Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

Monday, November 15th, 2010

The title of this post, as many will recognize, is a line from a Robert Frost poem. The poem uses it as an allegory for the decisions one makes in life at various junctures and how a life unfolds from there. One rarely returns to those decision points to take the other path. So it seems to be with the divergent roads taken by words from latin roots. These words in one language or the other seem to have sprung from the same root but have taken quite different paths. While it is quite often true that there is an Italian word that sounds much like an English one and with a very similar meaning, conversely there are often words that sometimes are called false cognates because they can really trip you up.

The first example that springs to mind is “educato” in Italian. One would think that it means educated but the primary meaning is “polite” or “well bred”. In Italian one would use “istruito”, which developed from the same root as did “instruction”. Another example is “fastidio”. Again, what is the first thing that I think of? Well, “fastidious”, of course. But no, it means “annoying”. Of course it is true that a picky, fastidious person can indeed be pretty annoying but that’s beside the point. Another that I ran across recently is “attualmente”. Naturally I thought that this meant “actually” but, no, it means “at this moment” or “presently”. Gee, this is so much fun, let’s try for some more. One that every student learns fairly early on is “intendere”. Of course, having read this far, you will know that this doesn’t have any relationship to the English word “intend” or more properly the infinitive of the verb “to intend”. But of course not, it means “to understand”. How about the family? Let’s say that you ask about someone’s “parente”. Parents, heavens no, it is indeed “family”. Parents are “genitori” and there is some vague connection there but definitely nothing to do with the body parts. Ok just a couple more before I lose your attention. What would you think of “annoiato”. It’s the flip side of “fastidio” above because rather than meaning “annoyed” it means “bored” which some reading this may be feeling right now.

Egads, what is a student of Italian to do? Well, you just need to learn and remember the darned things. Sometimes the divergence from the initially perceived meaning makes them, perversely enough, easier to remember. Just one parting word. Everyone knows that at an opera performance that the audience thinks is good someone shouts “Bravo!”. What the hell are they saying. Well, it just means “Good!” and is often misused unless one knows what they are saying because “bravo” is applied to a man, “brava” is for a woman and “bravi” for a mixed group. Now you can tell that well meaning but not particularly “ben instruito” gentleman next to you that he’s shouting the wrong thing for the soprano.

Footnote: I do have a couple of Italian readers who may quibble with my translations. As is often the case some words can mean several things in Italian as in English so there is some variance but I of course welcome their comments.

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