15 Untranslatable Italian Words That Don’t Exist in English

When learning Italian, it is important to remember that not all native expressions can be translated directly into English. The main reason is that culture has a big impact on the vocabulary used in the language of a specific country. Curious to know more? Below you will find some of the most important Italian words that don’t have an exact equivalent in English.

italian words that don't exist in englsih

1. Al dente

The expression al dente literally means “to the tooth” and it refers to pasta that is cooked to perfection, or more specifically, pasta that is still firm when bitten. The term has been incorporated into English since we don’t have a word of our own to express this concept.

Se la pasta non è al dente, non la mangio.

If the pasta isn’t al dente, I won’t eat it.

Close-up of young happy woman eating pasta at dining table.

2. Apericena

Apericena describes the habit, which is common especially in Milan, of having the evening meal in the form of buffet-like food or finger-food accompanied by a drink. The word itself is a combination of aperitivo (“appetizer”) and cena (“dinner”).

Domani facciamo un apericena in quel posto che ti piace tanto.

Tomorrow we will have an apericena in that place you really like.

3. Abbiocco

Imagine that you just had a massive lunch and you are sitting in the sofa, feeling so tired and comfortable that your eyes slowly begin to shut. Italians would describe this feeling as abbiocco. In English, the most similar words are “food-coma” or “drowsiness” but abbiocco is gentler and more inviting.

Dopo aver mangiato le lasagne, mi è venuto l’abbiocco!

After eating the lasagne, I got so drowsy!

Che abbiocco! È meglio se faccio un pisolino.

I feel so drowsy. I’d better take a nap.

4. Boh

Boh is one of those essential words you need to know in order to talk with Italian native speakers. Indeed, you will often hear this word when they answer questions or when they comment on something that happened.

Boh has no literal translation, but it has different meanings, depending on the tone and the situation. When boh is pronounced quickly, it expresses doubt, similarly to expressions such as “no clue” or “I don’t know” in English.

Sai dov’è andato Luca? Boh! Prova a vedere se è in camera sua.

Do you know where Luca went? No idea! Go and see if he is in his bedroom.

Close up of cute asian girl saying sorry, shrugging shoulders and smiling with oops face expression.

5. Buon appetito

Buon appetito is a phrase used as a salutation to a person about to eat. In English, we don’t really have an equivalent, unless you count the French bon appétit.

Buon appetito!

Bon appétit!

6. Cervicale

La cervicale as it is known appears to be a uniquely Italian malady. Referring to a specific kind of pain that arises in the neck at the height of the cervical vertebrae, it is said to mostly affect Italians over the age of 30!

Soffro di cervicale da dieci anni.

I’ve had neck pain (around the cervical vertebrae) for ten years.

7. Colpo d’aria

Even if you’ve only lived in Italy for a short time, you will certainly have been warned about the dreaded colpo d’aria. To avoid getting “hit by air”, which is the literal translation of the expression, Italians don a maglia della salute (woollen vest) and sciarpa (scarf) during the colder months and never go out with wet hair.

Unlike the English word chill, which is sometimes considered the best translation, il colpo d’aria encompasses both the cause of the illness (the wind) and the resulting illness itself (cold, flu, stomachache, and so on).

Ho preso un colpo d’aria.

Lit: I was exposed to the wind and got sick as a result.

8. Colpo della strega

Here we have another word featuring colpo, and yes, it’s yet another malady. Il colpo della strega literally means “the strike of the witch” and is what Italians say when they experience a sudden painful contraction in the lower back area. The expression dates back to Mediaeval Times when it was believed that witches who practised black magic were able to immobilise men with a single touch.

Quanto tempo ci vuole per guarire dal colpo della strega?

How long does it take to heal from lower back pain?

9. Gattara

A gattara is an elderly woman who lives with a lot of cats (gatti) or feeds them every time she sees them on the street.

Sei proprio una gattara!

You really are an old cat lady!

Сute girl stroking a cat on the street and smiling
Sono destinata a diventare una gattara = I’m destined to become an old cat lady

10. Magari

Magari is literally translated as maybe in English. However, the meaning this word has in Italian goes beyond what maybe is used for. Indeed, magari can be used to express a desire for something like the English expression “I wish”. Depending on the context, it can show optimism or pessimism regarding this wish.

Domani c’è un concerto da non perdere… magari potrei andare!

Tomorrow there is a concert we simply can’t miss… maybe I could go!

Hai un bel lavoro? Magari… mi pagano pochissimo!

Do you have a good job? I wish… they pay me very little.

11. Menefreghista

A menefreghista, which comes from the expression Non me ne frega (“I don’t care”), is a person who shows indifference towards the thing being discussed. It is always used with a derogatory tone.

Paolo è un menefreghista. Non ha neanche finito i suoi compiti per oggi.

Paolo doesn’t care about anything. He hasn’t even finished his tasks for today.

12. Mica

Mica is easily one of the most difficult words for English speakers to learn how to use correctly, as it has multiple translations. When accompanied by male (mica male), it can mean “at all” as in the following example:

Non è mica male questa pizzeria.

This pizzeria isn’t bad at all.

On its own, however, it is similar to the English “it’s not like… / it’s not as if…”

Dai, mica l’ho fatto apposta.

Come on, it’s not like I did it on purpose.

Sometimes it can even function as a tag question, like the English “…isn’t it?” or “…aren’t you?”

Non saranno mica partiti senza di noi?!

They wouldn’t have left without us, would they?!
Surely they haven’t left without us?

13. Pennichella

A pennichella isn’t just any old nap. It is specifically the kind of nap which one takes in the early afternoon, after having lunch!

Non so voi, ma io mi faccio una pennichella.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to have a nap (after lunch).

Young mixed race woman napping on a sofa

14. Scarpetta

Scarpetta literally means “little shoe” but in the context of eating, it refers to the act of scooping up the leftover sauce from your plate with a piece of bread.

Faccio la scarpetta…questo sugo è troppo buono da buttare via!

I’m going to mop up the sauce with this piece of bread…it’s too good to throw away!

15. Ti voglio bene

Italians distinguish the love they feel for their romantic partner from the love they express towards parents, siblings, grandparents, nieces, nephews and friends. Ti voglio bene, literally meaning “I want the good for you”, is used only for the latter type of love, while it is extremely rare to hear Ti amo out of the context of a romantic relationship. In other words, for Italians it is easier to friend-zone someone: by writing Ti voglio bene you are suggesting that the person is just a friend and nothing more, while Ti amo is a big declaration of love! (See our full comparison between ti amo and ti voglio bene here.)

Here are some examples:

Mamma, ti voglio bene!

I love you, mom!

Giovanni, io ti voglio bene, però non ti amo.

I like you a lot Giovanni, but I do not love you (in a romantic way).

Ti voglio un mondo di bene.

I love you so much (platonically).

Bonus: Buon proseguimento!

Buon proseguimento! is a uniquely Italian greeting that means “good luck with / enjoy whatever you are in the middle of doing” be it a job, activity, trip, or meal. Literally translating as “good continuation”, it is used as a way to finish a conversation gracefully.

Buon proseguimento di vacanza, ragazzi!

Enjoy the rest of your holiday, guys!

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