Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Update from the Language Melee

God bless Mandy Patinkin.

I’ve talked in this space before about my love of language – almost any language. Anyone who knows me knows this about me. It is a basic fact about Monicaness. I twig to verb charts and syntax, grammar and lexicon, formal and vernacular usages. I read grammars for fun. I love thinking about how the mind works in its first language versus acquired languages. (Needless to say, the mind barely works, if at all, in a language it cannot even basically comprehend.)

Back in the day, when I was a teenager and a young adult, I was fortunate to be in a binary language position with En1 (English first) and Sp2 (acquiring Spanish). It was very fun and easy to wield my Spanish language skills when I had no other languages bubbling around in my Broca’s and Weinicke’s areas. (Yes, they are actually called this.) But the years ambled on, as they will, and my thirst for new perspectives and unique concept formulations only increased.

I took Latin, French, German, then every Scandinavian tongue, then Hebrew and Arabic. At one point I thought I might master also Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Sanskrit, but, well. At another point I wished I’d studied for a PhD in the poetry of Umayyad Spain – the period Spanish scholars term la convivencia – with its intoxicating blend of Spanish, Ladino, Hebrew, and Arabic. But here I am instead in my forties with a language casserole for a brain. I have a rich if erratic reference neurolinguistic reference set upstairs, but never know what words might pop out the front door in any given situation.

I’m getting to my point here – false cognates. As Inigo Montoya intones in The Princess Bride, I do not think that word means what you think it means. As a lifelong language learner I am fully aware of the allure and treachery found in false cognates and direct translations. But one in particular pops up so frequently among Italians who use English as an acquired language, and it just makes me howl. Sometimes with laughter, sometimes with face palm.

Drum roll…. the word is … cosidetto. (A compound word comprised of così, “thusly,” and detto the past participle of the verb dire, “to say.”) It comes up over and over and over again, and while it is tempting to use the direct translation, and Italians so, like 98% of the time, their direct translation makes every cell in my body giggle.

Drum roll … the direct translation is … so-called. Quite possible the snarkiest adjective in the English language that should not be used by anyone over twenty or not i an active and incendiary dispute with a teenager. Because so-called in English implies that the modified noun is most definitely not what the speaker claims. I took a minor editing job this month for an Italian academic and got to work scrubbing the cosidetto instances out of his paper.

Your so-called boyfriend, the so-called property, the so-called fee

Jason and I have wracked our brains and talked about this over many a dinner. What should the correct translation be? We came up with otherwise known as (quite a mouthful) and aforementioned (my new favorite).

But why does Italian like cosidetto so much? Like Cicero in his law office in Rome centuries ago, the Italian language likes to belabor a legalistic point. They’re gonna mention something, they’re gonna mention it again, and they’re gonna tell you they mentioned it each time they mention it after the initial mention.

Once in the past year Jason was interviewed by a local paper in Florence and the piece described him as the cosidetto decano of Gonzaga in Florence. That got major mileage in our house for months. I still like to call him the so-called dean from time to time. It just takes me back to the nineties and Clare Danes and that lovely little series, My So-Called Life, titled so because it was 1994 and she felt her life was a non-life. Ah, GenX ftw.

Thanks for joining me for this little vignette, la cosidetta malintesa! (the so-called misunderstanding). Hope everyone is well and staying as cool as possible ….

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2 Responses

  1. First, I LOVE your writing. No matter the subject, it transports me to a place of simultaneous joy and pondering. Second, this makes me think of a continual discussion in our household of how the words “literally” and “manifest” are used with millennials and gen z. Fascinating!

    1. Well! that is hands-down one of the kindest comments I have ever received on the site! Thanks for coming along for the ride and for enjoying my writing. 🙂 I am delighted to find new sympathetic readers! And yes, “literally” and “manifest” certainly merit an essay of their own. I always appreciate the five dollar words – but maybe they need to morph in meaning as part of the lexicon of living language.

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