The Dizionario di Slang Americano (Dictionary of American Slang) (Mondadori, 1999), compiled by Roberto Cagliero and Chiara Spallino, is one of my all-time favorite reads. I know, I know—no one but a language geek would ever read a dictionary for fun. But this book is different. It makes you want to look up words. I promise.
I originally bought the Dizionario di Slang Americano to learn Italian slang. But language by nature is inseparable from culture, so a lot of the dictionary entries have no Italian equivalent. How could Italians (or any other culture, for that matter) possibly translate sucka-fu chicken-head? The answer is simple. By providing the closest equivalent or, in this case, by approximating the main point: imbecille, idiota (imbecile, idiot).
So, why do I love this dictionary so much? Well, for one thing, entries for some words include example sentences that I’m convinced no one in the United States has ever said or would ever say. At other times, the definitions of the terms are just flat wrong (I can’t prove it, but it sure seems like the American consultants for this text pulled some of this crap out of their asses and then laughed all the way to the bank, as we say in American slang). But sometimes the dictionary does exactly what I’d hoped: It gives the Italian equivalent of the American word or phrase and, in the process, provides a fascinating window into the mindset of the Italian culture.
DOES ANYONE REALLY SAY THIS?
This category represents some of the words and expressions that I know we Americans don’t say. Ever. And if you do say these things, please email me. We’ve got to talk.
boogerhead s. amicone, amico del cuore (n. literally, big friend, friend of the heart; figuratively, good friend, best friend)
fat rocker s. persona che possiede molto denaro, riccone (v. literally, a person who possesses a lot of money, a big rich guy, as in a very rich person)
Swayze! escl. Me ne vado! (dal film “Ghost” con l’attore Patrick Swayze) (excl. literally, I’m leaving!) (from the film “Ghost” with the actor Patrick Swayze)
I THOUGHT THAT MEANT SOMETHING ELSE…
I’ve reserved this category for those items whose definitions are so wrong. They just have to be. Otherwise, I’m moving to Canada.
buttnugget a. fantastico, eccezionale (adj. fantastic, exceptional)
full 1. a. buono, ottimo (adj. good, excellent) Ex: “How was the movie?” “Full.” (Ital. “Com’era il film?” “Fantastico.”) 2. avv. certamente! chiaro! (adv. certainly! clearly!)
Ex. “Were you at the Rolling Stones concert?” “Full!” (Ital. C’eri anche tu al concerto dei Rolling Stones?” “Come no?”)
hood v. rubare ai ricchi per dare ai poveri (v. to rob from the rich to give to the poor)
SO THAT’S HOW ITALIANS SAY IT!
This category contains those entries that provide an Italian slang equivalent for the (real) American slang terms. Be sure to compare my literal English translation of the Italian slang term to the American version. And laugh. Or scratch your head in confusion.
cop a feel v. palpare, dare una toccatina (v. literally, to palpate (a medical term), to give a little touch)
freak out v. 1. scoppiare, dare i numeri (v. literally, to explode, to give the numbers) 2. rimanere di sasso (literally, to remain of stone; figuratively, to be astonished)
get one’s panties in a bunch (They mean wad, not bunch.) v. andare fuori di sé, perdere le staffe (v. literally, to go outside of yourself, to lose the stirrups)
piss someone off v. fare arrabbiare qualcuno, mandare qualcuno su tutte le furie (v. literally, to make someone angry, to send someone on all the furies)
As the above examples clearly indicate, the Dizionario di Slang Americano is a great way to learn language: both American and Italian. It’s alternately informative, thought-provoking, and funny in ways that you could never have imagined.
Note: There is one additional type of entry that I didn’t discuss above. I call it the “NOW-WHY-IS-THIS SLANG?” category because it contains a lot of entries that just aren’t slang at all. For instance, superintendant is defined as a custode di un palazzo (custodian of a building). Um, not slang. Some of my favorites from this category are authorized capital stock, borscht (say what?), Chanukah, and the oh-so-slangy empanel a jury.