A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


La bella lingua Part 2

15 February 2013

i falsi amici


a street in Cremona, Italy


Read Part 1

I recall visiting a little shop in Cremona once.  My wife had discovered one of those rare phenomena in the Italian landscape, a public restroom, and I found myself with some time to squander.  When the clerk asked me, “Posso aiutarla [May I help you]?” I responded, “Grazie.  Sto dando solo un'occhiata . . . Attendo mia moglie [Thanks.  I’m just looking . . . I’m waiting for my wife].”

The word attendo got me thinking about some often incorrectly assumed cognates between Italian and English.  These words may be homonyms, but synonyms they are not, and they will get you into trouble every time if you're not careful.  The Italians call these mistaken cognates falsi amici  — false friends, which are also known by the French expression, faux amis.

Attendere means “to wait (for)” in Italian, while in English to “attend” can mean “to be with” (as at a meeting or a concert) or “to assist” (which is what an attendant does).  It is good to be educated in this matter — however, in Italian, educato means “polite” or “well-mannered.”  Those who are educated in Italy are diplomato (that is, having a diploma), while a “diplomat” in English is someone who shows diplomacy, or sensitivity and skill in dealing with others, or in other words is genial, which, in Italian — geniale — means having to do with “genius,” bringing us back to the importance of being educated about falsi amici.

Say, for example, that while living in Italy, you want them to “appoint” you to an administrative position in a “library.”  Soon, you find yourself sharpening pencils (appuntare, or to sharpen) in a bookstore (libreria).  So you decide instead  to work in a “factory” and find yourself on a “farm” (fattoria) tearing the “fabric” or your shirt on a pitch fork, which never would have happened had you gone to a fabbrica (factory).  Now you must buy a new shirt at a magazzino (department store) that you had read about in a “magazine.”


In Italy, it shouldn't come as a surprise to find department stores named after Early Renaissance painters.


All of this could have been “prevented” if you had made a preventivo (estimate) of how “actually” (really, truly), attualmente (at present) bravo (clever, good) you were at discerning falsi amici, but you were not “brave” enough, and feel “shock” now at how sciocco (silly) you appear.


Gender wars

And those are just a few apparent cognates to watch out for.  Just wait until you enter the turbid waters of gender in Italian nouns.  Guys, say it’s your anniversary.  The reaction might not be as pleasant if, instead of ordering online un mazzo (a bunch of flowers - masculine) for your wife, you clicked on the tab for una mazza (a sledgehammer - feminine).  She may opt to use the sledgehammer on you.

To repair the situation, you might want to present her with a new dress in a balla (a package - feminine), before you go to the ballo (dance – masculine) and don’t forget to eat a menta (mint - feminine) before you kiss her on her mento (chin - masculine).  Then, if you are planning on going to la costa (the coast – feminine) for the weekend, make sure you calculate il costo (the cost – masculine), because, even if you think the customs agent is a tasso (badger – masculine) you will still have to pay the tassa (tax – feminine).

While all of this may seem confusing, at least the gender remains the same no matter how many sledgehammers or badgers that you may have lying around.  That is not the case with some nouns.  If you are talking about one finger it is il dito, (masculine), but when there are more than one in question, they are le dita (feminine).  One lip, il labbro (masculine); two lips, le labbra (feminine). One ear, l’orecchio (masculine); two ears, le orecchie (feminine).  One arm, il braccio (masculine); two arms, le braccia (feminine).  One knee, il ginocchio, two knees, le ginocchia.  You get the idea.

No wonder the brightly colored fish that we see off the coast of California was named after an Italian — the Garibaldi changes gender all of the time according to whim. 


C'era una volta [once upon a time], when traveling through Italy, one had to make sure to protect le dita, le labbra, le orecchie, le braccia, and le ginocchia. (Museo d'arte Antica, Milan)


Basta pasta!

Assuming the sledgehammer incident has been resolved and you’ve made up with your wife and all of this discussion about false cognates and noun genders has made you hungry, now it’s time to go out for your anniversary dinner.

When visiting Italy, the chances are close to 100% that you will be ingesting pasta at some point, whether its name is masculine or feminine.  The problem is that there are so many choices.  As a hungry, ancient Roman in these parts pondered centuries ago, “Quid faciendum [What to do]?”

You may want to have lasagne.  Perhaps you thought that lasagne was named after the fact that its high caloric content produces an expanding girth (it ‘lays-on-ya’); you will be delighted to know that it is actually named after the utensil in which it is cooked.  This happens to be the Italian word for "chamber pot."

Or, perhaps you might be interested in macaroni, for as the Italians say, come il cacio sui maccheroni [like cheese on macaroni, or as we say in English, “just what the doctor ordered”].  Ambrose Bierce provides us with a concise definition of this variety of pasta:

Macaroni, n. an Italian food made in the form of a slender, hollow tube.  It consists of two parts — the tubing and the hole, the latter being the part that digests.

In any case, the word macaroni traces its etymological roots back to a Greek term for "funeral meal."

Chamber pot, funeral meal — it’s a tough choice.  Then again, you could ask for little strings (spago = string; hence spaghetti), big lines (riga = line; hence rigatoni), little worms (verme = worm; hence vermicelli), little tongues (lingua = tongue; hence linguine), little ears (orecchiette), little ribbons (fettuccine), little beards (barbina), large rags (cencioni), little thimbles (ditalini), rifles (fusilli), weeds (gramigna), flowers (fiori) or, in particular, lilies (gigli), little bells (campanelle), little curly hair (ricciolini) or angel hair (capelli d’angelo), moustaches (mostaccioli), partridge eyes (occhi di pernice), wolf eyes (occhi di lupo), butterflies (farfalle), lamb’s ears (agnolotti), muffs (manicotti), shells (conchiglie), radiators (radiatore), large haystacks (pagliaioni), little holes (bucatini), half moons (mezzelune), little stars (stelline), large little canes (cannelloni), priest-stranglers (strozzapreti), or any one of the other hundreds of ways to persecute wheat. Then again, you might just say, "Basta pasta! [that's enough pasta!]."




Just make sure when you receive your order that the waiter does not avere le mani in pasta [have his hands in the pasta, or as the English idiom puts it, “to have a finger in the pie”].


Next:  i violini e la minestra

Paper templates and wooden models used by Antonio Stradivarius in making violins (Museo Stradivariano, Cremona)



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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