Italian Word of the Day: Lavorare (to work)

The verb to work translates as lavorare in Italian. It comes from the Latin verb laborare and shares the same origin as the words labor and laboratory in English.


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In both languages, the word refers to the act of engaging in physical or mental activity to achieve a desired result, or to the state of being employed.

Portrait of modern female worker cutting metal at industrial plant or garage
Inizio a lavorare alle otto del mattino. – I start work at 8 in the morning.

Below are some common prepositions you’ll see used with lavorare:

lavorare per = to work for
>> lavorare per un’azienda = to work for a company

lavorare a / su = to work on
>> lavorare a un libro = to work on a book
>> lavorare su un progetto = to work on a project

lavorare in / presso = to work at / in
>> lavorare in una fabbrica = to work in a factory
>> lavorare presso una ditta = to work at a company

lavorare da / come = to work as
>> lavorare da meccanico = to work as a mechanic
>> lavorare come avvocato = to work as a lawyer

Vorrei lavorare solo quattro giorni a settimana.

I would like to work just four days a week.

To work part-time translates as lavorare a tempo parziale, to work full-time is lavorare a tempo pieno and to work by the hour is lavorare a ore. Note that the English terms part-time and full-time are often used by Italians as well.

Most people work on a salary (lavorare a stipendio / da dipendente) or are self-employed (lavorare in proprio) whereas volunteers always work for free (lavorare gratis).

Operator working with a camera
Lavoro in proprio da due anni. = I’ve been self-employed for two years.

If you want to say that someone works a lot, you can safely use the literal translation lavorare molto or you could try your hand at using these more descriptive expressions:

lavorare sodo = to work hard

lavorare come un mulo = to work like a donkey

lavorare duro = to work hard

lavorare di schiena = to work hard (physically)

lavorare come un pazzo = to work like a crazy person

lavorare come una bestia = to work like a beast

lavorare come un dannato = to work like a damned person

Note: A very common translation for to work hard that has nothing to do with the verb lavorare at all is impegnarsi. It can also translate as to make an effort or to apply oneself.

Whereas in English, we have the specific verb to knit, Italians use the expressions lavorare a maglia (lit: to work on knitting) or lavorare ai ferri (lit: to work on the needles).

Someone who uses intellect to resolve problems rather than their hands is said to lavorare di cervello (to work with one’s brain). A person who uses manual or mechanical means to complete a task, on the other hand, is said to lavorare a mano (to work by hand).

Lavorare is also a synonym for funzionare (to work / operate / run) when talking about the operation of machines, mechanisms or body parts.

Questa macchina lavora ventiquattr’ore su ventiquattro, sette giorni su sette.

This machine operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

When talking about how well a business is doing, it is possible to use the verb lavorare to say that it has lots of customers or clients.

C’è un solo bar in questo paesino e lavora molto.

There is only one bar in this town and it has a lot of customers.

An unrecognisable woman working on a laptop. Top view.
Mia sorella lavora giorno e notte sul computer. = My sister works day and night on her computer.

Up until now, we’ve talked about how lavorare can be used as an intransitive verb, or in other words, a verb that does not take a direct object. However, it can also be used transitively to mean to work something. For example:

  • lavorare la terra = to work the land
  • lavorare il pane = to knead the bread
  • lavorare i buoi = to work the oxen

Il contadino sta insegnando a suo figlio come lavorare la terra.

The farmer is teaching his son how to work the land.

As is the case with many basic verbs, lavorare can be used not only in a literal but also various figurative senses. We won’t list them all but here are a few of our favourites:

  • lavorare di fantasia = to let one’s imagination go wild
  • lavorare di gomiti = to elbow your way through (a crowd)
  • lavorare di ganasce = to eat voraciously
  • lavorare di mano = to pilfer
  • lavorare a vuoto = to work without achieving a result, without a purpose
  • lavorare sott’acqua = to act covertly, to work in secret

If you change lavorare to the pronominal verb lavorarsi, you end up with a number of additional figurative meanings including:

  • lavorarsi qualcuno = to manipulate someone
  • lavorarsi la piazza = to attract the public by means of advertising (theatrical jargon)
  • lavorarsi una bistecca, un piatto di ravioli, ecc. = to polish off a steak, a plate of ravioli, etc.

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