The words machine in English and macchina (feminine, plural: macchine) in Italian both derive from the Latin “machina”, which in turn comes from the Greek “mekhos” meaning contrivance. Both refer to a mechanical apparatus with several parts, which together perform a particular task.
Hanno costruito una macchina complicata con semplici materiali domestici.
They built a complicated machine out of simple household materials.
Many machines to which we’ve given unique names in English have an equivalent Italian term that is composed of the word macchina plus its function. Below are a few good examples:
- macchina fotografica = camera (lit: photographic machine)
- macchina da presa = cinema camera (lit: shot machine)
- macchina del caffè = coffee maker (lit: coffee machine)
- macchina da scrivere = typewriter (lit: machine for writing)
- macchina da stampa* = printing-press (lit: printing machine)
- macchina della verità = lie detector (lit: machine of truth)
Note: If you want to talk about a consumer printer, there is a word for it: stampante.
When the type of machine is implicit from the context, Italians often shorten the full term to macchina on its own. For example, a photographer might say to his or her colleague « Mi passi la macchina? » (Could you pass me the camera?) instead of « Mi passi la macchina fotografica? »
One piece of machinery that is habitually called macchina without any additional descriptors is the car. Indeed, in the case of phrases such as salire in macchina (to get into the car), scendere dalla macchina (to get out of the car) and guidare la macchina (to drive the car), there can be no other interpretation besides car. In spoken Italian, macchina tends to be a more popular term than auto or automobile.
Ho comprato una macchina nuova perché quella vecchia si è rotta.
I bought a new car because the old one broke down.
Figuratively speaking, macchina can refer to a set of powers or elements that work in unison towards the achievement of the same objectives such as, for example, la macchina dello stato (the machinery of the state). It may also be used to describe a person who acts with the mechanical efficiency of a machine.
Quando si mette a lavorare, lei è una macchina.
When she puts herself to work, she’s a machine.
The diminutive macchinetta (literally small machine) is also used to talk about small commonly used mechanical tools such as coffee makers, hair clippers, cigarette lighters, or dental braces. If you do something come una macchinetta (like a small machine), you do it quickly and uniformly.