9 Common Italian-American Slang Terms and Their Origins

| Wed, 10/18/2023 - 09:37
Little Italy, New York
Little Italy, New York / Photo: posztos via Shutterstock

Growing up in an Italian-American home, I learned words and phrases in Italian that had been passed down for generations. These colloquialisms helped shape my personal identity in a multicultural country, as they did for so many other Italian-Americans, but they also connected me to an immigrant community that extended well beyond my family and household. 

Many members of this community, however, have forgotten the origins of the slang they use every day. Italian-American dialect has become its own kind of melting pot, where influences from different languages have blended together to make something new and greater than the sum of its parts. Yet the “parts” themselves — traces of the Italian language — can still be found amid the fusion.

October is Italian-American Heritage Month, making it the perfect time to explore how the Italian language has shaped American culture in sometimes surprising ways. And as any Italian-American knows, the slang on this list comes in great handy when your casual conversations could use some extra flair. Allora, cominciamo! (Let’s get started!)


You might recognize this word from the acclaimed TV series The Sopranos; protagonist Tony Soprano’s affinity for cold cuts and theories about its use in the series spawned Internet memes among fans. Gabagool is just another name for the pork cold cut capicola, similar to other Italian deli meats like prosciutto. This pronunciation originates from working-class Italian immigrants who came to New York City in the 19th and early 20th century and used the term capecuollo, taken from the Neapolitan dialect they spoke. It’s easy to spot the similarities.


If you’ve ever seen a mob movie, you’ve heard this iconic saying. Typically, the phrase will be used as an interjection at the end of the sentence to clarify what has been said. Roughly, capeesh translates to “know what I mean?” in English. It stems from the Italian verb capire (to understand). 


Following capeesh, chefai is another commonly used interjection in the Italian-American vernacular and it translates to “what are you doing?”. Those familiar with standard Italian will recognize this phrase as deriving from “cosa fai?” which is a general approach to asking a question in the Romance language. Some things don’t change. 


Many people’s introductions to this word come via fictional mobsters like the aforementioned Tony Soprano. In that criminal context, goombah refers to an “accomplice” or “partner-in-crime.” Etymologically, goombah is an Anglicized spelling of the southern Italian address cumpà, which denotes a friendly relationship between two male colleagues. Goombah should therefore be viewed as a term of endearment among friends with little reference to illicit affairs. 

Fratu / sorda 

Does goombah still feel a bit gangster-ish for your liking? Italian-American slang has plenty of other terms of endearment for you to try out. Fratu and sorda are, respectively, shortened versions of fratello (meaning “brother”) and sorella (“sister”). You don’t need to restrict them to blood family members; you can freely use these terms to greet close friends, too. 


The over-the-top term mortadafam’ should be at the top of your vocabulary list, especially if you have a taste for the dramatic. This phrase offers a fast and catchy way to communicate that you are famished. It comes from the Italian morire di fame, which literally means “to die of hunger.” 

Fa shkeeve! 

The best part about picking up slang is that you can convey strong emotions with renewed vigor. When I’m in a situation that absolutely disgusts me, “fa shkeeve!” captures my repulsion in a single phrase. The English equivalent might be something like “that’s gross!,” but it lacks the same intensity. This expression can be traced back to the equally bold che schifo! (How gross, disgusting, nauseating). 

Facciu fridda 

Knowing how to make small talk is crucial to survival in any language, and chatting about the weather is always a safe topic when you’re short on things to say. Facciu fridda is a quick way to note that it’s cold outside. Italian speakers may recognize this colloquialism from the phrase fa freddo (it’s cold). 


Ever found yourself running late to an event with a group of friends? In English, we might try to grab everyone’s attention by shouting “hurry up!” For groups of Italian-Americans, however, this simply isn’t colorful enough. Instead of an uninspiring “hurry,” we might rally the troops with an “ammonini!” from the Italian verb andiamo! (let’s go). 

The Italian diaspora in the United States represents just one wave of people who immigrated to the multicultural nation and who make up its medley of spoken diversity. But even the simplest Italian-American slang terms help keep alive the stories and memories of those who left the old country. To honor them, try out some of these terms the next time you’re whipping up a new recipe for carbonara, sitting down to dine or greeting your friends with a ciao!