Italian Swear Words – Jessica’s 8 Favorites

by Jessica on April 14, 2008

by | April 14th, 2008  

washing mouth out with soapWhen you’re learning a new language, one of the most fun parts is learning how to swear. Of course, Italian swear words always sound prettier to my non-Italian ear than their English equivalents, but just because they sound prettier doesn’t mean their meaning is! When I was teaching Italian, one of the most common questions I’d get from students – always after class, in hushed tones – was stuff like, “How do you say ‘shit’ in Italian?” With that in mind, here are my 8 favorite Italian swear words.

Update: Now you can hear sample pronunciations for some of these words – wherever you see a blue arrow underneath the word, click on it and you’ll hear exactly how to say it!

And be sure to check out the second installment, Italian swear words part 2 – readers’ choice!

8. Accidenti! (ah-chee-DEN-tee)

Let’s start with something G-rated, shall we? This is the less-questionable version of “merda” (see #6) – when you want to say a euphemism like “crap” instead of swearing and saying “shit,” you’d say “accidenti.” It looks so much more innocent, doesn’t it? Almost like, “Oh, what a horrible accident that I almost said a bad word” or something. Anyway, this is the one to internalize so that you don’t let loose with any of the really bad ones in front of passing nuns.

7. Madonna! (mah-DOHN-nah)

While many Italian stereotypes turn out to be less true on the ground in Italy than you might have expected them to be, the one about Italians using “mamma mia!” as an exclamation of surprise or annoyance holds water – they actually do use it. But personally, I prefer the equally common “Madonna!” if for no other reason than it amuses me in this predominantly Catholic country. You can even pair this one with “porca” (see #1) for more emphatic (and less polite) uses.

6. Merda! (MEHR-dah)

Now, because I’d often get the “How do you say ‘shit’ in Italian?” question from students, I’ve learned this one – but I’ve honestly not heard it as much in Italy as I have some of the other swear words on this page. This is, however, how you say “shit” in Italian, and it’s used in exactly the same way we use it in English. It also is incorporated into other phrases for more colorful meanings as well.

5. Cazzo! (KAHTZ-soh)

This is the other question I’d get from the occasional (bolder) students – “How do you say ‘fuck’ in Italian?” This is the answer – “cazzo” – although it literally is a colorful term for “penis” (see below), and this one you do hear.

4. Testa di cazzo! (TES-tah dee KAHTZ-soh)

Sometimes translating things literally is what makes these swear words amusing to me – but sometimes it works out quite well, and that’s the case with this little gem. Instead of calling someone a “dickhead,” in Italian you’d call them a “head of dick,” or a “testa di cazzo.” Which, really, is the same thing, right? This is also a general way of calling someone an “asshole,” but the Italian “testa di cazzo” has a bit more spice and so isn’t language you’ll want to use in polite company. “Cazzo” has lots of uses in Italian, like “culo” (see #3).

3. Vaffanculo! (vah-fahn-KOO-loh)

This is a red-hot number, so use it with caution. It’s the Italian equivalent of “fuck off” or “go fuck yourself,” but literally means something vaguely like “go do it in the ass.” “Culo” on its own (meaning “ass,” but in a much more vulgar way than the English can really translate) has many, many uses in Italian, but this is the one non-Italians can latch onto quickly – which is both entertaining and a bit dangerous! The accompanying gesture for “vaffanculo” is the same as it is in English – a middle finger.

2. Cavolo! (KAH-voh-loh)

Here’s an example of an exclamation that is really only funny to me because I translate it literally in my head when I hear it. “Cavolo” literally means “cabbage,” but when you say it emphatically it’s kind of like the equivalent of “holy crap!” or a more forceful version of “wow!” Even better, in my humble opinion, is what happens when you put the innocuous-looking “che” in front of it – “che cavolo?” offered as a question is kind of like saying, “what the fuck?” but you’re really saying, “what cabbage?” Ah, I love that.

1. Porca vacca! (POR-kah VAH-kah)

This is my favorite one, hands down. In English, I’ve got lots of ways to say, “well, dammit!” in varying degrees of colorful language. In Italian, it’s no different. “Porca vacca” literally means “pig cow,” but it’s used in much the same way we’d say, “crap!” or “damn!” or the like – it’s not the most polite way to say it, but it’s also not the worst. What I particularly love about it is the literal translation (it cracks me up to think people are saying, “pig cow!”), and what’s fun about this is that you can put “porca” in front of just about anything. “Porca vacca” is my favorite for its literal silliness, but “porca miseria” (“miserable pig” or “pig poverty”) is a very close second-favorite for my perceived sense of the melodrama that goes with it. You’ll hear variations on these at Italian sporting events when the home team does something stupid.

So, those are my 8 favorite Italian swear words. I know some of my readers know some colorful Italian phrases, so what are your favorites? Leave a comment below to share it with us!

And for more Italian slang and swear words, you could do much worse than Deirdre’s list on Beginning With I – she explains lots of the slang you might hear while in Italy, both polite and decidedly not so.

Bonus: Fare i gattini (FAH-rey ee gaht-TEE-nee)
Okay, I’ve never heard this one personally, but while researching the colorful world of Italian swear words, I discovered that to say someone is throwing up or (even more colorfully) “barfing one’s guts out,” you’d use this phrase – “fare i gattini.” Which literally would mean that you were “having kittens.” So, I have to wonder – what does one say when one’s cat is actually having kittens?


{ 102 comments }

napoletanadicore April 22, 2009 at 7:57 am
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Benny….pretty sure that it has something to do with the very “Ammazare” which means to kill, obviously appropriate :) But the first part I dont know…

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dulce April 25, 2009 at 11:27 am
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I have a question… i have read many books by Italian authors and some of them use Madonn… is that a short version of Madonna or does it mean something else?

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Richard D'Antonio August 16, 2012 at 9:20 pm
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My grandfather used it all the time the final a is almost silent MAdonnaah. The Sicilian’s tend to trill it so it sounds like an r

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Jessica April 25, 2009 at 3:32 pm
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There are lots of Italian dialects that have a tendency to shorten words, so I’d be really surprised if “Madonn…” was anything but “Madonna.”

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Brett Betts May 5, 2009 at 9:12 am
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what about porco dio, porca madonna troia e dio canne… are these also bad?

ti ringrazio anticipamente

x

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traveler May 7, 2009 at 2:46 pm
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Brett…

Well quite vulgar indeed, also for a italian seaman… :)

Jessica.. looking at the other side of the mirror… what is the reaction of non english speaking 3 bilions people when they read/hear english words.. :)

good web site.. I suggested (it) to my british friends already…

good days and good life you all
sorry for my poor english.. (american or british?)

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danny donoghue May 8, 2009 at 6:40 am
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Dear Jessica,

Without your “colorful” Italian phrases, I might have gone through life without being able to say in Italian “shit, mother’s cunt, fuck up the arse”, etc. What an intellectual enrichment!

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marta May 26, 2009 at 5:22 pm
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I have to say this site is awesome. I went to a dig in sicily in 04 and thought everyone i met was lying tome when they said “minchia”. I used to walk around, and say it out loud while walking the streets proud that i knew just one word of swear words in italian.. I would promptly get yelled at by one of my friends that taught me the word saying… ” nonononononononononono shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” Now i know why.. great website!!! i am very excited to learn of the swear words slang of italy…. my fav so far—— “Testa di cazzo”

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Federico June 5, 2009 at 4:37 pm
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to VA A FARE I GATTINI sounds like a restricted version of the very common and yet very rude VA A FARE I BOCCHINI i`ve never heard anyone using it and the only connection to swearing i can think of

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Federico June 5, 2009 at 4:47 pm
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MADONNA means MARY the mother of jesus holy mother of god and is the result of 2 latin words merged together into one:MATER DONNA = MA + DONNA= Madonna

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Margaret Buzzanca June 28, 2009 at 10:14 am
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As a child, I heard my grandmother use a phrase when she was angry that sounded something like “corpa ta lenya.” My father said he didn’t know what it meant, but I’m sure he did, it was bad, and he didn’t want to explain it to his innocent daughter.

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Jessica June 28, 2009 at 1:22 pm
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Hi, Margaret:

Well, “legna” would be pronounced like “lenya,” but the only phrase I can find after a quick search that might come close is “cotta a legna,” which basically means “cooked in a wood oven.” Not sure that’s harsh enough for something to say when you’re angry! :)

Ciao,
Jessica

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Thom November 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm
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I’ve head a similar phrase, “capo di legna” translated to “head of wood”. I guess it’s like us calling someone a Blockhead.

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Vince June 18, 2012 at 2:52 pm
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its Sicilian dialect and it aint that bad it means your grandmother is going to hit you with a stick

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Dottie June 30, 2009 at 6:10 am
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Madonne….pronounced mahrone!! (with a curl of
the tongue) means Mother of God (an Italian exclamation)

From a childhood friend of Italian roots….these
are spelled phonetically

Vah cagah…meant “go take a shit”
Foogee gah pesta…….meant “what a stink!”
Spootsa……….meant smell this (when you
hold something under someone’s nose)

These were relatively harmless expressions. We didn’t get our mouths washed with soap for saying them!

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francesco July 6, 2009 at 6:37 pm
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affonda o mazz, mazz is “ass”….so basically sink ur ass, its like oh shit im really sinking myself, or putting myself in a bad situation

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Nepal expedition July 8, 2009 at 9:21 pm
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my all the time favourite is cavolo. i always use this one

any way thanks for collecting all together

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ganesh giri July 13, 2009 at 1:12 am
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Thanku so much for collecting above 8 italian swear words.i always use no 1 Porca vacca.

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Brian Morgan July 25, 2009 at 7:05 pm
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I am now moving my knack of swearing into another realm. I now know how to swear in English, Hungarian, German and now Italian. I can teach you the nasty of all time nasties in Hungarian. The word is Shzleiszei:SHLEET-ZAI, In Hungarian, this is an insult which translates into literly as calling a person a piece of shit on ice, or more commonly calling someone a very cold shithead.

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betti November 6, 2010 at 5:46 pm
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hi there, i love this site i am interested in italian language and everything. i have a friend in italy i will show him my new learning. BRIAN, i am hungarian and the word you mentioned “Shzleiszei” does not exist at all. i bet hungarian language has the most of swear words, but this is exactly doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t exist. i see that i am a bit late with this reply, but i’ve just discovered this page :)

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Jen July 28, 2009 at 9:12 pm
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I hate my last name [Testa]
it sucks because a lot of those words have the root word testa…. I hate that so much :( ughh

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carol September 27, 2010 at 7:40 pm
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You hate the name Testa, which means head? At least you have an Italian last name. I hated my last name, too. It was Jones……try telling that to people and convincing them you’re Italian!!!

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carol September 27, 2010 at 7:36 pm
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Hello! You did indeed include some very colorful swear words among your favorites. In #3 you mentioned that ‘culo’ is a vulgar way of referring to one’s backside. My mother was from Naples and this was a pure Italian word, not slang or vulgar. What Italian word did your relatives use when referring to someone’s ‘butt’?

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John H. Pierson III December 21, 2010 at 2:47 am
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Im half Italian and my Neopolitan grandmama taught us kids some bad words in Italian. I always thought Vaffanculo was actually pronounced Baffanculo. Lol. Graci!

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. January 14, 2012 at 12:21 am
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It is!

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Richard January 24, 2011 at 6:08 pm
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My faves are:
Porca troia.

Faicagare

Testa di cazzo

Minchia

Cazzo

Che cazzo dici

Vaffanculo

Porca putanna

An my fave… che due palle or che palle

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carl February 9, 2011 at 7:40 pm
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My dad met my mom when he was stationed in Naples. Soon after they wed they moved to the states. My mom didn’t know any English at first, so I was able to learn a lot of Italian early on. She would always be saying all these words out of context to normal conversation when she was mad, I assumed they were cuss words but never knew what. Dad would never tell me. When I was about 20 years old I went back to meet my cousins from her side of the family for the first time. They would be letting out all these choice jems and I would be smiling. They would ask me if I knew what they meant, and I would say I heard em alot but didn’t know the meaning.
Here they are in addition to what you have. I only know phonetically how to spell them.
cappe cazz dickhead
que joy ay que so lazz ??
saludashi minchia ??
esheray wallera they would say this if you were taking too long to do something, it means are you waiting for your pubes to grow?
riccione gay man
boutielle de shord a bottle of diaria
si strohns? are you a turd (idiot)
si shaymo? are you crazy?
si pots? are you crazy?

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J-Mo February 16, 2011 at 2:55 pm
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Ah, thankyou! This actually had me cackling out loud with each new description. You’ve made my day.

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Nick Martello February 28, 2011 at 4:37 am
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When visiting my cousin in Rome, he often uses the phrase that sounds like “manecci la Vecchio”. My other cousin in Isernia says this is bad language and would not tell me what it meant. But I grew up hearing this from uncles as well and they didn’t think it was as bad as some of the others mentioned above.

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James March 3, 2011 at 8:38 pm
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Strange way to have fun, learn how to swear in other languages..I was wondering what gonna happen if while walking around saying “asshole” or “good morning dick head”…definitely you may get a lovely “fuck off” from a real british gentlemen.

Cheers

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Scott April 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm
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Thank you! You actually helped me substantiate a point regarding bawdy puns in a 17th Century British Poetry paper! : )

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Pat June 6, 2011 at 6:49 pm
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All 4 grandparents came from Italy, my parents are first generation Americans.

They always used to say that someone that parked crooked in a space or just did a bad job of parking all around “parked like a ch-drool (phonetic),” which they always told me meant parked like a cucumber. After reading this website, and others, and finding out that the fact we called the hell of the loaf of bread a “coolie” – which I believe to be a close approximation to “cula” – I am now wondering if it could be another vulgar slang expression. Have you ever heard of anything close to it? Thanks!

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Jessica June 8, 2011 at 8:32 am
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It’s “culo” – and you’ll see the definition for that in #3 above. Yes, it’s a bit vulgar. :)

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Alex June 24, 2011 at 4:18 am
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I’m an italian guy, I noticed a misunderstanding about “Fuck” in this blog. The italian version of this word is not “cazzo” (that mean “cock” in english). The correct translation is ” ‘fanculo” in the shortes version, and ” vaffanculo” for the longest. In english litterally mean “You have to do an ass job”…

so:
fuck = ‘fanculo’
fuck you = ‘vaffanculo’ or ‘vai a fare in culo’
cazzo = ‘cock’
All clear?

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catherine verrilli August 21, 2011 at 6:34 pm
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Ah, so funny! My aunt and I were just talking on the phone about this–all the different swears we heard growing up–she from my grandparents, and me from everyone. We were laughing so hard. I definitely have to say that Porca miseria came up, along with the porca Madonna, and sp: vaffanculo! We also heard bruta simia, too. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m sorry–this is funny stuff! My husband is just learning these, even though he’s married into this Italian family 25 years. Sometimes saying these words, in fun, bring back a lot of memories from being a kid. In my family, a lot of these swears always had a smirk, too.

But hey, I do have a question. My cousin married a Sicilian and he says something I’m not understanding. Basilico? Is that remotely familiar to you? Maybe my spelling is off.

Ciao, amici. :o )

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Jessica August 22, 2011 at 10:01 am
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Well, “basilico” is just the Italian word for “basil” – and I’ve never heard that used as a swear word. :)

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Bernie Bierman October 11, 2011 at 11:38 am
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The expression written here as “:vaffanculo” is actually “Va fan culo” (lit, “make it to go up the ass”). In southern Italian, including Sicilian speech, the “v” often becomes a “p”; the “c” becomes a “g” and ending vowels are plainly dropped. Thus, to many who heard Italian spoken in the streets of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, the expression “Va fan culo” came out “Pafangul”. Likewise the word “citrullo” (blockhead, knucklehead, dumbhead) came out “shidrul” (or “shidrool”). And pasta fagiola morphed into “pastafazul”. And with “c’s” becoming “g’s”, “p’s becoming “b’s” and ending vowels dropped everywhere, the meat known as capicola became…(hold onto your memories) “GABANGUL”, as did “cazzo in culo” become “gatzingul”.

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chiara November 28, 2011 at 6:06 pm
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i’m italian i never heard “fare i gattini”…maybe it is used just in the south..
u can learn… porca di quella maiala di tua madre baldracca che ti ha messo al mondo schifosa mignotta che ama farsi chiavare da delle teste di minchia come tuo padre!!!..learn this!!!..very Swear Words

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Charles LoPresto December 22, 2011 at 8:40 am
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A shorter but less colorfull version of Chiara’s would be the Sicilian, ‘cornuto che รจ tu padre’ (pronounced patre), which calls your father a cuckold, your mother a whore and you a bastard, all at the same time. Also vaffanculo is not va fan culo as Bernie states, but va fa in culo. Literally go do it in your ass. As far as his sound changes for sicilian american speakers, I agree with most of his except that the p sounds more like a b as in picciotti (guys or boys) pronounced biccotti, as well as the v in vaffanculo sounds like baffangulo

Cialuzzo

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Anna April 10, 2012 at 2:01 am
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Never heard “fare i gattini” but there are big differences from one region to the other as to idiomatic forms and swearwords. The ones you published are indeed widely used. What else? ..if you want a red- light word, what about “stronzo”? . that is also quite used at least in northern Italy. It literaly means “turd” and is used for “asshole”.
Good job! congrats, one of the few guides that tell things as they are and are not based on stereotypes.

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Jessica April 10, 2012 at 11:15 am
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Thanks, Anna!

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A. Gambino May 13, 2012 at 7:24 am
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Interesting words and word combinations. I am trying to find out what “vacca d’un cane” means. I know what it means literally, but what does it really signify. Can anyone help?

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Jessica May 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm
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I’m afraid I don’t know that one!

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G.Pagnotta July 24, 2012 at 2:49 pm
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Hi, I’m from Naples!
“vacca d’un cane” is used like “stronzo” to insult someone… But it would be mean “man you are a dog and like dog you are a cow”… Surreal!
Much better (so to speak!) and easy to use “figlio d’un cane” (son of a dog) or “figlio di puttana” (son of a whore), makes more effect!
Saluti!
:-)

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marghe June 24, 2012 at 8:07 am
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never heard about fare i gattini and I’m italian.. but sure that it’s not like you said.. the meaning is be sweet with girlfriend/boyfriend..to cuddle.. becuase ( gattini: little cats ) are sweet to give a cuddle..

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enzo August 15, 2012 at 9:23 am
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If you like Naples as i read in another post you should learn some swear words in Napolitan language :) swear words in Napolitan are really funny and bit ruder than italian ones, i can tell you some like:
-strunz(asshole)
-Lutam or Lota -literally means “mud” but it refers to a mean viscid person -read(loohtu’m)(Lota)
-piscione literally “bed-pisser” mean someone really stupid and immature
-filj e’ puttana “son of a bitch”
-rikkion “fag” read(reehkkeho’n)
-cap e cazz “dickhead”
-capokkia more used way to say “dickhead”
-maronna mia ,used in naples insted of “mamma mia” means literally “my madonna”
-curnut literally means “horned guy..” that in italian mean “cuckold” but its like saying “bastard”-read (coohrnooh’t)
have fun swearin with these words the next time you come here in Naples :)

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Ratna Man October 10, 2012 at 5:54 pm
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Anyone familiar with the expression “fica naso”. I think it is used for someone who is nosey.

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chris October 19, 2012 at 7:31 am
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You’re right, a “fica naso” is someone who “sticks notes” in things = Nosey.

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chris October 19, 2012 at 7:32 am
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“sticks nose”, naso means nose. (my typing got auto-edited)

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Xavier December 11, 2012 at 3:01 am
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I’m Italian. Yes, “ficcanaso” means “nosy person”. But the origins are not “fica (italian for pussy) naso”. It literaly means “nose putter”, someone who puts his nose in someone else business!
Ps: sorry my English went down :)

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Xavier December 11, 2012 at 3:13 am
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This is fun!!! A Begnigni’s show: a lot of ways to say “pussy” in Italian :D
Enjoy!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJEQnseCaSc

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Debbie January 12, 2013 at 10:30 pm
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Love it all. Originally I just wanted to be acquainted with Italian swear words so I would know if I really pissed someone off while I was there. Now I revert to Italian when English curses fail me. I can swear in English, Spanish, Italian and American Sign Language. Italian is the best language for swearing.

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