It is food and vegetables that are used to describe not only personal characteristics but also the sexual parts of the human body. The male sexual organ (excluding testicles) in Italian is found in 744 different words that describe not only the organ itself but its characteristics. Many of the words used to describe the male intimate parts are related to food. So we find chestnuts, sweet pea, salame, sausage, mackerel, banana, corn, cucumber, lima bean, biscotto, and the ubiquitous baba.
All these words describing the male organs do not refer to the person but only to the body parts, except for the word salame which means also being slow or clumsy or naïve while remaining like a salame means to be appalled and speechless; baba we have written extensively in the previous article; cucumber, similar to salame, has the additional meaning of someone who is a dummy, simpleton.
For women, probably deriving from a basically misogynistic culture, it is different: some food words are used to describe the organ – potato, frittella, lasagna, prune, strawberry, snail, clam – but gnocca, like figa, fig, is first and foremost a sexist compliment to describe a beautiful woman, usually in connection with the adjective bella, bella gnocca or bella figa. Actually the word figa is also used to describe a handsome, cool man, figo, or something cool often with a superlative fighissimo.
Within the realm of sexuality we find the word cabbage, which has a widespread and diversified use. The connection with sexuality derives from the aphrodisiac power of this vegetable which for the Greeks was a holy plant and that Chrysippus, a 4th century BC doctor, believed derived from the fact that cabbage was created by Zeus’ sweat.
To describe someone who is a jerk, instead of using the vulgar testa di cazzo, prick head, the cabbage comes into play and the saying becomes testa di cavolo, cabbage head, probably because cazzo and cavolo both begin with the same two letters. Doing a cavolata means doing something stupid while something which is out of place is “like cabbage at afternoon tea; the ubiquitous cabbage comes into play also to invite to mind your own business, fatti I cavoli tuoi, literally do your own cabbages, to describe problems which cannot be avoided, cavoli amari, bitter cabbages, and the cabbage is used in expressions like “Che cavolo fai?” “What on earth are you doing?”
To express surprise or amazement, in Italian, we use another food word, capperi!, capers, which substitutes the vulgar cazzo (like the other substitute, cabbage, also this word starts with ca).
Going back to description of women, we find a saying to show appreciation, alas in an ever misogynistic culture, that is “old hens make good broth”, which needs no translation, accompanied by the proverb that women are like wine, the older they grow the better they become, while in Sicilian saying that a woman is “citrigna”, although the proximity to the word citrus, it means something totally different: with a toned, hard body, like a cherry. Identical to an English saying, is cherry on the cake, which in English is sometimes substituted with icing on the cake to define something which is the perfect conclusion of a series of events, this phrase could be considered the exact opposite of being like a cabbage at tea time.
Talking about sweets, to describe someone who is nice and sweet, the Italian language uses the word zuccherino, little sugar, or pasta di zucchero, fondant, like what is used to decorate cupcakes. Being sugar and honey, describes two people who are in agreement, get along very well.
From sweets to biscotti it is a short step and this term has several meanings. We find an instance in the Attilio Regolo opera by Scarlatti: in the final scene, Alfeo, the tutor, tells Lilla, a pageboy in disguise: “You, my dear joy, are a Savoia cookie for my teeth (chocolate covered hard cookie)”, to which she replies: “And you to satisfy me are a shortpastry pie”. Used in a phrase like “dunk the cookie”, means to take advantage of a situation but, in a vulgar version, it is used by men to say they had sex with someone. To make a cookie, instead, has a totally different meaning and describes a rigged sport event. It has its origin in horse races when a biscuit was made with forbidden substances to alter the result of a race and the bets connected to it. From the world of horse races, this saying went to the world of soccer and other sports for a rigged result. The biscotto is used also in other meanings like “softening the cookie”, in the sense of softening situations and help someone; “stating a cookie has no crust”, means to state the false; “go to sea with no cookie”, used by Boccaccio in the Decameron, means to start an enterprise with no preparation. Finally, a cookie comes into play to describe a wasted talent or chance: “God gives a cookie to those with no teeth” or, in another version, “God gives bread to those with no teeth”, with the same meaning.
Talking about bread, this central element of the Italian diet comes into play in many saying. So a person who is good at heart is “as good as bread”, if someone is not “bread for your teeth” it means you do not have the ability to deal with that person or is not good for you. Ways of saying about bread abound: bread and wine make a beautiful child, he who has bread will always have a dog, and “bread for hunger, water for thirst, bench for sleep. To indicate similar things we have if it is not soup it is wetted bread, while a reheated soup describes a love story that ended and should not be started again. To give back bread for focaccia, to describe paying back with equal or greater harshness when an offense or wrong is received; saying “bread to bread and wine to wine”, means to speak clearly, leaving no space to doubts. Someone who takes advantage of others being false is a mangiapane a tradimento, backstabbing bread eater, and bread helps to carry one’s cross in a rhymed proverb, croce col pane ben si porta, a cross is carried well with bread. Bread and chocolate are used by writer Stefano Benni to describe the people of the world: “The world is divided into people who eat chocolate without bread, those who are not able to eat chocolate unless they also eat bread, those who have no chocolate, and those who have no bread” (Margherita Dolcevita, 2005).
Bread in the form of dough comes into play to describe a good man, pasta d’uomo, which means to be generous and good at heart, referring to the biblical “paste” with which God created Adam. Being of thick dough, pasta grossa, means to be not refined or not smart, while being totally different is described with being of a different dough. If one makes a mess or a disaster, Italians say he/she made a frittata, scrambled eggs, while having “prosciutto over the eyes” describes someone who does not want to see reality.
Arriving at the right moment is like cheese over maccheroni, macaroni, while someone with a weak personality is either a mozzarella or sciapo, unsalted, or a “pera cotta”, a cooked pear. Connected to a cooked pear is the term “peracottaro”, literally seller of cooked pears, which indicates a professional whose services are low quality, while being a polentone, also used to refer to someone from Northern Italy, where a lot of corn is cultivated, means being phlegmatic, opposite of being a pepperoncino, a chili pepper, spicy and lively.
When someone must keep quiet and not reveal a secret, acqua in bocca, water in the mouth! While someone extremely picky is described as someone who finds the hair in the egg. When someone wants to appear different than he/she will probably hear parla come mangi, speak like you eat!
I like to finish with a bit of history which regards people and food. We have a saying, the guest is like fish, after three days it stinks! This saying has very ancient origins and dates back to between the 3rd and 2nd century BC and was started by Plautus, the great Roman playwright, to balance the sacredness of guests in ancient Greek and Roman societies when guests tended to take advantage of the great respect that was due to them so much so that in ancient Greek the word for stranger and guest were the same. Originally the saying included also that after ten days a guest also became a burden for servants but in the Middle Ages it was shortened to the fish allegory and in this way it is still in use today.