Every era has slang words - even 19th century Italy. Understanding the common slang and expressions of the common person is helped by understanding the Italian culture at the time.
Slang in 19th Century Italy
Here are a few of the choice slang words and phrases. The literal translation is in parenthesis:
accidente: nothing, zilch (accident)
allocco: a stupid person or a jerk (owl)
alzare il gomito: to drink (to raise an elbow)
avere un chiodo fisso in testa: to be fixated on something (to have a nail fixed in the head)
boccalone: a gossip or a big mouth (an enormous mouth)
chiudere il becco: to shut up, to shut one's mouth (to close the beak)
come il cacio sui maccheroni: just what the doctor ordered (like cheese on macaroni)
essere nelle nuvole: to daydream (to be in the clouds)
essere un po' di fuori: to be a little crazy, out of one's mind (to be a little bit out)
fannullone: a lazy bum (do-nothing)
fare il grande: to show off, to act big (to do the big)
inghiottire il rospo: to eat crow (to swallow a toad)
in verità: as a matter of fact (in truth)
leccapiedi: brown noser (feet-licker)
locale: a club or night club (premises)
mettere paglia al fuoco: to tempt fate (to add straw to the fire)
nuotare nell'oro: rich, to be rolling in money (swimming in gold )
olio di gomito: elbow grease (elbow oil)
quattro gatti: just a few people (four cats)
ricco sfondato: rolling in money (endlessly rich)
spettegolare: to gossip (to tattle)
tappo: a very short man (cork) testona pelata: a bald man (big peeled head) tirare un
bidone a qualcuno: to stand someone up (to throw a trash can at someone) tutto sale
e pepe: lively, cheerful (all salt and pepper)
volente o nolente: like it or not (willing or unwilling)
Being Italian in the 19th Century
If you were living in the 19th century, you would probably be poor, as most people were. Most peasants were laborers or farmers. You would not have married out of your class nor would you have been educated. You may have started working at the age of five or six to help the family out financially.
Many marriages were arranged when children were young, even as babies. If the marriage was not arranged, the marriage still had to be approved by the parents. Many times convenience won out over any considerations of love.
Homes were small, usually one room, and were built out of stone, brick, or mud.
Many times there were extended families, with two or more generations all living in tiny quarters.
There was no running water or electricity.
Water for cooking, bathing, and drinking had to be carried from a well or fountain.
These places became the center for socializing and gossiping.
The beds were stuffed with corn stalks.
Light was provided by oil lamps. Wood and coal were reserved for cooking.
Benches, tables, and shoes were all made of wood.
The poor were mostly vegetarians but not by choice.
Meat was seldom consumed because of the price.
Mostly the diet consisted of bread, cornmeal mush, potatoes, cabbage or onion soup, and pasta.
Even though there were chickens, the eggs were sold for money.
Men who didn’t have regular jobs would hire themselves out as day laborers. A boss would bring a wagon to the town square looking for workers to pick grapes, clear land, or other physical tasks. Day laborers could not depend on getting work on any given day.
Evenings were for socializing, and sometimes friends would gather in a barn for knitting, spinning, telling stories, or gambling. Religion was a large part of life, with each town having a patron saint and appropriate festivities were celebrated during the year.