Tavolo or Tavola? Posted by Serena on Oct 31, 2009 in Italian Language
Following my article about new trends in Italian kitchens, a reader asked me whether the words tavolo (table) and tavola (table) are interchangeable, and if there is any difference between the two. Well, I’m afraid that this is yet another idiosyncratic use of the Italian language, so let’s see if I can clarify it for you.
Nowadays the masculine word tavolo, which originates from the feminine word “tavola” (Latin “tabula”), is used almost exclusively to describe a piece of furniture, e.g. il tavolo della cucina (the kitchen table), il tavolo da pranzo (the dining table), il tavolo da disegno (the drawing table), il tavolo da stiro (the ironing board), il tavolo da biliardo (the snooker table). We also use the word “tavolo” for a table in a restaurant, so if you want to book a table for four people, you’ll have to say vorrei prenotare un tavolo per quattro per favore (I would like to book a table for four please).
On the other hand, the feminine word tavola, which also means a plank or a board, is used to describe the dining table, not as a piece of furniture, but with reference to the table as a place where meals are eaten. In this case we have a whole series of idiomatic expressions based around the act of eating a meal at the table. These are the most common ones:
apparecchiare la tavola (to lay the table)
sparecchiare la tavola (to clear the table)
portare / servire in tavola (to bring food to the table)
il pranzo / la cena è in tavola (lunch / dinner is on the table)
andare / mettersi / sedersi a tavola (to sit down to eat at the table)
essere / stare a tavola (to be sitting eating at the table)
chiamare a tavola (to call people to the table)
tutti a tavola! or simply a tavola! (everybody to the table! i.e. come and sit down to eat!)
servizio da tavola (dining set, i.e. plates, cutlery, glasses)
biancheria da tavola (table linen)
uva da tavola (eating grapes)
Now please don’t ask me why a table in a restaurant is called un tavolo and not, as you might expect, una tavola, because I haven’t got a clue!
However, don’t forget that leggere il giornale a tavola è maleducato (to read the newspaper while eating is bad manners), but it’s OK leggere il giornale al tavolo (to read the newspaper at the table)!
To finish with, a funny proverb: chi canta a tavola e fischia a letto, è matto perfetto (whoever sings at the dinner table and whistles in bed, is perfectly crazy)!