Home Language HacksItalian 15 Italian Words You Should NEVER Mispronounce [& How Not To]

15 Italian Words You Should NEVER Mispronounce [& How Not To]

by Michele
15 Mispronounced Italian Words and How to Fix it
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It’s fair to say that I’ve embarrassed myself at least 15 times while speaking Italian and it’s mostly thanks to these seemingly harmless words. Italian is famous for its beautifully melodic words full of vowels, ma stai attento! (but, be careful!). If you accidentally confuse any of the vowels, you might end up dying of imbarazzo (embarrassment).

We all make mistakes when learning Italian. It’s the best way to learn! But here are 15 ways mispronounced Italian words can get you into real trouble, plus tips on how to avoid it!

Want to hear the pronunciation? Watch the video!

1. Say fico, not fica or figa

Mispronounced Italian Words - Say fico, not ficaFico definition: noun; fig (or fig tree)
Pronunciation: [fee-ko]

What could be more harmless than the fig? Nothing. Unless of course you accidentally change it’s masculine –o ending with a female -a. In which case, you’ve just said perhaps the most offensive word around, the c-word. Yup, whether you used the –c– or the –g– variation, you’ve just said the most vulgar and derogatory term used to describe a part of the female anatomy. 

Confusingly, fico and figo can also mean trendy, hip, cool, or a cool guy.

One of my favourite Roman expressions actually uses the plural: mica pizza e fichi, literally, it’s not pizza and figs! This versatile expression can be used in a variety of situations. For example, if something is complicated or difficult, you can say “mica pizza e fichi!” or when something is beautiful/interesting/exciting, you say “mica pizza e fichi!” or when something is out of the ordinary. 

How to avoid mispronouncing fico

Whenever you need to remember something, especially as important as this, you need to create a memory hook. 

A memory hook is when you find a link between the word or phrase you want to learn with something you already know. This helps you recall the new word or phrase because you simply think of what you already know well. 

For example, to help you remember to say fico with an -o ending, your memory hook could be to think of the shape of a fig. It’s round, like an o.

Alternatively, try learning the plural, fichi, and work backwards to its singular masculine form since –chi is a plural masculine ending. Failing that, just use the plural form and avoid using the singular form.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say fico, not fica or figa

2. Say pecorino, not pecorina

Mispronounced Italian Words - Say pecorino, not pecorinaPecorino definition: noun; sheep or Pecorino cheese
Pronunciation: [pe-ko-ree-no]

Pecorino or Pecorino romano is a popular variety of cheese made with sheep’s milk. This hard and salty cheese is often used for grating and is used in the traditional Roman dish, Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper). The name “pecorino” simply means “ovine” or “of sheep” in Italian. Pecorino romano literally means “sheep’s [cheese] of Rome”.

Pecorino is another word you definitely want to keep in the masculine form with the final –o. If you don’t, and you ask your waiter for some grated pecorina for your pasta, you’ve just casually asked to have sex in the doggie-style position. It’s not surprising though, that the feminine ending refers to this position since it would be the female who would be in it.

How to avoid mispronouncing pecorino

A simple memory hook could be to always say Pecorino romano, not just Pecorino and focus on them both ending in –o. Alternatively, think of the word formaggio (cheese), which also ends in –o.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say pecorino not pecorina

3. Say penne, not pene

Mispronounced Italian Words - Say penne, not penePenne definition: noun; penne (a cylinder-shaped pasta), or pens (singular is penna).
Pronunciation: [pen-neh]

Italian ears are attuned to hearing each letter in every word and double consonants are no exception. When you see them you need to linger a little longer on the letter. When discussing this popular type of pasta, if Italian don’t hear the double n and you say pene (pen-eh), then you really won’t hear the end of it because it actually means penis! A subtle difference in sound can lead to a massive difference in meaning.

How to avoid mispronouncing penne

To be honest, I struggled to come up with a clean memory hook without digging myself a hole. So, here is my best attempt. Since penne is traditionally cooked al dente and its shape makes it particularly adapted for sauces, such as the spicy arrabbiata sauce, think of the two sets of double consonants in arrabbiata (-rr– and  –bb-) and how penne also has a double consonant.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say penne not pene

4. Say anno, not ano

Anno definition: noun; year
Pronunciation: [aan-nno]

When you start learning Italian, one of the most common questions you’ll learn how to ask is quanti anni hai? (how old are you?). But just like penne, if you don’t hit that double n consonant, you could end up asking something completely different like quanti ani hai? (how many anuses do you have?).

This everyday word is worth practicing to get right since you’ll be saying it, a lot!

How to avoid mispronouncing anno

A simple memory hook to help you remember the spelling and the correct pronunciation of anno, is to think of the similar looking and meaning word in English – annual, which also has a double n consonant.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say anno not ano

5. Say pisolino, not pisello or pisellino

Pisolino definition: noun; nap
Pronunciation: [pee-zo-lee-no]

Feeling tired after a big Italian lunch? It’s no wonder Italians like to fare un pisolino (take a nap) afterward. Just make sure you pronounce that middle o and don’t linger too long on the l or you might find yourself talking about the male appendage, again! If you say pisello or pisellino which literally means “pea” and “small pea” respectively, it’s also slang for a small penis. In English, the equivalent is something like “willy” or “pee-pee”.

An alternative and safer word for a nap is, sonnellino

How to avoid mispronouncing pisolino

The way I used to remember how to say pisolino correctly was to think of the middle o as the shape my mouth makes when I yawn and to hold it there like I was yawning (in my mind, that is).

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say pisolino not pisellino or pisello


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6. Say pippa or pipa…at your own risk

Pippa definition: noun; pipe
Pronunciation: [pip-pa]

Unlike previous words we’ve looked at, both pippa and pipa can take on two separate meanings, especially when accompanied by either two different verbs. The less vulgar of the two is with the verb essere (to be). Sei una pippa! means that you’re not good at doing something. Kind of like the English equivalent, “you’re rubbish!”, “you’re useless!”.

If you use the reflexive verb farsi (to do to oneself), then farsi una pippa means “jerking off” but farsi le pippe means “wasting one’s own time”. As you can see, you’re kind of playing with linguistic fire when you use this word.

Either way, pay attention to how you use this word and the context you hear it in.

How to avoid mispronouncing pippa and pipa

Since pronunciation isn’t an issue here, an easy way to remember these two words is to link them with their English counterpart, pipe. The spelling is almost identical and the meaning is exactly the same, except for maybe the fact that English speakers don’t associate plumbing material with self-gratification.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say pippa and pipa with caution

7. Say scoraggiare, not scoreggiare

Scoraggiare definition: verb; discourage, dissuade
Pronunciation: [sko-raj-ja-re]

Lending a friend some moral support? Be careful you don’t swap out that first a with an e. A well-meant Non ti scoraggiare (Don’t give up / don’t be discouraged) can easily turn into an embarrassing non ti scoreggiare (don’t fart). 

How to avoid mispronouncing scoraggiare

Think of scoraggiare just like the English spelling of discourage, there is only one e, and that’s at the end. There’s no e in the middle.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say scoraggiare not scoreggiare

8. Say scappare, not scopare

Scappare definition: verb; escape, run away
Pronunciation: [skp-pa-re]

In a hurry? The common Italian phrase, devo scappare is often used to express, “I have to run”. Harmless, right? Not quite. If you switch the first a to an o and drop a p, then you’re quite literally saying,  I have to sweep or worse, I have to f*ck,

After all the years I lived in Rome, when it came to the sweeping, I could never bring myself to use scopare for fear I’d used it horribly wrong. Instead, I used spazzare which only refers to this domestic chore.

How to avoid mispronouncing scappare

Even if you forget to sound the double consonant, it won’t be nearly as embarrassing if you don’t pronounce the first a. To help you remember, think of the English word escape. There are no o‘s in escape and no o‘s in scappare either.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say scappare not scopare

9. Say papà, not Papa

Papà definition: noun; dad, father
Pronunciation: [pa-pa]

The difference in pronunciation between papa and papà is subtle but important. Though the spelling is almost identical, the accented à indicates where the stress falls. It’s a short a sound, not a long aaaa. I learned this one the hard way when a friend laughed at me when I said,  Ho appena parlato con mio papa  (I just spoke to my Pope). 

How to avoid mispronouncing papà

When I was learning this word, what helped was associtating the quick pronunciation of papà with the short a in ‘dad’And to drive it home a little more, I would think of the what you say in a church service, a long a in ‘Amen’.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say papà not papa

10. Say carne, not cane

Mispronounced Italian Words - Say carne, not caneCarne definition: noun; meat
Pronunciation: [karr-ne]

As an Australian, my r’s turn into long aaaaa’s. But when I started learning Italian, I had to force my lazy tongue to not only pronounce my ‘r’, but also to roll them! Before I got into this new habit, in my head I was saying non mangio carne (I don’t eat meat) but instead I was saying, non mangio cane (I don’t eat dog). To which, my Italian friends would joke, speriamo di no! (we hope not!).

How to avoid mispronouncing carne

To help you to remember that carne (meat), has an r in it, think of the word carnivale or carnival. It also has an r and carnival is a time where participants indulge things like eating meat before giving it up during Lent.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say carne not cane

11. Say calzone not cazzone

Mispronounced Italian Words - Say calzone, not cazzoneCalzone definition: noun; Calzone (over-baked folded pizza) or trouser leg, pant leg 
Pronunciation: [kal-zo-ne]

No matter how famous something is, it can still be mispronounced. Just like the debate with Porsch, is it porsh and por-shuh, and is Nike nyke or ni-key? (In both cases, the latter is correct, apparently). This oven-baked folded pizza that originated in Naples in the 18th century is also often mispronounced. Dropping the l sounds more like cazzone, which literally means big pr*ck or big c*ck. While we’re here, if you drop the -ne ending, you get the f-word AND a 4-letter word for the male appendage starting with d.

How to avoid mispronouncing calzone

Remembering that there is an l in calzone is key to avoid making a mortifying mispronunciation. Think of the l for leg in trouser leg or l in calzini (socks), or calza (hosiery).

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say calzone not cazzone

12. Say pompiere, not pompino

Pompiere definition: noun; firefighter
Pronunciation: [pom-pe-yea-re]

This one might look like it would be difficult to confuse, but when you’re new to a language and its sounds, sometimes you can only part-remember a word and pompiere is the perfect example of this. While pompiere is a firefighter, a pompino is  oral sex performed on a man.

How to avoid mispronouncing pompiere

To help you remember the difference between pompiere and pompino, focus on the ending -piere then associate it with the French name Pier(r)e. So, your memory hook becomes Pier(r)e the French firefighter.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say pompiere not pompino

13. Say tetti, not tette

Mispronounced Italian Words - Say tetti, not tetteTetti definition: noun, pural; roofs, rooftops
Pronunciation: [tet-tee]

You may not think that the topic of roofs will come up often in conversation, but in cites like Rome you’re likely to visit some pretty epic panoramic viewpoints. If you feel compelled to comment on the beautiful view, either stick to using tetto in its singular form or make sure you remember that roofs in Italian is masculine and ends in an i, and not an e.

A simple phrase like guarda tutti questi bellissimi tette! (look at all these beautiful rooftops!) and easily turn into an embarrassing guarda tutti questi bellissimi tette! (look at all these beautiful tits!). Unless of course, that’s what you wanted to say.

How to avoid mispronouncing tetti

One way to help you remember that roof/s is masculine with a -o/-i, is to think of the men who constructed these buildings and that breasts are something only females have, usually.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say tetti not tette

14. Say patatine not patatina

Mispronounced Italian Words - Say Patatine, not Patatina

Patatine definition: noun, French fries, potato chips, crisps
Pronunciation: [pa-ta-tee-ne]

When ordering patatine, trust me when I say that you should keep it in the plural. While patatina (with a final a) is, in fact, a single French fry/potato chip/crisp, it’s also a slang word for the female genitalia. You know, the one word that starts with p and ends in y.

How to avoid mispronouncing patatine

To help you to remember to use the e ending, always say fritte after patatine since they both need to agree in gender and number.  

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say patatine not patatina

15. Say palla, not palle

Palla definition: noun, ball, sphere
Pronunciation: [pal-lah]

Just like in English, palla has two meanings in Italian; ball, and slang for testicle. It’s also used a lot in the popular Italian expressions like rompere le palle, (literally, to break someone’s balls), meaning to get on someone’s nerves. A less offensive version is rompere le scatole (literally, to break boxes).

How to avoid mispronouncing palla

Unless you say something leading like mi piacciono palle (I like balls), the chances of you making a faux pax are pretty low. Nevertheless, to help you remember that ball in Italian is feminine.

Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce - Say palla and palle with caution

Don’t miss these Italian words with dirty double meanings!

Have you mixed up any of these words before? Can you think of any others you would add to this list?

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15 Italian Words You Should Never Mispronounce

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Over to you!

Have you mixed up any of these words before? Can you think of any others you would add to this list? Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

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Lezli Ungerman April 21, 2020 - 09:28

I was at a restaurant, and ordered a plate of the Cazzi, instead of the cozze….??‍♀️?
I wanted to die, be swallowed up by the earth…
Everyone laughed, but me.????
I turned every single shade of red possible?

Michele April 22, 2020 - 21:08

haha that’s briliant and such an honest mistake. But at least you learned for next time and have a funny story to tell :) Thanks for sharing Lezli


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