Italian Language Blog

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Posted by on Nov 27, 2008 in Culture, Grammar, Italian Language

A few days ago we came across a DVD of Sergio Leone’s famous spaghetti western movie ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, starring Clint Eastwood and featuring Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable haunting soundtrack. Its Italian title is Il Buono, il Brutto e il Cattivo, and this prompted the question from Geoff: “which is the Bad and which is the Ugly?” I replied “bad is cattivo and ugly is brutto” “so why do you use brutto for ugly and then you say: fa brutto tempo (the weather is bad)?” he persisted. “okay, mi arrendo (I surrender)! I’ll go and do a bit of research” I promised.

So, here are the results of my research, largely taken from my Vocabolario della Lingua Italiana Treccani:

Cattivo derives from the Latin “captivus” (lit. prisoner); its modern meaning has its origins in the Latin Christian expression captivus diaboli (lit. prisoner of the devil). Cattivo is the opposite of buono in almost all its various meanings. For the use of “buono” see the blog Buono o Bello? .

From its religious origin comes the main meaning of cattivo as bad in a moral sense. With this connotation it is used to describe people, animals, actions, thoughts and words: una persona cattiva (a bad person), il lupo cattivo (the Big Bad Wolf), parole cattive (words said with the intention of hurting somebody).

Cattivo is also used to describe somebody who is not good at his/her job or duty: un cattivo padre (a bad father), un cattivo insegnante (a bad teacher). In a similar vein it is used for physical and mental activities that are not functioning properly, or things that are in a bad state: cattiva digestione (poor digestion), cattiva memoria (poor memory), una strada cattiva (a bad road), un motore in cattive condizioni (an engine in a bad state).

Just like buono, cattivo is used for something that is unpleasant to the taste and the smell: cattivo sapore (bad taste), cattivo odore (bad smell).

Brutto is the direct opposite of bello (see my blog Buono o Bello?) and is used to describe an aesthetically unpleasant sensation in relationship to people, animals or objects: una persona brutta (an ugly person), un brutto naso (an ugly nose), un brutto cane (an ugly dog), un brutto vestito (an ugly dress). Because of its aesthetic judgment, brutto refers to things that are unpleasant to the senses of hearing and sight: una brutta voce (an ugly voice), una brutta musica (an unpleasant piece of music), un brutto quadro (a bad picture), un brutto film (a bad film).

There are also situations in which brutto and cattivo are interchangeable such as when talking about weather, news, manners, events and fame: fa brutto/cattivo tempo (the weather is bad), ricevere una brutta/cattiva notizia (to get bad news), brutte/cattive maniere (bad manners), fare un brutto/cattivo viaggio (to have a bad journey), avere un brutto/cattivo nome (to have a bad name).

So … to return to the title of the film ‘Il Buono, il Brutto e il Cattivo’: the literal Italian translation is: The Good, the Ugly and the Bad, and as you can see the order of the words is not the same as in the English title. This has probably been done for alliterative reasons. Il Buono, il Cattivo e il Brutto (the literal translation of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) simply doesn’t sound right in Italian. For example, when young children are very angry and want to insult someone, particularly an adult, they say “brutto cattivo!”. Trust me, it’s an aesthetic thing, cattivo before brutto sounds……well, brutto!

Finally, a quick word on male: male is the opposite of bene (see my blog Buono o Bello?). It’s an adverb, not an adjective like the brutto and cattivo, therefore it qualifies verbs, not nouns: e.g. stare male (to be unwell), comportarsi male (to behave badly), funzionare male (to not work properly).

Right, time to go and watch that film! (whistles theme tune ……. ).

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  1. Stefano Ross:

    Word order. Why doesn’t the Italian translation of the American movie title (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) follow the same word order s that when expressed in its original English? Similarly, the American book by Dr. Seuss: “Green Eggs and Ham,” translates to: “Prosciutto e l’uova verdi.” Grazie mille, Stefano

  2. renny:

    ciao serena, il tuo blog e molto uttile. sto imparando italiano…ma da sola. vivo in roma da 2 anni di piu. continua a fare altro post, lo seguero`. grazie.ciao.

  3. Serena:

    Salve Stefano,

    Movie, book, and music titles are nearly always adjusted or in some cases completely changed to suit the particular market at which they are aimed. Being bi-lingual I often notice that English subtitles in movies are quite different from what is being said by the actors in Italian and visa versa.
    However you asked “Why doesn’t the Italian translation of the American movie title (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) follow the same word orders that when expressed in its original English?”
    Well in fact the film was not written in English but in Italian by the Italian screenwriters Age & Scarpelli, and Luciano Vincenzoni, and the Italian director Sergio Leone and was based on a story by Vincenzoni and Leone. Tonino Delli Colli was the Italian director of photography who shot the film and the music was composed by the famous Italian composer Ennio Morricone. It was first shown in Italy on Dec 15th 1966 then, just over a year later on Dec 23 1967, in America. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has been described as “European cinema’s best representative of the Western genre film”.
    The cast was international, and the actors performed in their native languages. Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach spoke in English, and were dubbed in Italian for the films release in Rome. For the American version non-english cast members were dubbed into English.
    So therefore we could ask the question ‘Why doesn’t the English translation of the Italian movie title “Il Buono, Il Brutto e Il Cattivo” follow the the same word order as the original Italian?’

    The following is an interesting quote from the Wikipedia article on the film:

    “Given that the Italian Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo literally translates to the English: The Good, the Ugly, the Bad, reversing the last two adjectives, advertisements for the original Italian release show Tuco before Angel Eyes, and, when translated to English, erroneously label Angel Eyes as “The Ugly” and Tuco as “The Bad”.”

    As for the title of the Dr.Seuss book, “Prosciutto e l’uova verdi”, well I can only say that it probably sounds better that way in Italian and publishers, wanting to sell their product, know that a nice catchy title will sell better that one that sounds a bit strange.

    Watch out for a blog on ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ in the near future!

    Grazie per il suo commento interessante. Salute, Serena

  4. gsmcamis:

    Can anyone tell me if the words in the main theme song of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Hugo Montenegro and His Fantastic Orchestra version) are Italian?
    And if so… what the devil are they saying?!?!
    It’s just killing me to know!
    thank you!
    youtube link to the specific song mentioned:

    • Serena:

      @gsmcamis Hello gsmcamis, I’ve sent you an e-mail. If anyone else wants to know a bit more about this great theme music I’ll be writing a blog very soon. 🙂

      Saluti da Serena

  5. gsmcamis:

    Thank you for the response!
    I eagerly await your blog on this…
    I have sincerely gained an interest, especially in the history of the meanings of the words (I love origin related material), due to this blog.
    Thank you so much for going through all the trouble.

  6. Jennifer:

    I am starting at the beginning of the blog and reading forward (4 years!), so maybe you answer this in a later post, but are there rules for when an adjective comes after a noun (una persona cattiva) and when it comes before a noun (un cattivo padre)?

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