Heather grey woman funny t-shirt with an English-Italian false friend slogan

Italian-English False Friends

As you learn Italian, you may have come across some words that look or sound the same as some English words, and yet they actually mean different things. These are called false friends.

I think it’s impossible not to get tripped up at least once by these words, and over the years I’ve had my share of mishaps.

I remember once a conversation with my work colleague Sharon, during my first stay to London. We were talking about her upcoming birthday party, and our exchange went along these lines:

Me: “How many people have you invited to your party?”

Sharon: “Just a few friends and my parents”.

Me: “Are you going to invite all your parents?”

Sharon (looking bemused) :“Well, I’ve only got two!”

Me: “That’s not possible.”

Sharon (looking even more bemused): “Why, how many parents have you got?”

Me (counting): “I have 21 cousins, 7 uncles and aunts, and...”

Sharon: (laughing loudly): “But you only have one Mum and Dad!”

And that’s when it hit me. Parents were not parenti, but genitori.

Sharon was the first English friend I made. She was a bit older than me and a more experienced waitress. We used to have many laughs because we often talked cross-purposes.

There was a regular customer who used to come to our coffee-shop, a man in his 50s, who wore a dark suit and used to order a cheese and ham sandwich every day.

Once, after he left our coffee-shop, Sharon said to me: “I wonder why he’s so miserable”.

To me the guy didn’t look, nor acted, like a miserabile. I thought about it for a bit. I started to consider the various connotations of the Italian word miserabile. Did he look very poor? No. Was he someone you felt pity for? Not really. Was he despicable or petty? Unlikely. To me he just looked a bit sad.

Before I made a fool of myself again, I asked Sharon what she meant by  “miserable” and she explained the meaning. I realised that it meant triste, or infelice, and within that context it seemed about right.

But the words that took some getting used to, for me, were “sensitive” and “sensible”.

“Sensible” can be translated in Italian with sensato. “Sensitive” can be translated with sensibile. And if you tell a person they are a sensitivo in Italian, that could mean they are psychic.

Have I confused you enough?

Imagine the scene after a drawing class, when the teacher told me: “Paul is so sensitive about his artwork, we need to be sensible when we discuss it.”
I could feel the cogs in my brain trying to click into place. It was bad enough dealing with one false friend, but putting two in the same sentence was… evil.

Following these experiences, I thought it may be fun to put together a list of the most common English-Italian false friends for you. Well, I don’t know if they are the most common, but these are the ones I’ve come across most often. For easier reference, I’ve marked the Italian words in blue.

Here they are:

Argument = Litigio, Discussione
Argomento = Topic

Barracks = Caserma
Baracca = Shack, Hut

Candid = Schietto, Sincero
Candido = Pure, Innocent

Convenient = Comodo, Adatto
Conveniente =
Good value, Cheap

Disgrace = Vergogna, Disonore
Disgrazia = Misfortune

Education = Istruzione, Cultura
Educazione = Good manners

Factory = Fabbrica
Fattoria = Farm

Gross = Volgare, Disgustoso
Grosso = Big, Large

Library = Biblioteca
Libreria = Bookshop, Bookcase

Magazine = Rivista, Periodico
Magazzino = Warehouse

Ostrich = Struzzo
Ostrica = Oyster

Pavement = Marciapiede
Pavimento = Floor

Preservative = Conservante
Preservativo = Condom

Rumour = Pettegolezzo, Diceria
Rumore = Sound, Noise

Spade = Zappa, Vanga
Spada = Sword

Stamp = Francobollo
= Press, Print

Terrific = Fantastico, Eccezionale
Terrificante =

I hope you find these useful.

Feel free to write to me and let know if you’ve had any mishaps with Italian-English false friends, as I hope I’m not alone!

P.S. I created the t-shirt for those incredible Italian teachers (or English teachers to Italian students). You can take a look here.

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