It’s a common assumption amongst inexperienced language learners that a word that exists in their native tongue will have an equivalent in the language they are learning, so facilitating direct translation from one to another.
Alas, that’s not always so.
For instance, in today’s new episode of our FREE 30-part series on the Middle Ages in the Italian peninsula, we’ve got to the exciting bit – Carlo Magno, king of the Lombards and the Franks, gets promoted to Emperor, and the west is back! After hundreds of years in the shadow of the suspiciously effeminate Byzantines, we have our own emperor again!
Carlo (Italians call the British prince ‘Carlo’, too, which always fazes me – why translate people’s names? I don’t go around calling every ‘Pietro’ I meet ‘Peter’, after all) is described by our writer as dressing in a typically ‘western’ way, unlike the foreign-looking eastern Emperor with his gilt robes and pearl-encrusted sandals.
In winter the man sported a cape made of ‘mouse’ (topo) pelts, apparently! What style.
Yes, I was thinking the same thing – going around dressed in a scrappy looking blanket of mouse skins doesn’t sound very imperial, or even especially insulating, does it?
So knowing that Italians are invariably vague about exactly which small animal counts as a ‘topo’/mouse, I double checked and found that there does in fact exist a contemporary source for this inexact and misleading description, though the version quoted mentions ‘pelle di lontra o di topo‘.
Wordreference.com gives ‘topo’ as ‘mouse’, (colloquial) ‘rat’, and ‘lontra’ as ‘otter’, which sounds much more probable. So Emperor Charles likely kitted himself out in nice warm otter skins, rather than smears of the rodents exterminated in his palace kitchens.
But Italians will shrug – what’s the difference? It’s small, it’s brown or grey, it has a tail, it runs around scaring people, ergo it’s a ‘topo’.
Mickey Mouse, by the way, is ‘Topolino‘ in Italian (so ‘little rat’? Don’t tell Walt Disney…)
And as a bonus inexaction for you (yes, I just made that word up, but I’m a poet, so am allowed), what about ‘ape’?
Now that one is both an inexaction AND a ‘false friend’! In Italian ‘ape’ means ‘bee’, as in the insect that produces honey for our tea. Confused yet?
So what’s the Italian equivalent of the English word ‘ape’, as in you and I, but also chimps and gorillas?
Well people here just say ‘scimmia’ (monkey), no matter how many times I explain that I and my gorilla friends are not monkeys, if for no other reason than that we don’t have tails.
Check ‘ape’ on WordReference.com and you’ll get ‘scimmia antropomorfa’ but no one ever says it (or even knows it exists…)
So there you have it – ‘topi’ are basically anything that scuttles, and ‘scimmie’ are people-shaped hairy animals, no matter whether or not they come equipped with tails.
You heard it here first.
Don’t buy a Ferrari to go grocery shopping
If you don’t bother to read the comments, you’ll have missed Rosemarie telling us that she’s pleased to be able to understand the new material, at least sometimes, though she read/listened to Episode 7 five times, apparently, and came across about 10-12 words she was unsure of.
There are words I am unsure of ALL THE TIME, I reassured her. It’s so common, I don’t even notice myself skipping over them, most of the time. And moreover, if you can get the general sense of something, why keep listening to it over and over?
Before you snap back at me that you ‘want to understand it properly, obviously’, or words to that effect, read my explanation to her as to why you SHOULD NOT TRY TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING. You’ll find it, along with other comments, here.
What started out three years back as a make-work project to help my university student daughter pay her rent has become an annual treat, a chance to walk a little way down memory lane!
After the end of our business year in June, I take a look at the numbers, see that our ‘easy’ Italian news website more or less broke even (so donations from readers matching what we pay our team to produce the FREE thrice-weekly bulletins), and put together a ‘best of’ ebook, which I will, at some point, invite everyone who helped us out to download for free.
If you’re one of those kind people, watch out for an email with a download link to get your free copy. A lot of people are away in August, so I’m debating leaving it until the beginning of next month. What do you think?
If you’re not a donor, you can still take the trip down memory lane. 122 pages of Italian news stories from 2020-21 (no audio, sorry) cost just £9.99 in our online shop.
And as always, there’s a free sample (.pdf), so thirty pages gratis! They’re not the best ones, obviously, but more than enough to get an idea if you want to shell out for the rest of it and so help us pay our bills…