I have a question: have you ever been called a pesciolino? (little fish) An Italian friend from Naples recently called me by this very charming term of endearment, yet unsurprisingly I didn’t feel very flattered. I have been called bella (beautiful), cara (love) and even tesoro (treasure) but never a ‘little fish’. I think he was being friendly, and I was supposed to feel loved, but I was quite confused, as I have heard this term used for children in Italy if they are at home in water and great swimmers, but never outside of this context. This issue then had me feeling curious about Italian nome affectuosi, their meanings, and the issues they can pose in translation.

A large number of Italian terms of endearment have the same meanings as English ones; however, some are much harder to translate, and it is important to know when not to translate them literally. As in English, Italian terms of endearment can be divided into many categories such as the relationship between the interlocutors and their many categories such as animal related, food related or just general. I’ve decided to focus this article on the relationship between the interlocutors, and will look at terms for children and terms to use between couples.

Italians are famed for being a child-loving nation, so it is not surprising that their flamboyant language extends to their terms of endearment for their bambini (children). Having worked as a nanny and English teacher in both Spain and Italy, I have been surrounded by many cute terms. A large number of general terms of endearment are quite commonly used, and can be very easily literally translated such as a simple principessa/principe (princess/prince), piccola/piccolo (little one), stellina (little star) and bambola (doll/dolly). There are, however, some commonly used terms which are harder to translate. You will hear food-related names such as patatina used towards younger children. This means ‘little potato’ and I don’t think it would work as a literal translation in English. The equivalent would perhaps be ‘pumpkin’. Biscottina/biscottino (biscuit) is also rather common, yet ‘cookie’ sounds more native in English for the translation. As well as being famed for being a child-friendly country, they are also famed for their cuisine and love of food so you will find that almost any item can be used as a term of endearment by adding ina/ino (the diminutive form), so why not get creative! Fragolina (little strawberry) anyone?

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Animal-related terms of endearment are also very popular, with topino (little mouse) and cucciolino (puppy) coming out on top. These would once again sound very strange in English, so I would perhaps opt to use ‘lamb’ in both cases which would stay as close as possible to the source text as it is an animal, yet much more acceptable in the target language. Other adorable ones donated by my good Italian friend Federica Casali are oresttino (little bear cub), scimmiettina (little monkey) and tartarughina (little tortoise). I’m not sure about the translations of little cub and little tortoise being used in English, but little monkey is certainly used for mischievous children. It is worth acknowledging that the problem with literal translation also works the other way, for example the commonly used English nickname ‘sweet pea’ would not quite hold its appeal when translated into Italian as pisello dolce!

According to an article by the Daily Mail, ‘babe’ and ‘baby’ are now Britain’s favourite terms of endearment between couples, and it reports that just over 30 percent use these terms as their most used affectionate names. ‘Darling’, ‘love’ and ‘sweetheart’ used to rule the charts, however this shows that Britain’s couples are becoming more affectionate and less formal. Having questioned my Italian friends, they believe that in Italy, a simple amore (love) is most frequently used among couples, along with bella (beautiful) and once again tesoro (treasure). Amore and bella are both able to be translated literally; however, I would not choose to translate tesoro as ‘treasure’ as it is unused by natives. I feel that perhaps ‘darling’ would be more suitable yet still retain the context, however I have been told that ‘my treasure’ is used in the North of the UK. There are some nicknames, however, which do cause a problem for translators. My boyfriend and I are outside of Britain’s 30 percent using ‘baby’, and opt for variations of the word ‘snuggle’- so ‘snugglesaur’ can be heard quite frequently in our house! I wonder how this would be translated into Italian? Maybe I can invent a whole new term of endearment! In the dictionary, snuggle comes up as the reflexive verbs ‘rannicchiarsi’ and ‘stringersi’ but I don’t feel that these are quite right. The verb ‘coccolare’ meaning ‘to cuddle’ is more frequently used in Italian for this context so I feel that it is closer to the meaning I am after. If we take the nickname ‘snugglesaur’ as an example, then perhaps we could combine coccolare (cuddle) and dinosauro (dinosaur) to make ‘coccosauro’.

Who knows, maybe coccosauro will go viral and make it into the list of most used terms of endearment among Italian couples! As you can see, the translation of these terms can certainly pose a problem, and care is required at all times as literal translation like our original pesciolino might not have your desired effect!