Largely renowned for its top-tier cuisine, architectural wonders, and constellation of dialects, Italy is a cultural giant that needs little introduction.

Beyond its most prominent hallmarks, Italy also boasts a particular penchant for comedy, as showcased on the cinematic and theatrical stages. Although not universally acclaimed to the extent of the country's more celebrated aspects, such as its traditional recipes, Italy’s sense of humor possesses a unique quality that permeates everyday conversations and becomes infused into the very language itself.

This article highlights a few such words and expressions that infuse communication with a bit of comedy, either by expressing amusing concepts or by coating more serious matters in a light-hearted framework.

Let's now delve into some of the expressions that bring humor to the forefront of Italian communication.

Abbiocco (a sudden feeling of drowsiness)

This term describes a feeling of drowsiness that kicks in all of a sudden — typically after lunch, possibly as a consequence of having indulged in generous portions of pasta. "Abbiocco" usually dissipates once you squeeze in a short nap before returning to the office — if you have the luxury of heading back home for a lunch break, that is. If napping is not an option, fear not; this is what strong Espresso shots are for.

Here is an example of its usage:

  • Mi butto giù un attimo che c’ho l’abbiocco.
    I am gonna lie down for a moment because I’ve got the "abbiocco".  

While it is frequently accompanied by basic verbs — you can have the "abbiocco", for example, or it may come over you — you are nevertheless granted a certain degree of linguistic freedom in choosing which verb you pair it up with. In fact, the more creative you get, the more hilarity your statement will likely elicit:

  • Perché mettono lezioni così noiose dopo pranzo? A metà lezione m’ha assalito l’abbiocco.
    Why would they schedule such boring classes after lunch? Halfway through the lecture, the "abbiocco" assaulted me.  
Photo by Abdulbosit Melikuziev on Unsplash

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Scienza delle merendine (science of the snacks)

This bizarre expression literally translates to “science of the snacks” or “snack science”. Having recently gained traction as the title of a (clearly non-existent) mock course, this phrase is the embodiment of pure satire. It's meant as a criticism of certain less rigorous and shorter university degrees, usually of recent origin. You use this phrase to set up a comparison between the "less respected" course in question and a more traditional academic path.

To give you a more concrete idea of what courses would fall under the "snack science" umbrella, it might be simpler to establish which ones never would. Consider the following examples:

  • Va bene, non fare ingegneria, medicina, psicologia o letteratura! Tanto vale fare scienza delle merendine.
    Sure, don’t go into engineering, medicine, psychology, literature or anything! May as well sign up for science of the snacks.  
  • Siamo ad ingegneria, chiaro che sono difficili gli esami! Mica siamo a scienza delle merendine.
    It’s Engineering, exams are supposed to be hard! This is not snack science.

While this phrase may appear amusing on the surface, please bear in mind that it's something of a double-edged sword. It implies a show of respect for traditional, famously challenging courses on the one hand while actively belittling certain other courses on the other, and people who have chosen those "other" courses might feel offended.

Please exercise discretion when using this phrase.

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Alla faccia di… ! (in the face of...!)

The literal meaning of this exclamation is “In the face of X!”. Although this first half of the expression is fixed and unchangeable, you are at liberty to follow it up with anything you like — nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives are all fair game here.

When you’re employing this expression, you are not just speaking — you're sprinkling in a bit of manifest irony, and you're communicating that you intend for your audience to interpret your meaning as being the opposite of whatever you’re actually saying. This exclamation is something you should use when you want to voice your disagreement or disbelief in a lighthearted way. As such, follow "alla faccia di..." with whatever it is that has caused your dissent/distress:

  • Studente A: Com’è andata la verifica?
    Studente B: Male, ho preso solo 7 e mezzo.
    Studente A: Alla faccia del male!  

    Student A: How did the test go?
    Student B: Terrible, I only got 7.5/10.
    Student A: Terrible! (Literally: “In the face of bad!” — Student A is overtly signaling their belief that 7.5 out of 10 is by no means a low score.)

As a further example, here’s an excerpt of an actual conversation I once happened to overhear:

  • Moglie: Monica Bellucci è sopravvalutata. Secondo me è banale.
    Marito: Alla faccia del banale!  

    Wife: Monica Bellucci is overestimated. I find her quite plain.
    Husband: Plain! (Literally: “In the face of plain!” — thus showing that the husband thinks Monica Bellucci is… Well, you know where this is going.)

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Ingoiare il rospo (to swallow the toad)

This outlandish idiom literally translates to “to swallow the toad”, and it is a complete expression in and of itself. As such, all you need to do to use this phrase is to conjugate the verb ingoiare (“to swallow”) to your desired tense.

Visually absurd an expression as it is, you might think it’s an expressive tool specifically used to infuse humor into a conversation. However, be mindful that, when using this phrase, you’re actually verbalizing your unhappiness and overall dissatisfaction with a situation — in fact, you might even be feeling resentful of an injustice. In Italian, you "swallow the toad" when you find yourself having to accept the downside of a situation for the sake of a greater good.

Versatile and adaptable to any aspect of life (career, school, personal life), this expression comes with a broad range of applications:

  • A nessuno piace lavorare gratis, ma volevo il posto, quindi ho ingoiato il rospo e fatto lo stage non retribuito.
    No one likes working for free, but I wanted the job, so I swallowed the toad and undertook the unpaid internship.  
  • Viviamo in due città diverse e vedersi regolarmente è complicato. Ma le voglio bene e ingoio il rospo.
    We live in two different cities and meeting on a regular basis is complicated. But I love her, so I swallow the toad.

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Apericena (good luck translating this one)

Resulting from the merging of two pre-existing words (aperitivo, “aperitif,” and cena, “dinner”), this linguistic blend is relatively recent. It refers to an additional meal beyond the traditional daily three.

For those unfamiliar, an aperitif is a moment of conviviality in which drinks are served (traditionally alcoholic ones, but there are non-alcoholic alternatives as well.) Because it is consumed before a meal, the drink does not normally come with much food – just a small bite of some snack. However, as people were reluctant to interrupt the flow of these joyous "aperitivo" moments to go prepare dinner at home, we started requesting bigger and bigger dishes to accompany our Spritzes (the most popular aperitivo drink by a landslide). Bartenders and baristas duly complied. Aperitifs eventually became so large that our stomachs didn't have enough room for the proper full-course meal that followed, and, as such, some bars started advertising their aperitifs as "apericenas" — a combination of the initial aperitif and the ensuing dinner.

The gastronomic offerings associated with "apericenas" are mostly quick little appetizers you can nibble away at... but they usually come in a generous variety. While a full pasta dish or an entire pizza pie still fall within the sacred confines of traditional lunches and dinners, you'll see things like slices of pizza and smaller portions of pasta in an "apericena." Other standard foods include juicy fruit, artisanal chips, briny olives, and assortments of cheese samplings.

  • Parlante A: Farai una festa per la tua laurea?
    Parlante B: Sì, certo. Sto organizzando un’apericena.  

    Speaker A: Are you going to have a party for your graduation?
    Speaker B: Sure, I am organizing an "apericena".  
Photo by Vlady Nykulyak on Unsplash

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Barbatrucco (a "beard trick")

Although it's a blend of the words barba (beard) and trucco (trick), the former does not contribute to the overall sense of this compound word, whose meaning can be entirely subsumed by “trick.”

"Barbatrucco" refers to a clever, cunning stratagem that implies a degree of inventiveness and ingenuity on the creator’s part — a shortcut to achieving a result that would otherwise require a lot of time and effort.  

  • Atleta: Ma quindi qual è il barbatrucco per fare il single leg squat?
    Allenatore: Non c’è nessun barbatrucco. Sviluppi la forza nelle gambe e nei glutei e ci riesci.  

    Athlete: So what’s the trick to perform a single leg squat?
    Coach: There’s no trick. You first develop the strength in your leg and in your glutes, and then you’ll be able to do it.

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Cioè (a filler word)

A contraction of the subject-verb sequence Ciò è, which has seen its word boundaries erode over time to become a single word, this expression translates to “that is”. Despite its apparent simplicity, this one is especially tricky: while it certainly can behave as a connective introducing a clarification, in Italian it has also come to be used as a filler word without any particular meaning.

One similar English construction would be the “like” that gets interspersed amongst casual speech to reflect confusion and subsequent hesitation on the part of a speaker.

  • Parlante A: Cioè, nel senso, ti piaccio? Mi stai chiedendo, cioè, di uscire con te?
    Parlante B: Sì, grazie per averci fatto caso.  
  • Speaker A: I mean, like… you like me? You’re asking me, like… to go on a date with you? Speaker B: Yes, thanks for noticing.

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Un altro paio di maniche ("another pair of sleeves")

This idiom literally translates to “another pair of sleeves”. Despite its vividly eccentric descriptiveness, there is no strict rule about employing it for humorous purposes. It can be used to convey something either serious or something amusing — it’s got a good range of applications.

It could be argued that its closest English equivalent would be “a whole 'nother story”. If something is "another pair of sleeves", it means that it's "a completely different matter" than whatever the current topic of discussion is.

To get a more exact idea of its use, you may refer to the following examples:

  • Un conto è studiare la teoria della patente, mettersi alla guida è un altro paio di maniche. Studying the theory for your driver’s license is one thing, actually driving a car is a whole nother story.  
  • Presentarsi e chiedere indicazioni è una cosa, ma parlare una lingua straniera sul posto di lavoro è un altro paio di maniche.
    Being able to introduce oneself and ask for directions is one thing, but speaking a foreign language at work is a whole 'nother story.

Concluding considerations

Having delved into their nuances, you may have noticed that these linguistic items are best suited for unstrained, easygoing chats between trusted acquaintances. Because they incorporate some degree of humor in either form or content, they belong – you guessed it – to the realm of the linguistically informal.

As a parting note, if you feel that your Italian is fluent enough (or even if you don't!) and you have a group of pals to practice with, don't hesitate to integrate these expressions into your conversational repertoire. They can add a touch of friendliness and humor to your colloquial Italian, making your interactions more engaging and all the more enjoyable.

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