5 Italian Phrases That Play Tricks On My Ears

Early on while I was learning Russian, I remember learning the phrase не курить ("nye koo-reeht") meant no smoking. There may be better ways of saying it, (before you rush to the bottom to tell me I'm an idiot, read this), but this one will always stick in my mind because the moment I heard it, I noticed that it sounded strikingly similar to Nicorette, the brand name of a nicotine chewing gum meant to help people quit smoking.


Here in the US, and I assume it's probably true throughout the English-speaking world, people say the word "pew" to indicate that something stinks. Even after nearly a year of hearing, seeing, and saying this word, I can't seem to get that association out of my mind.

For me, più grande doesn't just mean bigger, it means "bigger, and a bit stinky". That's a tough association to break!


And another tough association to break is the word bimbo, which is a very Italian way to talk about a baby. Unfortunately, upon hearing this word, I can't help immediately thinking of a stupid blonde girl.

When my friend in Milan told me he was excited about having a bimbo, I asked "what if your wife finds out?", and that led to a Laurel & Hardy style dialog that still makes me laugh when I think about it.

Giuro che

This isn't a complete phrase in Italian, but rather the beginning of an idea. Giuro che... means I swear that..., and is generally followed by the fact or promise that you are swearing to be true.

To me, this one sounds like "you're okay", which is a complete phrase in English, and I occasionally hear it as such and process that as the completion of thought, only to find myself confused when the second half comes!

Con cui sta ...

This is another incomplete thought that trips me up. The conjunction con cui sta [something] means with whom [something] is happening.

When Italians get to talking quickly (which is... um... always!), this phrase sounds like conquista, which means conquest or is conquering, and once again, my brain falls apart a little bit in processing what I'm hearing.

Ma fa caldo!

This one is my revenge, because it's not something I hear terribly often, so it's not playing tricks on my brain. Instead, this is one that I like to say myself, to play tricks on everyone else's brain!

In essence, "ma fa caldo!" means "gosh, it's hot!" But when you say it, it sounds like swearing in Italian. And even a bit like swearing in English.

Actually, this get's me to imagining what kinds of neurolinguistic fun and mental manipulation games could be played amongst polyglots.

I remember during the 2008 US Presidential election, when Barack Obama was campaigning, he often talked about the country needed a "new direction", and in particular, I noticed he over-pronounced the "i" in direction, such that if you weren't paying close attention, you might almost believe he just said "nude erection". Hmmmm.... talk about sexy politics!

I wonder what perfectly normal, everyday phrases in various languages could be used to create interesting mental imagery only understandable to a polyglot. It you think of any, leave a comment!

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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    "Auf Wiedersehen" always sounds like old wiener stain to me...thats how I remember it...

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    and then there is "donkey shins" which makes me think of donkeys kneeling in gratitude.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Amusingly, I've probably only heard someone say "auf wiedersehen" once or twice in the 6 months I've been here. Everyone says variations on "tschüss"

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Sorry, where by "here" I meant Germany.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    My girlfriend frequently says 可能 (pron. kěnéng, meaning "possible / maybe" in chinese) instead of the German "können" (can / to be able to). The meanings are only slightly related, but as soon as she starts making that nearly-identical first syllable "kön" , her mouth can only continue with "néng" ;)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    In high school, I had a friend who used to say "goes in tight" when a girl sneezed.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think they only say "auf wiedersehen" when you exit a Lufthansa flight. :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    That's kind of like what I do. I know a bit of Italian and am really near basic fluency spanish. Spanish is my best foreign language. Anyway, I can count to ten in Spanish very easily. When I try it in Italian, it isn't uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque..., I accidently go uno, due, tre, cuatro, cinco, seis siete.... I suppose when you get so used to a certain way of saying things, it is difficult to break the mould.Your example reminds me of the actor of Darling from Blackadder, where he got so used to doing that wince when Rowan Atkinson walked into the room, he found it difficult in real life to actually get rid of that wince.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    "I suppose when you get so used to a certain way of saying things, it is difficult to break the mould"Exactly right. And that's precisely why I am so opposed to many traditional methods that people take for granted. You didn't really learn the numbers at all... you just learned the little rhyme that most English-speakers learn:
    "uno dos tres,
    cuatro cinco seis,
    siete ocho nueve diez"
    And now the result of that is unfortunately this: the Italian numbers are similar enough that they engage that rhyme in your head.But counting to 10 is perhaps the most meaningless language exercise ever. I still can't understand why people do it. Here, I'll give you an example of what I mean. Grab a stopwatch. Time yourself counting to 10 in Spanish. Then time yourself counting to 10 in English. So far, you're probably feeling good. The times are probably close.Now, time yourself saying your phone number in Spanish. And then time yourself saying your phone number in English. I don't think I need to say any more. By now, it should be obvious that all you learned was how to count to 10. You didn't really learn the numbers.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    My dad was in the military during the Vietnam war and he volunteered to take Vietnamese classes. Growing up, I can't tell you the number of times I heard him recount this story.His instructors were Vietnamese and they weren't fluent in English. The class had learned the word for ambush and words for several types of food, including something similar to a mango. Anyway, the students put these two together and their instructors were always asking, very confused, why the students were constantly talking about ambushes of mangos and laughing. The phrase (I only heard this spoken so please excuse my total lack of Vietnamese spelling ability) was:Phuc Kick Hai Quit!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    The way I have combatted that is by reading number plates. There, not only can I practise numbers, but I can also practice letters. Whenever I feel I need to practise those two, I just randomly pick out a car and read. It is good practise.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Bimbo always trips me up too. And now whenever I hear ce qu'il faut in French, I automatically think schifo in Italian.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Oh, yeah, I can see how that would be a problem.

  • Randy Yearlyglot


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