I was 19 the first time I realized that some of the words I was using every day were quite unique.
It was my first day at college and I was unpacking my suitcase when I asked my roommate “Scusami, dov’è la rumenta?”. She gave me a weird look and she told me she had no idea what I was talking about.
That’s exactly when I realized that I was using some words that were quintessentially Ligurian, which people living somewhere else in Italy wouldn’t understand. It was a true revelation, so much so that I still vividly remember that moment.
Living in a dorm with girls coming from all over Italy was a great experience not only because I made lifelong friends but also because I have learned a lot of things about Italy and Italians. Up until then, I had never spent much time away from home and would only hang out with people who were from my town.
Spending days and nights with those girls, who were so similar to me but also so different at the same time, made me learn a lot about the diversity of Italy and its regions, in terms of traditions, history, ways of thinking, food, and, of course, language.
Thanks to that experience, I have learned that dialects influence standard spoken language and that there are many Italian words that are not actually standard Italian terms but regionalisms, which makes the language richer and even more interesting.
This is why I have decided to list ten Italian words that are not actually Italian but quintessentially Ligurian. I hope you will find this list interesting and fun – and that will maybe help you figure out some of the words you may hear while walking down the streets in Liguria.
Arbanella: this word is used to specifically describe a jar with airtight clamp lids. It can be used to describe a glass jar in general but the word arbanella uniquely refers to that specific kind of jar, which is used to store foods like homemade jam, fruits, and vegetables preserved in oil. There is no standard Italian equivalent to this word, which is why many Ligurians think they are using an Italian word when saying “arbanella“.
Example: “Quando la marmellata è pronta, puoi versarla in un’arbanella” (When the jam is ready, you can pour it into a jar).
Belin: the meaning of this word is quite vulgar – it is the dialect word for penis – but we Ligurians use it all the time and the word has kind of lost its vulgar origin. It is an exclamation we use to express surprise, anger, happiness, skepticism, and many other emotions. It is also an interjection that we put in our sentences without even realizing it.
Example: “Belin, ma perché arrivi sempre in ritardo? Mi fai sempre aspettare” (Why are you always so late? You always make me wait).
Camallare: this word comes from “camallo“, which is a Ligurian word of Arabic origins that describes a stevedore or longshoreman, the waterfront manual laborer who takes care of loading and unloading ships. In particular, “camallo” is used to refer to the stevedore that works in the port of Genoa. As a consequence, the verb camallare means to carry a heavy load, usually with some fatigue.
Example: “Puoi aiutarmi? È tutto il giorno che camallo questa valigia su e giù per la strada” (Can you help me? I have been carrying this suitcase up and down the street all day).
Carùggio: stretched between the sea and the hills, Ligurian towns and villages don’t have much space to expand. Houses are all tied together, frequently perched on a hill, and streets are small, dark, and narrow. Those streets, usually pedestrian-only, are called carùggi. We also have a saying in Ligurian that goes: “ecco che vieni nel mio caruggio!“, which means ‘now you understand me’.
Example: “Quando vado a Genova mi piace comprare la focaccia in una delle botteghe dei caruggi” (When I go to Genoa, I like buying focaccia in one of the shops in the alleys of the city center).
Mugugnare: this verb is quintessentially Ligurian because it perfectly describes an activity people living in Liguria love doing: complaining. We complain about everything, it’s like a regional sport and so we have our own word for that. Actually, this word describes the constant muttering of words to express discontent so well that has become part of the standard Italian language.
Example: “Smettila di mugugnare! Cosa c’è che non va?” (Stop grumbling! What’s wrong with you?)
Ravatto: this word is used to describe something that doesn’t have any value, an object that is maybe old, a bit ruined, and cannot be used anymore. It is also figuratively used to describe a person that is not doing very well, that is maybe old and with some ailments.
Example: “Devo liberare la soffitta perché è piena di ravatti da buttare via” (I have to clear the attic of a lot of stuff that needs to be thrown away).
Rumenta: this is the word my roommate at university couldn’t figure out. When I was asking her where I could find the rumenta, I was referring to the trash. In fact, this is the word we use in Liguria to describe trash in general or the trash can. Just like ravatto, it can also be used figuratively to describe someone who is not a very good person, who doesn’t behave well.
Example: “Questa strada è molto sporca, è piena di rumenta” (This street is very dirty, it is full of trash).
Sapin: do you know when kids are about to start crying and their mouth takes a very specific shape, with its corners turned downwards? Well, Ligurians have a word for that and it’s sapin. So “fare il sapin” means to turn the corners of your mouth down as if you were a kid and wanted something.
Example: “Smettila di fare il sapin, tanto non cambio idea. Questa sera non usciamo!” (Stop trying to move me, I won’t change my mind. We won’t be going out tonight).
Slerfa: this is a specific unit of measure, which we use for focaccia only. In fact, focaccia is such a staple in our daily life that we need a word to describe its standard slice. But there are other units of measure for focaccia: una striscia or un quadratino, for when you are not that hungry, or una ruota, for when you are buying the focaccia for the whole family.
Example: “Vuoi mangiare?” “No, grazie. Non ho fame, mi sono appena mangiato una slerfa di focaccia” (Do you want to eat something? No, thanks. I am not hungry, I have just had a slice of focaccia).
Tapullo: this word is so uniquely Ligurian that is quite difficult to explain it. “Fare un tapullo” is when something is broken and you repair it but in a very makeshift and unstable way. A tapullo is basically a temporary solution for something that needs to be fixed in a better way.
Example: “Hai aggiustato la porta?” “Ho fatto solo un tapullo per il momento, ma è meglio chiamare il falegname” (Did you fix the door? I have tried fixing it for the moment but it is better to call the carpenter).
Is there a word you thought was Italian but it’s not? I am super curious!
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