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Italian profanity

Italian profanity ("bestemmie" when referred to religious topics, "parolacce" when not) refers to a set of words considered blasphemous or inflammatory in the Italian language.

Italian language is considered a language with a large set of inflammatory terms and phrases, almost all of which originate from the several dialects and languages of Italy, such as the Tuscan dialect, which had a very strong influence in modern standard Italian, which is widely known to be based on Florentine language.[1] Several of these words are cognates to other Romance languages, such as Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian and French. Profanities differ from region to region, however a number of them are diffuse enough to be more closely associated to Italian language and featured in all the more popular Italian dictionaries.

List of profanities in Italian language

  • cazzo (pl. cazzi) [ˈkattso]: literally, vulgar version of penis, can be used as an exclamation or for emphasis; there are countless expressions using this word in a variety of contexts, as detailed in the entries below;
  • coglione (pl. coglioni) [koʎˈʎone]: literally an offensive version of testicle; where referred to a person, it usually means idiot, burk, twit, fool. In addition, it can be used on several phrases such as avere i coglioni (literally, to have the balls, that is, to be very courageous), avere i coglioni girati (literally, to have turned testicles) which means to be angry/in a bad mood, or essere un coglione (to be a fool). Note that when said to a close friend (ma quanto sei coglione) the word is not really offensive. Sometimes Coglione was also featured in worldwide news when used by ex Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi referring to those who would not vote for him during the 2006 Italian election campaign.[2] It derives from Latin coleo, pl. coleones, and is thus cognate to the Spanish cojones;
  • cornuto [korˈnuto]:[3] cuckold, literally "horned"[citation needed][4] – referring to a person whose spouse is cheating on him. Occasionally it might be coupled with the corna when saying that. In southern Italy it is considered a rough insult.
  • culo [ˈkulo]:[5] rough name for buttocks, comparable to the English word ass. It can also mean luck. The popular expression "Avere una faccia da culo" ("To have an ass-like face") indicates a cheeky, brazen-faced person, and sometimes has a positive connotation. In some regions, "Stare sul/in culo" is used as a variant of "Stare sul cazzo", both indicating dislike for someone else. It derives from earlier Greek colos (κώλος) and later Latin culus.
  • finocchio [fiˈnɔkkjo]: (lit.: 'fennel') a male homosexual; faggot; poof. A suggestive and very popular hypothesis suggests it may derive from the age of the Holy Inquisition in the Papal State, when fennel seeds would be thrown on homosexuals executed by burning at the stake — in order to mitigate the stench of burned flesh. There is no proof that this is the case, however.[6]
  • frocio [ˈfrɔtʃo]: roughly equivalent to the American faggot, this term originated in Rome but is now widely used nationwide. Less-used synonyms include ricchione (mainly Southern Italy, especially in the Naples area), culattone or culo (mainly in Northern Italy), busone (common in Emilia-Romagna and also a rough synonym for lucky) and finocchio (see);. The usage of this word in Italian may by some people be considered homophobic and politically incorrect.[citation needed]
  • gnocca (pl. gnocche) [ˈɲɔkka, ke]:[7] typical Bolognese version of figa; is mostly conjugated in its feminine form although sometimes can be used on the masculine form. Although very vulgar, it is not offensive, but appreciative. Indeed, it is diffuse nationwide to refer to an attractive woman;
  • mannaggia [manˈnaddʒa]: a generic expression of frustration, mostly used in Southern Italy; often translated as damn, but has no direct translation. Actually, it comes from the contraction of a former utterance, mal ne aggia, which means in ancient Italian "may he/she get mischief out of it". Used also in English books, such as Mario Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim;[8]
  • merda: roughly the same as English shit
  • cabella': is an old fashioned slang word for "bitch" was used mostly in certain parts of Sicily. The word can also refer to someone who is considered very beautiful hence the reason it is no longer used
  • puttana [putˈtana]: whore, prostitute;
  • mignotta [miɲˈɲɔtta]: same meaning of "puttana"; according to some sources[9] it may be the contraction of the Latin matris ignotae (unknown mother), where the note filius m. ignotae (son of unknown mother) appeared on the registries referred to abandoned children; other sources[10] derive it from the French mignoter (to caress) or mignon/mignonne.
  • minchia [ˈmiŋkja]: the same meaning as cazzo but notably a feminine name, it originates from Sicilian language;[11] nowadays it is common anywhere in Italy, where it is also used as exclamation of surprise, or even appreciation. It is used in the expression "testa di minchia" (see testa di cazzo). It is also featured in a song by American musician (of Sicilian descent) Frank Zappa, named Tengo na minchia tanta (I've got a dick this big). It derives from Latin mentula;
  • stronzo [ˈstrontso]: turd, arsehole or asshole, bitch, sod. It is used as adjective to indicate that somebody is really a bad, cruel, man/woman. It is derived from ancient German strunz (shit)
  • vaffanculo [vaffaŋˈkulo]: "fuck you!", "fuck off!", "bugger off!". It's a contraction of "va' a fare in culo" (literally "go to do it in the ass"). "Vattela a pijà 'n der culo" is the Romanesco form for vaffanculo, while in Northern Italy is also used "Vai a cagare" (lit. "go to shit") or "Fottiti" (go fuck yourself). Famously used by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in reference to his critics.[12] In the Neapolitan language it is pronounced "va fangool"; and at times the "va" is omitted, as demonstrated in the film Grease (at the end of the "Sandra Dee" skit, performed by Stockard Channing).
  • zoccola [ˈtsɔkkola]: slut, whore; bitch.[13]
  • troia : slut, Slovenly women or whore

Profanity in literature

Italian writers have often used profanity for the spice it adds to their pages. This is an example from a seventeenth century collection of tales, the Pentamerone,[14] by the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile:

Ah, zoccaro, frasca, merduso, piscialetto, sauteriello de zimmaro, pettola a culo, chiappo de 'mpiso, mulo canzirro! ente, ca pure le pulece hanno la tosse! va', che te venga cionchia, che mammata ne senta la mala nuova, che non ce vide lo primmo de maggio! Va', che te sia data lanzata catalana o che te sia dato stoccata co na funa, che non se perda lo sango, o che te vangano mille malanne, co l'avanzo e priesa e vento alla vela, che se ne perda la semmenta, guzzo, guitto, figlio de 'ngabellata, mariuolo!

This tirade could be translated like this:

Ah, good for nothing, feather, full of shit, bedpisser, jack of the harpsichord, shirt on the arse, loop of the hanged, hard-headed mule! Look, now also lice cough loudly! Go, that palsy get you, that your mom get the bad news, that you cannot see the first of May. Go, that a Catalan spear pass through you, that a rope be tied around your neck, so that your blood won't be lost, that one thousand illnesses, and someone more, befall you, coming in full wind; that your name be lost, brigand, penniless, son of a whore, thief."

Francis Ford Coppola had some characters in The Godfather use untranslated profanity. For instance, when Sonny Corleone found out that Paulie Gatto had sold out his father to the Barzinis, he called Gatto "that stronz'." Also, when Connie Corleone learned Carlo Rizzi was cheating on her, Carlo snapped, "Hey, vaffancul', eh?" Connie yelled back, "I'll vaffancul' you!"

Blasphemous profanity

Profanities in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity.[15] In the Middle Ages Europe the most improper and sinful "oaths" where those invoking the body of the Lord and its various parts, as the expression of the dialect of Bergamo Pota de Cristo! ("Christ's cunt"), and these were precisely the oaths most frequently used.[16]

Nowadays, the most common kind of blasphemous profanity involves the name of God, Christ or the Virgin Mary combined with an insult, the most used being porco ('pig') as in porco Dio ('God is a pig') or porca Madonna ('the Virgin Mary is a pig').

In some areas of Italy, such as Liguria,[17] Umbria, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Alto-Lazio, Sardinia and Tuscany, blasphemy is more common, but not because of a strong anti-Catholic feeling.


In Italian language profanities belonging to this category are called bestemmie (singular: bestemmia), in which God, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Saints or the Roman Catholic Church are insulted. This category is so strong it is usually frowned upon even by people who would make casual or even regular use of the profanities above.

Bestemmiare (swearing) is a misdemeanor in Italian law, but the law is seldom enforced. However, it is still considered a strong social taboo at least on television. For example, anyone caught uttering bestemmie in the Italian Big Brother (Grande Fratello) "must be immediately expelled", because they offend "millions of believers".[18] Uttering bestemmie is widely seen as a vice, and is often listed together with smoking, drinking and substance abuse.

Legal status

Until 1999, uttering this class of profanities in public was considered a misdemeanor in Italy (although enforcement was all but nonexistent). Some local administrations still ban the practice. For example, the Comune of Brignano Gera d'Adda, after the curate complained about the frequency of blasphemous profanity in the parish recreation centre, banned the practice in the civic centre and in all places of retail business, be it public or private.[19] As of July 2011, the laws in force in Italy identifies as a bestemmia only the profanities related directly to God. Any insult to Mary or the various saints don't actually represent a "bestemmia" or any violation of existing laws and rules.[20]

Minced oaths

These profanities are also commonly altered to minced oaths with very slight changes in order not to appear blasphemies.[21] For instance:

  • Porco zio, using zio instead of Dio, where zio is Italian for uncle. Other similar minced oaths can be created also replacing "Dio" with a series of existent or meaningless terms like disi, Diaz, due, disco, dinci, Dionigi, Diomede, Diavolo, etc.
  • Maremma maiala, using maremma instead of Madonna, where Maremma is a seaside zone of Tuscany. Curiously, the former is actually widely used in Tuscanian dialect, whereas the latter is seldom used. An expression somewhat similar is Maremma bucaiola (bucaiola means sodomized).
  • Porca madosca, using madosca instead of Madonna, where madosca means nothing and it sounds like a macaronic Russian version of "Madonna".

Other minced oaths can be created on the fly when people begin to utter one of the above blasphemies but then choose to "correct" them in real time. The principal example is somebody beginning to say Dio cane (where cane means dog) and choosing to say instead Dio cantante (God (is a) singer) or Dio cantautore (God (is a) songwriter). Also it is very common to say Dio caro (typically used in Alto-Lazio and Umbria), meaning "dear God" or Dio bono (with "bono" being a contraction of "buono", that means good) or Dio bonino (same meaning, typically used in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna) or Dio Bonazzo (same meaning used in Castelfranco Veneto) instead of Dio Boia (where boia means executioner).

Cristo! or Cristo santo!, used to express rage and/or disappointment (similar to "Oh my God" or "Holy Christ"), is usually not consider a bestemmia, though it could be assumed to violate the second commandment of not making "wrongful use of the name of the Lord Thy God".

See also


  1. Cory Crawford. "A Brief History of the Italian Language". Retrieved 15 January 2007. 
  2. BBC (8 April 2006). "Berlusconi's poll fight ends with a bang". BBC News. Retrieved 16 May 2007. 
  3. BBC. "BBC Languages — Lost in words". Retrieved 9 June 2007. 
  4. See the corresponding French porter des cornes; deriving from the mating habits of stags, who forfeit their mates when they are defeated by another male.
  5. University of Pennsylvania. "Language Log". Retrieved 9 June 2007. 
  6. Giovanni Dall'Orto. "G. Dall'Orto:  checcabolario (in Italian)". 
  7. BBC. "BBC Languages — Cool Italian". Retrieved 9 June 2007. 
  8. University of Vermont. "Language Log". Retrieved 9 June 2007. 
  9. F. Ravano, Dizionario romanesco, Roma, 1994
  10. "Etimologia : mignotta;". 
  11. Speziale-Bagliacca, Roberto (1991). On the Shoulders of Freud: Freud, Lacan, and the Psychoanalysis of Phallic Ideology. ISBN 0-88738-409-9. 
  12. "The Nino Scalia Guide to Sicilian Hand Gestures". 
  13. "Language Log". Retrieved 22 February 2013. 
  14. Gianbattista Basile, (1634) Lo cunto de li cunti also known as The Pentameron. The title can be translated as The Tale of Tales
  15. Bakhtin 1941, "introduction", p.5-6
  16. Bakhtin 1941, chap.2 "The Language of the Marketplace in Rabelais", p.188-194
  17. Horne, Marc. "Old man use "bestemmia"". 
  18. "Grande Fratello, punite le bestemmie. Fuori Pietro, Massimo e Matteo". Il Messaggero (in italian). 10 January 2011. Retrieved 6 July 2011. 
  19. "Troppe bestemmie all'oratorio. E Brignano mette il divieto" (in italian). Il Giorno. 11 February 2011. Retrieved 6 July 2011. 
  20. "Bestemmia" (in italian). UAAR, Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti. 21 September 2008. Retrieved 28 July 2011. 
  21. it:Bestemmia#Eufemismi

Bibliography and sources

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World [1941]. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • Tartamella, Vito "Parolacce. Perché le diciamo, che cosa significano, quali effetti hanno". BUR, 2006

External links