My first years in Italy were spent in Rome and rural Umbria, two areas of the Bel Paese in which swearing is a bit of a competitive sport and the threshold for offense particularly high. Since I didn’t really have anyone to help me navigate the choppy waters of blue language, I quickly became as foul-mouthed as a sailor without fully realizing how profane my chit chat really was.
One day, I stopped by the neighborhood cheese shop for some fresh ricotta. When I was told they were out, instead of a relatively tame “Darn!”, I unleashed a string of expletives so shocking that silence fell over the crowd. The shop owner (Elio, may he rest in peace) came around the counter and put his hand on my shoulder. “Who have you been hanging out with?!?” he wanted to know. “A signora doesn’t use that kind of language.” I stood silent, waiting for the floor to open up and swallow me whole.
I still let a hefty curse fly every once in a while, but I also have a grab bag of more tame exclamations that are useful for mixed company, family dinners, and even cheese shops. Here are some of my favorites:
The Cultural Context of Cursing
A swear word (or any offensive word, actually) is only a swear word because a culture makes it so. “Excrement of a male cow” or “person who lies with their mother” have been codified in English as blue language, but in Italian really don’t mean anything at all. “Dog god” and “what testicles!” have been codified in Italian as expletives, but are comic when translated into English. Keep this in mind, because without some sort of external guide to indicate the degree of offensiveness of an expletive, it’s hard to judge on its own.
A good rule of thumb is that in Italian, blasphemes (curses that use the word God (Dio), Madonna, or Christ (Cristo) are more offensive than sexual or anatomical curses; in English, the opposite is generally true.
Curses that are good to go with Nonna
1. Mannaggia - Darn!
This is perhaps one of the tamest of all Italian curse words, often used even with small children, and expresses displeasure or sympathy. Can also be used as a very mild rebuke: “Mannaggia a te” or “Darn you”.
“Mannaggia, hanno finito la ricotta fresca!” - “Darn, they’re out of fresh ricotta!”
2. Accidenti - Crap!
Another tame curse that is useful in almost any situation to express displeasure or unpleasant surprise. Sometimes used to insult another person, as in “Che ti piasse un accidente!” or “May harm befall you!”
“Accidenti, la lavatrice sta perdendo l'acqua!” - “Crap, the washing machine is leaking water!”
3. Che barba or Che rottura di scattole - What a drag! or What a pain!
There is a more offensive way to express impatience or exasperation below, but in front of Nonna, you can use this without offence.
“Ho perso il treno! Che barba…” - “I missed the train! What a drag…”
“Che rottura di scattole questa fila lunga per entrare!” - “This long queue to enter is a real pain!”
4. Cavolo or Che Cavolo - Wow! or What the heck?!
An avatar for another very common swear word that should NOT be used in front of Nonna (see below), this mild exclamation can be used to express both pleasure or displeasure depending upon the situation. Che cavolo, instead, is used to express scepticism.
“Cavolo, però, quanto piove oggi!” - “Wow, it’s really raining today!”
“Che cavolo stai facendo?!?” - “What the heck are you doing?!”
5. Cacchio or Che Cacchio - Crap! Or What the heck?!
Literally meaning crap, this slightly off-color exclamation is regardless nonna-friendly and can be used both as an exclamation and an adjective.
“Che cacchio dici?!” - “Where the heck are you saying?!”
“Questo cacchio di telefono non mi ricarica.” - “This piece of crap telephone won’t charge.”
Grey area curses: use with caution
1. Dio, Madonna, Cristo - God, Madonna, Christ
Many Italians are quite religious, and blasphemes - even mild ones - are considered rather offensive. Any version of the above with or without adjectives (Dio Santo, Madonna Vergine, Santa Maria, Gesù Cristo) are in the grey area and you should know your crowd before using them. A common get-around is “Cristoforo Colombo” (yes, that Christopher Columbus), used as a stand-in for Jesus Christ similar to the English use of Jiminy Cricket.
2. Porca miseria! Porca paletta! - Dammit!
There are an endless variety of curses that use a combination of “porco/a” (“porca vacca”, “porca puzzola”, “porco Giuda”, “porco cane”) and though these sit on the milder end of the swear-word scale, the word “porco/a” (“swine”) has a slightly sexual connotation and can be offensive to the most sensitive listeners.
3. Che palle! – What a pain!
Like “Che cavolo” or “Che cacchio”, this phrase is used to indicate exasperation or disappointment, but the “palle” (“balls”) referred to are, ahem, those balls. So unless you and Nonna are ok with pretty explicit anatomical discussions, this may be one to avoid. An easy G-rated substitute is “Che pizza!”
4. C*zzo! - Somewhere between the s-word and the f-word
This is one of the most common swear words across Italy, but is definitely a no-no in mixed company. “Cavolo” or “cacchio” are easy substitutions that won’t offend anyone within hearing range.
Curses that are definitely not Nonna-approved
Hey, this is a family site! You’ll have to go elsewhere to find those :-)