Italian Word of the Day: Pelo (hair / fur)

Anyone who owns a dog or cat knows the constant struggle of keeping sofas free of pet hair. In Italian, the word for hair or fur is pelo.

/pé·lo/ – [ˈpelo]
Italian word "pelo"

Pelo is a masculine noun whose origin can be traced back to the Latin pilum of the same meaning. It takes the following definite and indefinite articles:

  • il pelo = the hair
  • un pelo = a hair
  • i peli = the hairs
  • dei peli = some hairs

Pelo is used to describe most types of hair, including body hair, facial hair, and the hair found on animals.

When referring to the hair on a person’s head, it’s best to use the singular capello (capo ‘head’ + pelo ‘hair’) for a single strand of hair and the plural capelli to refer to a head of hair as a whole.

Oh no, ho un capello bianco! = Oh no, I have a white hair!
Maria ha i capelli castani. = Maria has brown hair.

In its singular form, pelo can also refer to the entire coat or fur of an animal rather than the individual strands of hair. A synonym for pelo in this sense is pelliccia.

Here are a few verbs you will often see used with pelo:

  • rasare i peli = to shave hair
  • spazzolare il pelo = to brush the fur / coat
  • togliere / eliminare i peli = to remove hairs

In beauty circles, you might encounter the term peluria, which refers to the soft down or peach fuzz on a person’s face. When this fine hair becomes thicker, it is referred to as barba (beard) or baffi (moustache).

A sleeping bag is known as a sacco a pelo in Italian. The literal translation is “bag of hair/fur,” which harks back to ancient times when sleeping bags were made by sewing animal fur together with the fur side facing inward for warmth.

A common figurative meaning for pelo is a split second, or a very short period of time. You will frequently see it used in this sense in the idiomatic expression per un pelo, which has various meanings including almost, nearly, just and just in time.

A second figurative meaning is surface, as in the surface of water (il pelo dell’acqua).

La monta a pelo, which translates to bareback riding in English, is a style of horseback riding where the rider doesn’t use a saddle and is therefore direct contact with the horse’s back and, of course, its pelo.

fluffy scottish fold cat sitting on rocking chair with woolly blanket

Finally, while we’re here, we might as well touch upon the verb pelare, which literally means to peel or skin, but also has the figurative meaning to rip off (as in to charge someone an excessive amount of money for something). You may also hear spelare, with the subtractive s-, which means to remove/lose hair. Depilare, on the other hand, is a common verb in beauty circles used to describe the act of removing body hair, via shaving, waxing, epilation or other means, for aesthetic reasons.

Idiomatic expressions featuring ‘pelo’

Non avere peli sulla lingua

Literal translation: to have no hairs on the tongue
English meaning: to not mince words

Cercare il pelo nell’uovo

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

Non torcere un pelo

Literal translation: to not twist a hair
English meaning: not harm a hair on someone’s head

Di primo pelo

Literal translation: of first hair
English meaning: to be green / inexperienced

Il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio

Literal translation: the wolf loses its fur but not its vice
English meaning: a leopard can’t change its spots

Fare (il) pelo e (il) contropelo

Literal translation: to shave the hair and shave against the growth
English meaning: to be extremely critical / to scrutinise

Avere il pelo sullo stomaco

Literal translation: to have hair on your stomach
English meaning: to be ruthless / no scruples

Lisciare il pelo a qualcuno

Literal translation: to smooth someone’s fur/hair
English meaning: to flatter someone / butter someone up

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