5 Highly Embarrassing (and NSFW) Italian False Friends

False cognates, better known as "false friends," are words that seem like they should be the same in two languages. For example, if you are an English-speaking American learning Italian, you might think that "argomento" is Italian for "argument." Although these words look and sound very similar, they are actually not the same at all. Argomento means "topic, subject, or theme." If you want to talk about a heated discussion or disagreement, you would say "litigo" or "discussione" (Hey, there's another one: "Discussione" is not the same as "discussion.")

There are dozens of other websites out there that will give you long lists of hundreds of Italian/English false friends. And these are all very well and good (and useful!), but I'm going to give you something even better.

Recently, I asked the other members of the Americans living in Italy Facebook group I belong to what they wish they would have known before moving to Italy, and several of them mentioned something that brought back some really cringe-worthy memories for me: the darker, freakier Italian/English false friends.

These deceptive pairs take false friends to a whole new level. You see, saying "argomento" when you mean "argument" is not really a big deal... but if you say "fica" when you mean "fig," you could end up not only embarrassing yourself and everyone around you, but maybe even really offending someone!

So, I have compiled a list of five of the most embarrassing, NSFW (not safe for work) false friends you may encounter when speaking Italian, so you can avoid the red flush of shame. You can thank me later!

WARNING: The rest of the posts on this blog are very clean and wholesome, but the following section has some language and topics that may not be suitable for everyone.
 

5 NSFW English/Italian False Friends to Make into Enemies ASAP


 

1. fig/fica

Sliced, totally safe for work figs on a plate.
Image credit: stux, Pixabay

One of the first pieces of advice I got from the expat group was from Anna David Gichevski, who warned, "Whatever you do, don’t confuse fichi (figs) with fica!" It is an understandable mistake, because the two words look and sound fairly similar... but as any streetwise Italian will tell you, they are definitely not the same. 

In Italian, "fica" doesn't mean "fig," it means "pussy." And we're not talking about a cat.

Yikes. So if you want to talk about eating a fig, the tasty and definitely-non-sexual fruit, you should be very careful to say that you are eating a "fico," with an o at the end! 

(As a side note, the adjective "figo/a" means "cool," so if you're going to make a mistake when trying to talk about figs, try to make that one instead.)

 

2. preservative/preservativo

A bunch of colorful preservativi (If you're reading this, sorry, Mom)
Image credit: Bru-nO, Pixabay

The next pair on our list comes from Sarah Stats, who says, very clearly, "a preservativo is not a preservative." Jayne Adele O'Connor chimed in right away with evidence of the importance of this distinction: "I asked for ham in the local deli without preservativo. Got a very funny look!"

Most English-speakers would obviously think that the two words were the same: they're only one letter off, for crying out loud! But in reality, asking for something without "preservativo" is asking for something without "condom." Which explains why Jayne got such a strange look!

The correct translation of "preservative" is "conservante." 

 

3. pollution/polluzione

Nighttime pollution (you'll get the joke in a minute).
Image credit: JuergenPM, Pixabay

This one comes from my own embarrassing experience. At least three times (that I can recall), I have been trying to talk about pollution and referred to it as "polluzione." All three times I was in mixed company, and all three times my husband was secretly cringing on my behalf. Apparently, "polluzione" doesn't refer to harmful substances in the air or in the water. It refers to, in the words of Google Translate, "involuntary ejaculation that occurs during one's sleep." So, basically, I was talking about Italy and America's efforts to reduce wet dreams. Lovely.

If you want to talk about actual environmental pollution (and not look like a doofus doing it), the correct word to use is "inquinamento." Which sounds nothing like pollution at all!! 

(Inquinamento... inquinamento... Excuse me, I just have to beat this into my brain before I make this mistake again... inquinamento...)

 

4. ass/asso

The asses of several asses
Image Credit: homar, Pixabay

This pair is perhaps more funny than compromising, as it works in the opposite direction. If an Italian uses the word "asso" in conversation, this doesn't mean "ass," as we Americans might assume. "Asso" means "ace," like on playing cards or like someone who is very good at something. I have seen this word on everything from shoes to bathroom cleaning supplies, and every time it makes me chuckle. My husband always rolls his eyes when I ask him why we're using ass-brand cleaner to clean the shower! 

The actual word for "ass," if you should ever need it, is "culo" (or "sedere," if you want to be less vulgar and you're just referring to the butt itself, not using it as an insult). But be careful, because you could still run into trouble with this one: culo is a synonym for ass, butt, bum, or buttocks. If you're talking about a donkey, which is also sometimes called an ass, you should use the word "asino."

 

5. rape/rapire

Abduction of a Sabine Woman by Giambologna, also known as Rape of a Sabine Woman
Image Credit: 21150, Pixabay

The last on our list is surely not a pleasant one, but it is one that you should know in case you come across it while reading a newspaper, and so you don't accidentally say something terrible in a conversation. It is logical to think that the Italian word for the verb "to rape" is "rapire," as they look almost identical. Even experts in art and literature have had trouble making this distinction (see the caption on the image above). But "rapire," which I learned after misunderstanding perhaps five news articles and two crime shows on television, actually means "to kidnap" or "to abduct." Both are awful crimes, but they are very different things.

If you should ever need it or read it (and I hope you won't), the Italian word for "to rape" is "stuprare" or "violentare," with the noun form being "stupro."

 

As you can see, some of these false friends can be very problematic, not to mention mortifying. So, as always, learn from the mistakes made by me an my fellow Americans in Italy, so that you don't say something you will really regret!

 

Have you ever used a NSFW false friend in front of others? Do you know of any others I didn't include on the list? Let us know in the comments! 

If I had a nickel every time I said eccitato for excited without understanding that the translation actually refers more to "being stimulated" than to being emotionally excited... A better translation to use if you're trying to say that you're excited for something can be emozionante.

Ugh, Veronica, I have done the exact same thing so many times!! I'm going to add this one to a future post!

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