Italian Word of the Day: Cuscino (pillow)

In English, we have two separate terms to describe a cloth bag stuffed with soft material used as a comfortable support. The kind we use to support the head while sleeping or lying down is called a pillow whereas the kind placed on chairs and sofas is called a cushion. In Italian, both are referred to as cuscino (masculine, plural: cuscini).

IPA: /kuʃˈʃ

Both the English cushion and the Italian cuscino are based on a Latin word meaning ‘cushion for the hip‘.

Below are a few common kinds of cuscini you’ll encounter, not all of which are used to support your body!

  • cuscino da letto = pillow (for the bed)
  • cuscino del divano = cushion (for the sofa)
  • cuscino di piume = a feather pillow
  • cuscino in gommapiuma = foam pillow
  • cuscino petofono = a whoopee cushion
  • cuscino salvavita = airbag (lit: lifesaving cushion)
  • busta a cuscino = pillow pouch (type of food packaging)
  • lava a cuscino = pillow lava
Woman holding pillow on bed
Adoro il mio cuscino! = I love my pillow!

I neonati dormono senza cuscino.

Newborn babies sleep without a pillow.

Guanciale is an old-fashioned synonym for cuscino that is specifically used to talk about bed pillows. It comes from the word guancia (cheek) and the action of resting your guancia on the guanciale while sleeping.

Today the most common place you’ll hear this word is in the expression dormire fra due guanciali (lit: to sleep between two pillows) which means to be relaxed / to not worry. Note that some people do say dormire fra due cuscini but the former is more common.

A cuscino di fiori (lit: flower cushion) is a square or rectangular flower arrangement intended for the decoration of churches or funeral services, whereas a cuscino d’aria (air cushion) is the space filled with air between two solid surfaces – in particular, the layer of air supporting a hovercraft or similar vehicle.

hovercraft on white background
Un veicolo a cuscino d’aria = a hovercraft
(note that the English term is also used in the Italian language)

The diminutive cuscinetto is used for objects that are reminiscent of a small pillow. It is also the translation for a rolling bearing, which is used in all sorts of machines to reduce friction between moving parts.

Il pilota si è dovuto ritirare dal gran premio di Gran Bretagna per un problema al cuscinetto della ruota posteriore.

The racing driver had to retire from the British grand prix because of a bearing problem in the rear wheel.

Last but not least, how can we not mention the battaglia di cuscini or lotta di cuscini (pillow fight), a popular game among kids…and adults too! In fact, there are many friendly pillow fight events in cities around the world, including Italian ones such as Milano and Napoli. The code of conduct is simple: meet in a popular square downtown wearing your pyjamas and slippers. And of course, don’t forget your pillow! 🙂

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