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Italian word of the day: ‘Bufala’

It’s not just a fancy mozzarella.

Italian word of the day bufala
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If you encounter the word bufala at your local market or delicatessen, it’ll probably be on the labelling of a type of cheese.

Mozzarella di bufala is made with milk from a female buffalo (bufala – pronunciation here), which makes it particularly creamy (and more expensive than ordinary mozzarella).

Outside of culinary contexts, however, the word bufala means something else entirely – it’s a hoax, a scam, or fake news.

Non essere così ingenuo, è ovvio che si tratta di una bufala.
Don’t be so gullible, it’s obviously a hoax.

La bufala è stata ampiamente condivisa sui social.
The fake news was widely shared on social media.

A headline in reads: True or false? How to figure out if a video is a hoax. Fake photos and retouched videos: 'viral' doesn't mean 'true'. Our suggestions for uncovering hoaxes online.
A headline in reads: ‘True or false? How to figure out if a video is a hoax. Fake photos and retouched videos: ‘viral’ doesn’t mean ‘true’. Our suggestions for uncovering hoaxes online.’

So how did bufala become the Italian word for hoax?

There a couple of theories, neither of which have been proven – though it’s generally believed that the current use of the term originated in Rome.

One is that dishonest Roman restauranteurs would try to scam their patrons by passing off bufala meat as the more prized – and expensive – vitello (veal).

Another comes from the 1866 edition of the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca – Italy’s first dictionary, created in 1612 by a Florence-based society of scholars.

The 19th century tome says the phrase “to lead others by the nose like a buffalo (‘menare altrui pel naso come un bufalo/una bufala’) at the time meant ‘to trick someone’.

This leads some to believe that bufala came to mean someone who is obtuse and easily misled, and eventually to mean the trick or falsehood itself.

Though it’s much more rare, you might occasionally see bufala used to mean ‘blunder’ (like abbaglio).

Si tratta di un’altra bufala, questa volta più grave.
It’s another blunder, this time more serious.

And in the Rome area specifically, a bufala can also be used to describe a particularly shoddy, poorly produced film.

– Hai visto il nuovo film di cui parlava Enzo?
– Sì, è stata una bufala!

– Did you see that new film Enzo was talking about?
– Yes, it was rubbish!

Now you know what to look out for in Italian as well as English, you can stay extra wise to those hoaxers.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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For members


Italian expression of the day: ‘Conosco i miei polli’

We know what we're dealing with with this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Conosco i miei polli'

You don’t have to be a poultry farmer to go around telling people ‘conosco i miei polli’ – literally, ‘I know my chickens’ – in Italian.

There’s no perfect translation, but it means something along the lines of ‘I know who I’m dealing with/ what they can get up to/ what they’re like’; I know what to expect from them, for better or worse.

It usually implies slightly mischievously that the people or person being discussed could be troublemakers, and that the speaker has the necessary knowledge to deal with them effectively.

You might think of it as ‘I know what those little devils/rascals are like’ if referring to naughty children, or ‘I know how those jokers/b******s operate’ if discussing petty officials or difficult colleagues.

Saranno tornati entro la mattinata; fidati, conosco i miei polli.
They’ll be back by morning; trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

Conosco i miei polli; vedrete che arriveranno alla riunione con mezz’ora di ritardo e daranno la colpa al traffico.
I know them: you’ll see, they’ll get to the meeting half an hour late and blame it on the traffic.

Business Guy Nbc GIF by Sunnyside

According to at least one source, the full original phrase is ‘conosco i miei polli alla calzetta‘, or ‘I know my chickens by their stockings’.

It refers back to a time when chickens roamed the streets or shared courtyards freely.

So they didn’t get mixed up, each bird had a little scrap of coloured cloth tied around their foot that allowed each owner to quickly spot their chicken.

The next time you’re dealing with some tricky characters, you’ll know just what to say.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.