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Growing Up "Italian American"

Updated on September 7, 2012

I was born in the Bronx, New York to two wonderful parents who were Italian Immigrants. Our neighborhood was predominantly Italian. Our extended Italian family lived nearby. All of the stores were owned by Italians and all of my parents' friends were Italian. So needless to say, the first language I learned as a child was . . . Italian.

As I grew up, a funny thing happened, our Italian American language evolved. Words developed that only we in America understood, and anyone who came to visit from the "Motherland" listened with looks of utter confusion. It became a form of "broken Italian!" Especially for us as children, all we needed to do was add a vowel to any English word and there you go, it was Italian. Our parents understood! And our parents' friends and our extended family members understood, but the Italians in Italy did not.

My Aunt told me a story about when she first came to visit from Italy. The relatives where she stayed felt bad because she didn't speak English and they didn't speak Italian. They took her to another relative's house where they did speak Italian to make her feel more at home. The one conversation she remembered was " Lu carre era smalla come na boxa de match!" (Translation: The car was as small as a box of matches.) The correct statement should have been "L'automobile era tanto piccolo quanto una scatola di fiammiferi!" So, you get the picture.

Slowly idioms began to emerge. Words were put together to form powerful statements which became an integral part of our Italian American terminology. Each Immigrant Group's own dialect (Sicilian, Neopolitan, Roman, etc) added to the mix resulting in the official linguistics which are still used today. For example, if asking "Are you crazy?," you would say "Ma, tu sei pazzo?" After going through the mixer and adding all the Italian American flavorings, the result: "Matusipatz?" Oh, and what happened to the last letter of some of the words? All of a sudden an "a" or an "o" got cut off! So prosciutto became prosciutt' and mozzarella became mozzarell'. It wasn't because they were lazy, it was just . . . because!!

As the years progressed, so did our neighborhood and so did my parents. They learned to speak English very well because they were in America. But with family and friends, their Italian American dialect still dominated. They made sure that I continued to speak the language and to learn it properly. My mother tutored me during the summer, and I even minored in Italian in college. But our own "broken Italian" continued proudly at home.

My most embarrassing language faux pas has to be when my mother and I went to Italy when I was 17. We were at my Uncle's house in Rome. My cousin had a few male friends over, and I (the American cousin) wanted to make a good impression. I asked my aunt "Zia, posso avere un pezzo di checca?" (Checca - Cake plus an "a" - new Italian word!) As they all started laughing and I turned a bright shade of purple, my aunt quickly explained that in Italian, "checca" is a slang term for homosexual. Not a big deal at all, except when you are a 17 year old girl among a group of good looking Italian guys!! The proper word for cake is "torta." Fortunately or unfortunately, since then I never forget that word when ordering in an Italian restaurant!

When visiting my family in Italy again this past summer, another of my cousins humorously recounted how when the "paesans" (people from the same town in Italy) would return for a visit after having immigrated to America, they would suddenly have "forgotten" how to speak Italian. They would talk about how "a lu building devi pusha lu buttone" (translation: in the building you have to push the button). I guess it was their way to show they made it!

Many years have gone by since my parents (and so many other Italians) came to this country. Sadly, they are both gone now. But I often look back at the old days in the old neighborhood and I fondly remember hearing the conversations, and the "language" that only we Italian Americans understood. I am even surprised that so many of those words have continued into the next generation of "American Italian Americans!"

I have comprised a list of words (some may be a little off color) and their meanings. If you are Italian American like me, I'm sure they will bring a huge smile to your face. They make me laugh every time!! FYI, the spellings are creative - just to make them easier to pronounce. If you have any that you would like to add, please comment on this blog!

Italian American Creative Terminology

  • abash ~ downstairs
  • agita ~ heartburn
  • aicapid ~ understand
  • ashpet' ~ wait
  • assai ~ a lot
  • bacous ~ bathroom
  • badabing ~ no translation - from the Sopranos
  • braggiol ~ meat
  • calamad' ~ calamari
  • capish ~ understand
  • cendann’ ~ a hundred years
  • che cazz’ ~ what the
  • chiove ~ it's raining
  • chistu ~ this one
  • chooch ~ jackass
  • cinghe-bezz' ~ five bucks
  • comesechiam’ ~ watchmacallit
  • curnut' ~ wife was unfaithful to
  • disgraziad ~ disgrace
  • faccia di cazz`~ face only a mother could love
  • facciabrutt’ ~ ugly
  • faciu fridde ~ it's cold
  • fatti cazzi toi ~ mind your business
  • fazule ~ beans
  • finoicc’ ~ fennel
  • fugeddaboudit ~ forget about it
  • gabadegatz ~ empty head
  • gabagool' ~ capicola
  • gabbadost’ ~thick head
  • gaguzz’ ~ squash
  • ganol’ ~ cannoli
  • gavadeel’ ~ cavatelli
  • gavone ~ glutton
  • ghiacchieron ~ chatterbox
  • gidrul ~ idiot (cucumber)
  • goombah ~ friend, godfather
  • guacarunn' ~ somebody
  • gul’ ~ butt
  • gumad ~ mistress
  • gwarda ~ look
  • iami ~ let's go
  • lascialui ~ leave him alone
  • maccature ~ handkerchief
  • machebell’ ~ how beautiful
  • maliocch’ ~ evil eye
  • mamaluke ~ mama's boy
  • manigott’ ~ manicotti
  • mannaggia ~ darnit
  • mannaggiu suricille ~ damn that mouse
  • mappin’ ~ napkin
  • mariul’ ~ wanderer
  • maron’ ~ madonna
  • maronna mia ~ my madonna
  • matusipatz ~ are you crazy
  • mbriacc’ ~ drunk
  • medigan’ ~ american
  • menzamenz ~ half & half
  • mortadafam' ~ lazy bum
  • mortadell’ ~ mortadella
  • mulignian' ~ eggplant
  • musciad ~ mushy
  • muzzarell’ ~ mozzarella
  • paesan ~ from same hometown
  • pasta fazul ~ pasta with beans
  • patz ~ crazy
  • pisha sott' ~ cry baby
  • pizzagain ~ wheat pie
  • prusciutt ~ prosciutto
  • puttanna ~ whore
  • scoba ~ broom
  • scungill’ ~ scungilli
  • scustumad ~ nasty
  • sfaccimme ~ idiot
  • shcarol' ~ escarole
  • shciv ~ disgusting
  • stattezit' ~ shut up
  • stunad ~ spacey
  • vafanabola ~ go to hell
  • vaffangul' ~ damn you
  • vangopp' ~ go upstairs
  • veni ca ~ come here



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    • Cardia profile image

      Cardia 4 years ago from Barbados.

      Wow, this was so interesting to read! It's amazing how when two different languages meet, a lot of new words and slang can be created! I had a lot of fun reading through the list of Italian American terminology (great idea to put that, by the way!)

      I especially loved your descriptions. It sounds like you grew up in a wonderful community.

    • lisanna profile image
      Author

      lisanna 4 years ago

      Thank you so much! This is all very new to me and I had a fun time writing it! It really was a lot of fun growing up in my neighborhood.

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      Giovanna 4 years ago

      I am a first generation Italian (Sicilian)American so I could totally relate lol! Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • profile image

      Gnocchi35 4 years ago

      I enjoyed reading the meaning I'm Baisse but it sounded like when my Mom and Dad use to talk

    • profile image

      leelaurino 4 years ago

      are you on FB? have a question.....http://www.hometoitaly.com or

      leelaurino@earthlink.net

    • lisanna profile image
      Author

      lisanna 4 years ago

      Thank you Giovanna and Gnocchi! I tried to write something people could relate to! Lee I sent you an email.

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      Tricia 4 years ago

      LOVE this, Anna! It reminded me of so many stories you told me when we were at Y&R as well as words I also heard as a kid in Queens. My neighbor always used to scream "pasta fazule! " & I grew up thinking it was a really bad word! LOL!

    • profile image

      jfan 3 years ago

      I enjoyed the read...

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      Erin 3 years ago

      Thank you so much! This did bring a hug smile to my face. I'm actaully 2.5 generations Italian American, but I know a lot of these words. Funny enough, I found out that mopin is used in few places in Italy, and it has evolved over the years to mean whore, as in a used rag! But I still think of my grandmother using mopin, and I still love that word and the nostalgia it contains. Have you ever heard the word "furgos" or "fergos" as in you're busting peoples chops because you're so hyper or crazy?

    • profile image

      George 2 years ago

      How about provolone .... provealone

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