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Breaking The Boxes Posted by on Jun 21, 2013 in Italian Language, Vocabulary

Rompere le scatole (to break the boxes) is a very commonly used Italian euphemism for rompere le palle (to break one’s balls), or to be more vulgar rompere i coglioni (to break one’s testicles). This idiomatic expression is used with the meaning of “to really annoy someone”: “Basta, mi stai rompendo le scatole!” (“Enough, you’re breaking my balls!). The Vocabolario della Lingua Italiana Treccani defines scatola as a rectangular or cylindrical container, generally made out of cardboard, but also wood, metal, plastic, etc., with a lid. So, why is scatole used as a euphemism for balls you may ask? Boh! The wonderful mysteries of the Italian language!

Rude expressions aside, una scatola (fem. sing.) is basically a common or garden variety cardboard box, such as una scatola delle scarpe (a shoe box). The word scatola and its diminutive scatoletta (fem. sing., literally a small box), is also used to describe the tins that contain food, such as una scatoletta di tonno (a tin/can of tuna), la scatola dei biscotti (the biscuit tin), cibo in scatola (tinned/canned food). However, for drinks we use the word lattina (literally: small tin. Latta is the Italian word for the metal called tin), e.g. una lattina di birra (a tin of beer).

Then we have lo scatolone (masc. sing.), which is literally a big box, and usually describes the classic cardboard box used for storage, or for packing when you move house for example, ho riempito uno scatolone di libri da dare via (I filled up a large box with books to give away).

In Italian we also have another word to describe a box: cassa (fem. sing.). La cassa is usually made out of wood, and it’s stronger than la scatola. It’s therefore used to carry and protect various object such as fruit and vegetables, ammunition, jewellery, etc., e.g. ho messo la cassa della verdura in cantina dov’è bello fresco (I’ve put the box of vegetables in the cellar where it’s nice and fresh).

A small box is una cassetta (fem. sing.), e.g. ho comprato una cassetta di mele (I bought a small box of apples). However il cassetto (masc. sing.) is a drawer, e.g. le posate sono nel cassetto a sinistra (the cutlery is in the drawer on the left).

Since it’s designed to protect its contents, the word cassa is also used to mean a place where money is handled or stored, such as a till or cash register in supermarkets and shops, or the cash desk in a bank (also called lo sportello). When you go to a bar in Italy you’ll often see this sign: munirsi di scontrino alla cassa (provide yourself with the receipt from the till, meaning that you must pay before you order. You will be given a receipt which you then present at the bar to get your caffè, or whatever). On the other hand, il cassiere (masc. sing.) or la cassiera (fem. sing.) is the person at the till.

Finally, the word cassa (fund) is often part of the name of banks here in Italy, e.g. Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze (Firenze Saving Fund), while la cassaforte (fem.sing.) is the safe (lit. strong box), and la cassetta di sicurezza is a small safe that you can rent from a bank (lit. small security box).

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  1. Andrew Turner:

    Interesting post – as usual. One small thing – il cassetto is a drawer not a draw.

  2. Justin:

    Well, that answered a question that has bugged me for years. Thanks. I recall some loud ragazzi at the back of a bus in Florence one day commenting on women and girls we passed by, and more than once they referred to a girl/woman as un sacco – and even a diminutive as (my spelling) un sacchetto. I actually sensed approval and translated it in my mind as a cute/hot little package. Yes? No?

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