20 Fascinating Italian Words Used in English
Italian belongs to the linguistic family of Romance languages, along with Spanish, French, and Romanian. They all share common Latin roots, which ended up massively influencing the English vocabulary over the centuries. However, the similarities between Italian and English don’t only relate to their Latin origins. Many Italian words were imported, lock, stock, and barrel, along with the Italian immigration to the US in the early 20th century, which has contributed to enriching the American language and culture greatly.
These “loan words”, directly borrowed by English speakers from the Italian language, apply to many areas of our lives. Although food and music seem to be the sectors mostly dominated by Italian terms, literature, the arts and the booming American movie industry have been highly affected too.
Learning about the origin and meaning of these terms is an excellent way to enrich not only your language knowledge, but also acquire some fundamental notions of history, geography, and even cooking. Let’s take a look at the top 20 Italian words used in English today.
01. Al dente
In Italian, the word al dente literally means “to the tooth” and is used to describe the perfect consistency of cooked pasta—firm to the bite and not too chewy. It’s used the exact same way it is used in the English language, as the culinary term for slightly undercooked pasta or rice. “I like pasta only when it’s al dente”.
Appetizers served before the main course, typically made of olives, vegetables, cheese and cold cuts. In English, the word antipasto (or its plural, antipasti) is used in the same culinary context as in Italian. “I would like to order an antipasto platter”.
The person who prepares and serves coffee at cafes or drinks at a bar. In English, it literally translates to “barman” or “bartender”. “Barista, can I have an espresso?”.
The literal translation of ciabatta is “slipper”, but in both Italian and English, it’s used to describe a white bread whose peculiar name takes after its elongated, broad, and flat shape. You’ll find many different types of ciabatta bread in Italy, depending on the region you’re visiting.
In this case, the word is taken from Italian, but it has a totally different meaning in the two languages. In Italian, latte simply means “milk”, while in English the word is used to indicate coffee with steamed milk in it. “Joe was sitting at a cafe drinking a latte”.
Another word spelled similarly in Italian and English, but with a completely different meaning. In Italian, the word is written with one ‘p’ (peperoni) and it means “peppers”. In English, pepperoni refers to hard, cured sausage typically used on pizza. Meat lovers, keep this in mind when ordering a pepperoni pizza in Italy, or you might end up going veggie.
Music and opera
In Italian, allegro literally means “cheerful”, but it’s also a well-known musical term used to describe a lively and brisk tempo: “A music tempo can be allegro or lento, our professor taught us”.
In both Italian and English, the word ballerina has two parallel meanings. The first one describes a female ballet dancer (“Some of the world’s most famous ballerinas have danced at La Scala in Milan”). The second meaning takes after the ballet shoes worn by the same ballerinas dancers—and by fashionistas (surprisingly, not an Italian word!) all around the world.
The word diva in Italian was originally used to indicate a famous female singer. Although today it still relates to the music industry, the word is part of our everyday vocabulary and has broadened its meaning by referring to any person with an air of self-importance. “She never says hi, she’s such a diva”.
In both languages, intermezzo refers to a short composition in between the main acts or divisions of a play (music, dance or theatre). In music, the term has had several different usages, which fit into two general categories: the opera intermezzo and the instrumental intermezzo. A well-known example is the orchestral intermezzo in Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria rusticana.
In Italian, tempo literally means “time”. However, in musical terminology, tempo refers to the speed or pace of a given music piece. High tempo means a song is faster, while slow songs are characterized by low tempo.
Art and architecture
In both languages, the word refers to writing or drawings on public walls or other surfaces, usually without permission and as a form of art and/or rebellion. Note that the word graffiti is typically used only in its plural version in English, while in Italian it’s common both as a singular (graffito) and plural noun.
Originated from the Italian word mezzanino, it’s used in architecture to describe a building’s intermediate floor that is partly open to the double-height ceiling floor below. In everyday vocabulary, mezzanine refers to an apartment’s additional space above the ground floor.
In both languages, patio describes an outdoor space generally used for dining or hanging out, installed in the house’s garden or backyard. “In the summer, we like having dinners on the patio”.
In Italian, it literally means “room”. However, in a poem, a stanza is a group of lines separated from other stanzas by a blank line, just like different paragraphs in a text of prose. Fixed verse poems, such as sestinas, can be defined by the number and form of their stanzas.
The word originates from the Latin villa, which designated the country house of the upper-class ancient Romans. Today, in both Italian and English, villa refers to various types and sizes of homes, usually characterized by larger, independent spaces with more than one floor and a garden.
Other English words of Italian origin
One word, two completely different meanings. In English, confetti is small, colorful pieces of paper usually thrown at celebrations. In Italian, confetti refers to sugar-coated almonds which are given out at weddings, baptisms, graduations and other special occasions, often wrapped in a small tulle bag as a gift to the guests. The word comes from the Latin confectum, which means “small sweet”. If you’re invited to a wedding in Italy, you won’t see friends and family throwing confetti over to the bride as she walks down the aisle, but you’ll get them as a tasty present instead.
In Italian, finale literally means “the end”, when used as a noun, or “final, conclusive”, when used as an adjective. In English, it only refers to the last part of a piece of music, TV show or event. “I can’t wait to see The Sopranos finale tonight!”
A particularly relevant word these days. The word influenza comes from the Latin word influentia which literally translates into “influence”, as the illness was traditionally attributed to the influence of the stars. Although in English influenza is solely used to describe a viral respiratory infection, in Italian it has the same meaning as the word influence. Note that the word flu also comes from influenza, as its short form.
The word lava started being used in English in the 18th century, influenced by the Neapolitan dialect. Lava has the exact same meaning in both Italian and English, and refers to the boiling hot molten rock erupting from a volcano.
The Italian culture's influence on the English language is still strong and is reflected on this selection of terms—among many others. What other words in Italian do you know and use? Share in a comment below!
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Roberta Rottigni, Marketing Manager (Italy) at Wix
Eternal optimist originally from Italy, addicted to outdoors and sunny weather.