When I was a student in Italy, a friend of mine once wanted to tell his host family that he liked the bread because it was made “without preservatives.” Not knowing the Italian for “preservative,” he took what seemed like a reasonable guess and said he liked the bread because it was made senza preservativi, only to discover—after some confusion—that he had said that he liked the bread because it was made without condoms.
Here are some “false friends” in Italian; i.e. words that don’t mean what they sound like they mean in English:
Accidenti! means damn it! not accident.
Annoiato means bored, not annoyed.
An argomento is a subject or topic, not an argument.
Assistere means to attend or witness, not to assist.
Attaccare means to attach or fasten, not to attack.
Attendere means to wait, not to attend or attend on or attend to.
An attico is a penthouse, not an attic.
Attuale means present (topical), not actual; attualmente means at present.
Bravo means good or clever, not brave.
A camera is a room, not a camera.
A cantina is a cellar, not a kind of bar.
A cava is a quarry, not a cave.
Coincidenza means train connection, not coincidence
A collegio is a boarding school, not a college.
A commedia is a play (which could be a comedy), not simply a comedy.
Concussione means extortion, not concussion
A conferenza is a lecture, not a conference.
Confetti are sugared almonds, not bits of paper.
Confezione means off-the-rack clothing or packaging, not confection (sweets).
Controllare means to check, not to control.
A delusione is a disappointment, not a delusion.
A diplomato is a graduate, a person with a diploma, not a diplomat.
Discreto means moderate, not discrete
A discussione is an argument, not a discusssion.
A disgrazia is an accident, not a disgrace
Educato means polite or well-mannered, not educated.
Emozione is excitement, not emotion.
Esperienza can mean experience, but also experiment.
Eventualmente means possibly, not eventually.
A fabbrica is a factory, not a fabric.
A fattoria is a farm, not a factory.
Firma means signature, not firm.
A fotografo is a photographer, not a photograph.
Fresco means cool, not fresh.
Geniale means genius, not genial.
Gentile means nice, not gentle.
Ignorare mean not to know, not to ignore.
Insolazione is sunstroke, not isolation.
Largo means wide, not large.
A libreria is a bookstore, not a library.
Lunatico means moody, not crazy.
Lussuria is lust, not luxury.
A magazzino is a store, not a magazine.
Marmellata is just jam, and not specifically marmalade.
Materia means subject, not material.
Morbido means soft, not morbid.
Noioso means boring, not noisy.
Notorio simply means well-known, not notorious.
Occorrere means to be necessary, not to occur.
A paragone is a comparison, not a paragon.
Your parenti are your relatives; you parents are your genitori.
A patente is a driving license, not a patent.
The pavimento is the floor, not the pavement.
Pigione is rent, not pigeon.
A pilota is a racing driver, not an airplane pilot.
Preservativi are condoms not preservatives.
Promiscuo means mixed or multipurpose, not promiscuous.
Pronto is something you say when you answer the phone—hello!—or ready; it doesn’t mean “on the double.”
A riunione is a meeting, not a reunion.
A ruffiano is a pimp, not a ruffian.
A rumore is a noise, not a rumor.
Sciocco means silly, not schocking.
Scotch is scotch-tape, not a kind of whisky.
Sensibile means sensitive, not sensible.
Suggestivo means picturesque or impressive, not suggestive.
Superbo means arrogant or haughty, not superb.
Spanish-speakers have their own list; burro in Italian means butter, not donkey.
Bust of Brutus; Roman, 30–15 BC