Italian Language Blog

Misleading Word of the Day – part 6 Posted by on Sep 21, 2010 in Italian Language

Every now and then, when I’m interpreting or translating between Italian and English, examples of ‘falsi amici’ (false friend) pop up and cause ‘un po’ di casino’ (a bit of confusion).

Falsi amici or ‘false cognates’ are words which sound the same in both English and Italian but which in reality have different meanings, often leading to embarrassing situations!

Here is a little group of words that can easily trip up the unsuspecting foreigner:

Italian word sounds like English actual meaning
sensibile sensible sensitive

Some examples of usage

non posso lavare i piatti senza i guanti perché ho la pelle molto sensibile I can’t wash the dishes without gloves because I’ve got very sensitive skin
le mie figlie sono tutte e due ragazze molto sensibili both of my girls are very sensitive children

N.B. sensibile = singular, sensibili = plural

Italian word sounds like English actual meaning
sensitivo sensitive clairvoyant


un sensitivo mi ha detto che presto incontrerò l’uomo della mia vita! a clairvoyant told me that I’d soon meet the man of my dreams!

If you want to say ‘sensible’ you should use the word sensato, e.g.:

questa sì che è un’idea molto sensata! this is a really sensible idea!
i miei ragazzi sono tutti e due molto sensati both my boys are really sensible
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  1. chainey:

    That’s interesting. I’ve noticed that not only does the italian word for something often echo the “technical” or “academic” English word – something that I’ve seen noted in several places – but it can also come close to an old-fashioned usage.

    If you read books from before the 1940s you will often find “sensible” used to mean “aware of” – e.g. “She was sensible of a tension between John and Sue.” This comes pretty close to “sensitive”.

    • serena:

      @chainey Ciao Chainey, the reason that you can hear Italian words in English technical or academic language is because Latin and Greek are the root languages of both academic English and Italian. Take for example the word ‘Geography’. The etymology of this word is ‘geo’ which is Greek for ‘earth’, and ‘graphia’ which is Greek for ‘writing’. Hence Geography (geografia in Italian)which literally means ‘earth writing’.
      Often in English you will find a word such as ‘friendly’ which comes from the Saxon word ‘friund’, but at the same time you also have the less commonly used word ‘amicable’ which comes from the Latin ‘amicabilis’, hence ‘amicus’ (friend), ‘amico’ in Italian.
      Re. your comment: If you read books from before the 1940s you will often find “sensible” used to mean “aware of” – e.g. “She was sensible of a tension between John and Sue.” This comes pretty close to “sensitive”
      Yes you’re right, and this shows how languages evolve even over a short period of time, with words gradually loosing their original meaning. In fact my Oxford Dictionary defines ‘sensible’ as: ‘perceptible by the senses’, ‘aware’, or, ‘not unmindful’, but these days it isn’t very often used that way in colloquial speech.
      Based on those definitions, perhaps the best way to translate the sentence ‘She was sensible of a tension between John and Sue’ into Italian would be: ‘Si era accorta della tensione tra John e Sue’, using the verb accorgersi = ‘to be aware’, ‘to notice’, etc.

      Saluti da Serena

  2. Jeannet:

    If I may comment on former comment of the
    sentence: “She was sensible of the tension between John and Sue”;
    -it could have been ‘sensible’ and ‘sensitive’
    as the outsider ‘realising’ the tension as well ‘feeling’ the tension.


    • serena:

      @Jeannet Ciao Jeannet, please read my reply to Chainey’s comment.


  3. Vince Mooney:

    Salve Serena:

    Just curious: How do the Italians translate the title of Jane Austen’s book, “Sense and Sensibility”? Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what “Sense and Sensibility” was intended to mean in English in Austen’s time. Actually, I not sure what it is supposed to mean now! Yet, I do think I know what Thomas Paine meant by “Common Sense” which predates “Sense and Sensibility”.

    I’m not sure words lose their meaning; they just acquire additional new meanings. The real problem is when words acquire the opposite meaning that they once had. Consider the word ‘artifice’ which now means the opposite of what it used to.

    You know, an Italian word that not only looks like the English word but means the opposite would really be a ‘false friend’ indeed! : )


    • serena:

      @Vince Mooney Salve Vince, a quick search on the Internet reveals the title ‘Ragione e Sentimento’ for Jane Austen’s novel ‘Sense and Sensibility’.
      Saluti da Serena

  4. Lee:

    Salve Serena!
    Though not directly related to this blog entry, one of the biggest difficulties I have (if not the biggest) is the difference between essere and stare.
    I looked back through previous blog entries bub didn’t see this specifically. If I missed it, then I apologize.
    Grazie mille!

    • serena:

      @Lee Salve Lee, I think this is the blog you’re looking for:
      It is quite difficult until you get the hang of it as it’s one of those things that is easier to learn by listening to Italians speaking, and noticing when they use the appropriate verb.
      By the way, if you are searching for blog topics in the future there is a box on my blog page in which is written ‘enter search terms’.
      I did a search containing the keywords ‘essere’ and ‘stare’, and found the blog straight away.

      A presto, Serena

  5. Roanna:

    Noticed there have been fewer posts….last was
    9/21,,,,,is there a problem here with me and
    my system….or is that the most recent post?

    • serena:

      @Roanna Salve Roanna, I normally publish a blog every three days. If you check my blog page you will see that I published ‘Indovinello – the answers’ on the 24th of this month. If you are having a problem with receiving posts let me know and I will contact admin. However, you can always check here for the latest posts.

      A presto, Serena

  6. andreas:

    Salve Serena!
    Ti ringrazio del blog utilissimo!

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