the chimney of the Sistine chapel. When the election is successful, a fumata bianca (white smoke signal) appears.

Hanno mandato una squadra speciale per recuperare la scatola nera dell’aereo precipitato nella giungla.

They sent a special team to recover the flight recorder of the plane that crashed in the jungle.

cropped photo of man hands holding a black cardboard box inside the shop
Non è quel tipo di scatola nera che stanno cercando! = That’s not that kind of black box they’re looking for!

There are, of course, many figurative meanings for nero, most of which have a negative connotation. This includes things that are:

  • dirty – e.g. mani nere (lit: black hands) = dirty hands
  • illegal – e.g. lavorare in nero = to do illegal labour, to work under the table
  • dismal – e.g. un futuro nero (lit: a black future) = a bleak future
  • immoral – e.g. un’anima nera = a black soul
  • disgraceful – e.g. pecora nera = black sheep
  • nefarious – e.g. magia nera = black magic
  • fascist – e.g. terrorismo nero (lit: black terrorism) = black-shirt terrorism

Tante persone lavorano in nero per non pagare le tasse.

Many people work illegally to avoid paying taxes.

Nero can also be used negatively to describe the mood of a person, a bad situation or a bad day. For example:

  • una giornata nera = a very bad day
  • un periodo nero = very difficult times
  • umore nero = very bad mood
  • essere arrabbiato nero/a = to be furious
  • vedere tutto nero = to be negative about everything

È stata una giornata nera per l’azienda. Il direttore è arrabbiato nero.

It was a very bad day for the company. The director is furious.

Angry man using corporate restroom while talking on cell phone
È arrabbiato nero! = He’s furious!

Finally, nero is used for books or stories that have a mysterious or macabre theme. For example, romanzo nero means noir fiction (‘noir’ is the French for black) and cronaca nera is crime news.

Idioms with the word ‘nero’

Mettere nero su bianco

  • Literal translation: to put black on white
  • Meaning: to put something down in writing

Ci corre quanto dal bianco al nero

  • Literal translation: it runs as fast as from white to black
  • Meaning: there is as much difference (between two things) as between black and white

Prendere bianco per nero

  • Literal translation: to take white for black
  • Meaning: to confuse something for another, to make a big mistake

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