Culture Discovery Vacations Blog

“Boh!?”… And Other Perfect Italian Words & Phrases That Don’t Translate Well


When you split your life between two cultures with two languages, it is quite easy to get trapped in the wrong language from time to time.  I sometimes find myself speaking one language, then suddenly a word or phrase pops out from the other.  I don’t realize it until the person I am speaking with gets that glazed look in their eyes.  It is as though they are suddenly thinking “Did Michael just invent a word?”  “Is he trying to be cool, throwing Euroslang into his speech?”  “and why on earth does he keep throwing his arms around as he speaks?”

No… I don’t even realize I am doing it.  Until I see that look, and I get a little embarrassed.  The thing is, that when you are fluent enough in two languages and sufficiently integrated in multiple cultures, certain concepts are better expressed in one language than another.  You don’t actually think about what language you are speaking… you just speak.  So when I have a thought, the easiest way to express that thought is what immediately pops into my head sometimes.  There may be one word in a language that takes a complete sentence to express in another…. so something inside says “This can only be said this way”, and it just pops out.

This is my tribute to a few of these words and phrases between Italian and English.  There are so many more than aren’t coming to mind right now, so if you have others, please leave a comment and let me know!


Boh!?  (Bo)

This may be my favorite word in Italian, which is why it made it into the title of this article. I use this ALL THE TIME in English.  I just cannot help it!  It means “I don’t know”, but being just one little single-syllable, 3 letter word, makes it so utterly perfect.  It is as though being so short and simple, it carries a more definite meaning.  Like “I don’t know, and what kind of idiot are you that you might think I would?”

Cornuto  (Cor-Noo-Toe)

Bob is a Cornuto.  Literal translation:  Bob is horned.  Huh?  Well, what it actually means is “Bob’s wife/girlfriend/significant other is cheating on him”… all in one word: CORNUTO.  Having horns simply means that you are being cheated on, and it can be used several ways.  “Poor Susan has horns” (She is being cheated on), “John put horns on Jane” (John is cheating on Jane).  It is also used (primarily in the south) as an offense  Cornuto!  As to say “You Cornuto, You!”.  And when you get waaay south, well… Them’s Fightin’ Words!

Uffa (ooh-fah)

I love this word, because I’m really not sure how to translate it into an English word at all!  Imagine you are bored to the point of frustration.  You know that full-exhale-sigh you make?  Maybe you finish it off saying ‘Blah’.  That entire expression can be summed up by the word ‘Uffa’, and if you really deliver the f’s in the middle (uffffffa), you are amping up how strong the feeling is.

Che Palle (Kay-Pall-Ay)

This literally translates to “What Balls”, but the meaning depends entirely on the context, such that these two little words cover quite a bit.

I’m bored: Che Palle!
You are starting to annoy me:  Che Palle!
This is redundant:  Che Palle!
This is bothering me:  Che Palle!
My fingers are starting to hurt while writing this: Che Palle!
Paola is calling me to come downstairs and do something while I am writing this: Che Palle!  :-)

It isn’t considered very nice, but not quite profane.  I would put it on par with using a word like “Damn”.  So, there is a light version of it:  Che Pizza!

Porca Troia!

Porca Miseria (Porca Mee-Sare-Eee-Ah)

For some reason, Italians seem to have some major issues with pigs that might be worth exploring with a collective national psychologist.  They have a full range of exclamations about pigs, and they range from light-hearted to stuff I should not write here.  Yes, we have the classic “You are a Pig” in English, which is to say that you are messy.  But Italians elevate the pig to near demonic status.

Porca Miseria literally translates to “Misery is a Pig”.  It is a very generic exclamation.

I lost my job, porca miseria!
I stubbed my toe, porca miseria!
I forgot to make that reservation, porca miseria!

What makes the pig so fun, is that you can modify the strength of your exclamation by changing the status of that which you are associating with the pig.  For example:

Porca Puttana! ( A Whore is a Pig ) is much stronger than Misery.
Porca Puttanaccia! ( A BAD Whore is a Pig ) is even stronger.

The whole whore thing is quite popular too!  You can use all sorts of words to say whore:  Puttana, Mignotta, Troia, etc.  All work well with “Porca”!

You can get REALLY strong and vulgar by associating the pig with God and the Virgin Mary ( Dio and Madonna ), but that is a major no-no!  However, even they get lightened up to “Porco Due” and “Porca Madosca”… More or less how we go from God to Gosh and Damn to Darn.

The point is, that while these all do translate into something English, I can’t quite explain why, but it is somehow more powerful than the english counterparts, such that I find myself using Porca Miseria all the time, even in English.

Che Fico!  (Kay Fee-Co)

Ok, this simply translates to ‘Cool’, so while it doesn’t really fit into this article, I couldn’t resist.  Why, you ask?  Because the literal translation is What a Fig!.  Can’t you just picture your friend walking up to your brand new car and saying What a fig ?  Ok, I’ll move on…

Ti Voglio Bene ( Tee-Vol-Yo Beh-Nay ) & Ti Amo (Tee-Amo)

They both mean I love you, but the Italian language has different ways of expressing love for your mother, for example, from love for your spouse. Ti Amo literally translates to “I love you”, but if you say it to your mom, well.. Ewww!  That’s sick!!!  That would be getting into Norman Bates territory.   On the other hand, Ti Voglio Bene is properly suited for mom.  It literally translates to “I wish you well”, which I know sounds an extremely weak and borderline insensitive statement for mom, but Ti Amo is reserved exclusively for very serious romantic love, period.  So you will wish well for mom, dad, brothers, sisters, kids, close friends, etc.  You will also wish well for a boyfriend/girlfriend that isn’t nearing the “pop The Question” stage.

Best put, I would say Ti Voglio Bene is like “I Love You”, and Ti Amo is like “I am IN love with you”.

Gattara (Gat-Tara)

Here is one that really isn’t in my vocabulary, but as I stumbled upon it, I couldn’t stop laughing.  You know the stereotype woman that lives alone with cats?  Yeah, you got it… She is a “Gattara”.

The English Language Gets Back with the verb TO GET

Seriously, there are countless words that don’t translate well from Italian to English, and from English into Italian.  Just ask any Italian that speaks English how they felt when they first learned the verb “To Get”.  Better yet, try it yourself!  Try to define every meaning of To Get that you can think of in 5 minutes.  While you do that, I’ll get to the end of this, since it is getting long and I need to get out of here.  If you don’t get what I am saying it, get a life and get over it.  Get it?

So any really interesting ones I missed?  let me know!

64 thoughts on ““Boh!?”… And Other Perfect Italian Words & Phrases That Don’t Translate Well

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  2. Deborah

    You missed my very favorite Italian expression:

    I love the way the word is used as a filler in a conversation that is lagging. Or to change the subject. Or just when you can’t think of anything else to say.
    My favorite, is when Italians say it while they are talking to themselves, or thinking out loud.
    A store clerk will by adding up a purchase on a scrap of paper and say: “e cinque. No, no. Allora. Quattro, si, quattro. Allora!”
    .-= Deborah´s last blog ..I’m SICK of Ribbons =-.

    1. Linda Greene

      Deborah, you nailed it! Allora – the very best Italian expression :) Took me a while to “get it” but once you do, its use is irresistible!

  3. carol

    hi Michael, you have just increased my vocabulary by about 15%. thank you so much :) Uffa is one of my faves, I wasn’t sure about all the “porca” expressions, ho paura della “che fico”and I will stop trying to figure out how to translate “get”.
    thanks for the lesson!!!

    1. Linda Greene

      Actually, Bill, it’s perfetto (without the “c”). We tend to say perfectto because we are thinking of the English word, perfect. Just thought that you would want to know :). Italian … such a lovely, lovely language.

  4. Glenys' Rome & Beyond

    This was very funny and so true. I sometimes do this as well but I try to keep it to a minimum in order to avoid the trap that has occured in America. There is an entire generation of Americans who are born into Spanish speaking families who end up doing this all their lives. Ever meet someone whose English is so bad that you imagine they must speak Spanish fluently? Well, I’ve tried swapping languages many times thinking it would help, only to realize, that they aren’t fluent in Spanish either. Studies show that these people amount to an entire generation of Americans. My mother prevented me from becoming this statistic by forbidding any use of Spanglish, ever. Spanglish, Itanglish and any other mash-up will eventually lead down this road.

    Although I find that I can’t come up with a suitable substitute for ‘ormai’, ‘dimmi al volo’ or ‘simpatico’ (nice just doesn’t cut it), I still try to stick to one language, which in turn strengthens each. I have recently met Americans who have lived here for more than 10 years and I see how deeply their language is affected.

    By the way, an Italian friend gave me the perfect Italian explanation for the verb ‘to get’. He said, “Get is the same as the verb ‘puffare’ which comes from the cartoon ‘I Puffi'” As I had no idea what he meant, he described the cartoon and I realized he meant ‘The Smurfs’. To get = to smurf. “If you explain it like this, every Italian will understand.”, he claimed.
    .-= Glenys’ Rome & Beyond´s last blog ..The French Riviera’s Chic Cities: Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Nice & Monte Carlo =-.

    1. Michael Post author

      How true…. I am an L.A. native, so I totally get where you are coming from. Still, popping back and forth all the time does cause certain words to stick. Try as I might, ‘Boh’ always pops into mind for me. In fairness, a major part of the english language started much like Spanglish. How many common words in English are the result of turn of the century immigration? It simply is part of the natural progression of language, otherwise we would be speaking Latin in Italy (Thank you, Dante).

      I love the Puffi analogy. It does generally work to some extent, but not entirely, unless one could say “I’m feeling getty today” (I’m feeling smurffy) :-)

      Ormai… good one. I think the closest translation would be “at this point”

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  6. Cinzia

    I’m just back from a two weeks stay in Chicago. My friends were at first puzzled and then delighted from my answering “Sì, Sì” instead of Yea, yes … see? what do we have to see? Also they are used to me using Boh? and know what it means.
    Your blog is great.

  7. romanina

    I got to this site by looking up “Boh”, my Italian friends use it more negatively than you do, apparently, but it’s so hard to translate. I’ve learned to use it like, “Boh, I’m fed up with that, boh, that’s frustrating/disgusting/, boh (shrug), but then, what can be done about it? BOH!” Along with “allora”, which is always a good filler, there’s also “ecco”, “eccola”… which I was taught means “here he/she/it is”… until an Italian friend said it’s also used as “Oh, yah/sure, I get it”…..

  8. nicki

    I’ve always tried to explain ‘boh’ as the sound a shrug of the shoulders makes…
    Here, we use the phrase ‘fare un giro’ a lot, and I can never really translate that…I’ve lost count of the number of English friends that look at me strangely when I say ,’lets go do a giro’!

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  10. America

    What a great article. I must say boh?! A thousand times a day. When I was learning Italian, it was difficult for me to keep it out of English or Spanish. Regardless, it is difficult to just stick to one language when there are perfect words such as this one. I kind of mix them all at times, but I mainly speak English at work, Spanish at home, and Italian with some friends; this way I avoid the mixing a bit. I must admit that you missed ehhh, with the slightly open mouth and the head bobbing! Such a great word! Ma is also one I use al the time, I substituted um with it because I hate um. Quindi is also very cute. Anyway, ciao!

  11. Alex

    Great article. I have to correct you about “putana”, which is with the double t (puttana). Also, you can say Buttana with the B, which has the same meaning.

    If you have any question, ask me :)

    1. Michael Post author

      One of my biggest weaknesses in Italian has always been knowing when there is one t or two, one s or two. It is something my ears have never been trained to hear correctly, and I make that mistake regularly. Thanks. As for “Buttana”, is that not regional? It sounds like something that would only be in the south.

  12. Erica

    I found this post by searching for “Boh” as I was preparing a post for my own blog. Basically I stayed at a place with a dog named Boh and I just wanted to be sure I had the spelling correct! Second thing, in response to the comment about “allora” I always laugh when I hear that. A former colleague named Laura (who doesn’t speak Italian) told me that she always thought her mom’s friends were talking about her when she’d hear it in their conversations.
    Erica recently posted…Boh of San GimignanoMy Profile

  13. Andry

    You forgot about the mitical wordl “Cazzo” that is used like f¨ck …
    Ma che cazzo stai dicendo? what the f¨ck are you saying
    che cazzo fai? what the f¨ck are you doing
    sono incazzato! I’m pissed off!

  14. Andy Barbiero

    Just to add a couple…a variation of che figo that I hear used a lot is ” che figata” …means the same thing. I like “boh” too but my all time personal favorite has to be ” cioe” [chi-oh-eh]….one word that elequently expresses the idea, ” what I mean is, what I’m trying to say is….” Brilliant! Oh, almost forgot, I’ve picked up the italian habit of saying goodbye on the phone by repeated ciao A BILLION TIMES! Ciao.ciao.ciao.ciao.ciao.ciao.ciao.ciao.ciao.ciao.ciao

  15. Michael Post author

    Yes Andy, I always think of “cioe” in the same way we (I am from L.A.) use the word “like, y’know”. And yes, I am very guilty of getting off the phone with ciao.. ciao ciao.. ciao ciao ciao ciao… ciao ciao ciao. :-)

  16. LittleBlondeLionheart

    I loved reading this!
    I studied Italian all the way through both primary and high school and I totally understand wanting to say something in the most succinct and descriptive way possible, regardless of which language you’re meant to be speaking.
    Reblogging this on my WordPress blog, Little Blonde Lionheart. Thank you for posting this!
    Deanna, Little Blonde Lionheart
    LittleBlondeLionheart recently posted…The Best Kind Of PeopleMy Profile

  17. Elisa

    I live in Italy and I agree with Nicki. “Boh” is the sound my husband makes to shrug his shoulders. 😀 Here’s another one that’s similar to Porca Madosca… vaffinbagno. It means go into the bathroom- but the meaning behind it is something else that’s being hidden so I don’t send him to the stars. :)

      1. LaTara

        Here in Tuscany, we often say vaffanculo, which is to go inside of a butt. Pretty vulgar, as you can imagine!

  18. Wes Groleau

    One of my favorite “recipes” is to throw a bunch of leftovers, several eggs, and some cheese in a pan and stir. So I loved learning recently “fare una frittata” for “to make a mess of things.”

  19. Gabriele

    Just to specify, “Gattara” is not really used for the stereotype (at least I never heard it used that way), it really identifies a precise “job”: that of bringing food (and water, milk) to colonies of stray cats (not personally owned).
    I don’t know if they exist only in Italy, or if colonies of stray cats exist only in Italy (they are continuosly waning in recent years as animalistic organizations or municipalities sterilize them – not that they ever were all over the country).

    It is not really a paid job, it’s voluntary and is often adversed by the neighbors.
    It takes a quite serious effort however, I hear they spend hundreds of euros in food every month.

    That said you most of the times can imagine one is a “gattara” when you see one, they are usually old womans dressed with rags, often wandering (usually at night) with plastic bags filled with styrofoam containers.

  20. Gabriele

    Other notes,

    1. I and I think all italians always thought the word “boh” was english

    2. I hope the pronunciation you put besides the words is intended to represent the american way, “che” is always pronounced like “keendra” by italians, and it is always funny to hear the americans say it like “kay”.
    “Palle” and “bene” have a plain “e” as well, as all “e”s in italian (I know it is hard for americans-english to say it, and indeed it sounds strange if you mix the two pronunciations when citing words)

    1. Michael Post author

      1. Really? Never heard that. Interesting.

      2. Absolutely… I assume those most people reading this don’t speak Italian, so I did my best to show correct pronunciation based on English phonetics. It isn’t perfect, but it is as close as you can get for English. So, in the example of “che”, I have to use “Kay”, because it is difficult to express the somewhat muted “e” in che. I have been speaking Italian for nearly 30 years, so I do have that down :-)

    1. Michael Post author

      Well, it isn’t quite like Kendra, either. It is somewhere between Kendra and Kay, that is why it is so difficult to express in writing.

  21. Mara

    Loved this article! It made my day. I can totally relate to the first part, when you talk about the “glazed looks” and the whole “Did Michael just invent a word?” facial expression, clearly written all over the face of whoever you’re talking to. I lived in the States for a year as an exchange student when I was 17, and I spoke English and only English 24/7. I’m almost 21 now, and – even if my English skills are more than a little rusty now- it still happens to me to start a sentence while talking, especially when I’m joking, to realize that in Italian not only it isn’t funny, but it doesn’t make sense at all! I often tell my American (host) parents that since I got back I speak nonsense in two languages 😉
    p.s. Never heard of “puffare” as a possible translation of “to get”, and I believe you’re right – Buttana is probably used in the south, because I live in the north and we only say it with a P! But you never know – I have a friend who’s from the north, but a different region, and sometimes even WE don’t understand each other, because we phrase things differently!

  22. Kristy

    “in giro”is my favorite italian phrases. . then there is in giro. Q. where are you?? A. In giro. Only in the italian world could the answer “around” be acceptable! are you at home? are you out? are you shopping? are you in the car? are you at school? are you at work? are you in the supermarket? answer in giro!!! muah!

  23. Marco

    Another interesting word is “Pazienza”, used as a light exclamation when something didn’t go the way it should. Because of my poor English I can’t explain better, sorry. Pazienza!

  24. Marco

    Not pretty sure it’s the same meaning. Do you say so when you try not to get angry? If so, the meaning is different. It’s the same one, instead, if you tell “patience” (we don’t address ourselves) to express a sort of resignation.

  25. ariel

    Hello, ben trovati!
    as regards “simpatico” well… is “nice”, but not in the meaning of “pretty”, just to say tha one person (or a thing) is pleasant, likeable, agreeable…

    ‘dimmi al volo’ : tell me what you have to tell me quickly (it does not sounds unpolite but anyway it’s used only with friends,relatives, etc. it is not “formal”)

    as regards the translation of “to get” for us Italians well… it’s not easy, we find to difficult to remember the meanings ot to get in, to get into, to get off, to get etc.etc.etc. 😀
    but “puffare”… well, I used it when I was a child but it’s almost 30 years that I do not hear that word, if you say it to young people they will stare at you without understanding!

    ciao :-)

  26. ariel

    I forgot… “andare in camporella” is an old fashioned way to say go to make love in the fields 😀
    you know, when the fields (“campi”) were the only place where people, where the young could go with their boyfriends or girlfriends to have some… privacy!

    now someone uses it but it is not so common, maybe they can use it ilike a sort of “vintage” expression 😀

  27. chuyf

    This is a great site, I loved learning about expressions and so. I know some myself, I’m in Italian lessons and my professor uses ‘mi raccomando’ a lot, and I think it’s a good one to try to explain in English. Cheers, and keep it up, I’m sure going to keep reading this.

  28. timothy

    n!ce to get a refresher on these idiomatic expressions. I a was born and raised in Italia until 11 y.o. and I remember them well and sometimes use them because as you say : there is no translation ! Che palle !

  29. Silvio

    Im italian (sardish, from Sassari in Sardegna) and…this is true…
    We have millions of bad words…including those in dialects…
    We are very creative…you open my mind!!!

  30. Lara

    Hi! I loved this post! I keep using buuh!
    I think the actual translation of porca would be an adjective. Something between dirty or disgusting, with a clear sexual connotation. You can say ‘quella ragazza è porca.’ So that would translate more to ‘filthy misery’ or ‘dirty slut’. Still, nor piggy misery nor porky whore has the has the same je-ne-sais-quoi, though. :-)
    They told me swearing doesn’t exist in many languages like it does in Italian. instead of asking a god do damn something, you actually call god names. God is a dog.;)

  31. Carla

    Hi Michael, you made my day!!!
    So great explanations and interpretations, I like your style very much…really well done (che figata!).

  32. Rebeca

    Ciao! I Just cross with your blog and love this article! Porca Miseria it’s my favorite italian expression and I couldn’t help but smile while reading your explanation , idk why pigs are so bad in Italia , bo.
    You could also add Macelleria!

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