Italian Word of the Day: Spaventoso (scary / incredible)

The adjective spaventoso in Italian is interesting in that it has either a positive or negative connotation depending on how it is used.

italian word for scary

In its negative and more traditional sense, it describes anything that causes fright or arouses feelings of terror and bewilderment. Some possible translations including scary, frightening, frightful, terrible, horrible or dreadful.

Ieri ho avuto un incubo spaventoso.

Last night I had a scary / terrible dream.

Three kids in scary costumes reading horror stories while sitting on bed in an old house.
Un libro spaventoso = A scary book

However, in Italian, just as in many other languages, the meaning of words is sometimes “flipped” over time, especially in slang or the common spoken language. To use English as an example, words such as bad, wicked and sick all originally had a negative connotation, but their meaning was later turned on its head to indicate something positive – “a wicked new song”, for example.

The same applies to spaventoso, which is also used hyperbolically to describe something as being incredible, extraordinary, terrific or amazing.

È spaventoso quanto sia brava Elena – è difficile immaginare qualcosa che non sia in grado di fare!

It’s amazing how good Elena is – it’s difficult to imagine something she’s not able to do!

Delighted little boy with VR headset smiling happily and looking up while exploring virtual reality in illuminated room
Un’esperienza spaventosa = A terrific experience

Because it is an adjective ending in -o, its form changes depending on the gender and/or plurality of the subject it describes.

  • spaventoso = masculine, singular (e.g. un mostro spaventoso = a scary monster)
  • spaventosa = feminine, singular (e.g. una velocità spaventosa = an incredible speed)
  • spaventosi = masculine, plural (e.g. mostri spaventosi = scary monsters)
  • spaventose = feminine, plural (e.g. velocità spaventose = incredible speeds)

Spaventoso comes from the noun spavento which means scare or fright. Also related is the verb spaventare meaning to scare or to alarm, as well as the reflexive spaventarsi meaning to get scared or to frighten oneself.

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