Potatoes and peas lost in translation


This is not about food, it’s about language.

Potatoes are served as a side dish just about anywhere in Italy, but they’re not typically part of the vaunted regional cuisines. Pasta, rice and polenta are more like it.

Last week’s municipal kerfuffle had me stymied, when I read that all of Ms Mayor’s local and national supporters had reacted with “distaste”, “disbelief”, “shock”, “horror” to the subtitle of an article that proclaimed she was a “Patata Bollente”.

A Hot Potato?

Her party took over the government of Rome last summer, and the least you can say is that the Municipality has been flailing around ever since in its incompetence, inner squabbles, formal accusations of corruption, assessors being named and dropped and so on, while strike-happy sectors continue to baffle tourists and disrupt their holidays. I’ve lost track. Like most Romans, I’ve lost interest in the unending series of mini-scandals and am simply resigned to another few years of plummeting city management. As long as they keep picking up the garbage more or less regularly and public transportation doesn’t totally collapse, we’ll just have to all look forward to having to buy a 4×4 in the near future, given the speed at which the expanses of dangerous potholes are spawning all over town.


However, it’s hard to miss some of the glaring headlines: her right-hand man is sitting in jail, the assessor in charge of urbanization resigned after criticizing her for days, and it surfaced that she’s the beneficiary of three life insurance policies of another of her aides, whose Municipal salary she had upped threefold. Funnily enough, his name’s Romeo. Ha!

Her mismanagement of the capital is undeniably a huge embarrassment to her inexperienced party: their only claim to existence is that they’re here to clean up corruption. Therefore, in English as in standard Italian, one could very safely say that she’s a “Hot Potato” for her party.

(mashed potatoes: not really relevant)

(mashed potatoes: not really relevant)

So why was the country up in arms? Not just her staunch supporters in steadfast denial, but all her in-house enemies too, her political adversaries and their parties all over the political spectrum, feminist associations, the offices of Speaker of the House and President of the Senate … and others I might have overlooked.

Well, I found out that “patatina” – little potato –  is the euphemism used when talking to little children to describe what has of late been bandied around in world headlines as the part of a woman’s anatomy that you can grab if you move in certain circles.

So it turns out the headline had meanings and sub-meanings. Considering Romeo and all, I thought it was a bit osé yet pretty witty. But my Italian friends say the fact I’m still laughing is very un-politically correct. 

Which goes to prove that if you’re not mother-tongue, you can be quite fluent in a language and still miss out on some of its subtleties and no-no’s.


Side-note: in Italian, the potato’s male counterpart for little boys is “little pea”. I knew that one, as male anatomies are mentioned with much less modesty – if not outright hubris. But I’d never figured out the imagery. A friend helpfully explained that you were meant to visualize the pea-pod and not the tiny veggie. Ah, mystery solved.

Anyway, how interesting that in the end, everything seems to revolve around food in Italy. 

This entry was posted in Blogging, Humour, Italy, Languages and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Potatoes and peas lost in translation

  1. I liked the bit about being a life insurance beneficiary.
    The varieties of government corruption know no bounds.

  2. Hi! Your entry makes me want to visit Rome as long as I don’t ask for directions. Thanks for liking my blog thoughts.

  3. Bea, I enjoyed reading this post if for no other reason than misery loves company. With the daily lunacy coming out of our President’s mouth and his continuing moronic antics, it actually helps to know that we’re not alone. ~James

    • Bea dM says:

      Glad you enjoyed. No, you’re not alone. Maybe it has something to do with climate warming or something global polluting humans out of their minds.

  4. Barb Knowles says:

    This is hysterical. First of all, I love it when you talk about your local-ish politics, because I’m so sick of, and by, our politics and politicians. Garbage pick-up seems to be a recurring theme. Here it would be “as long as they keep plowing the roads.” And from a language stand-point this was hysterical. Even with the image of a pea-pod. Such a different expression here. I even wrote a blog article about how alike my adult son and I are…..2 peas in a pod. Idioms are so tricky!

    • Bea dM says:

      I know what you mean about reading about politics elsewhere. As a footnote, today is 6th day of taxi driver 100% effective strike in all major Italian cities (striking against Uber…) Not a taxi in sight, anywhere. I’d forgotten the peas in the pod idiom, sort of confusing image if you’re bilingual with Italian 🙂

      • Barb Knowles says:

        And the expression dates me. I don’t think that young people say that. But maybe I’m wrong. I’m guessing it has its roots in agriculture. We are fast becoming a large corporation agriculture society. Which is a topic for another time.

  5. herschelian says:

    Love the expression ‘little pea” – so much more expressive than the British slang word ‘willy’! My 5yr old grandson is just getting into jokes using puns, and he would think the idea of having a pee with his little pea was hysterically funny!

    • Bea dM says:

      Haha, when I wrote this, I hadn’t imagined the information could be of use to little boys abroad, but on second thought, you’re quite right 🙂

  6. Ellen Hawley says:

    The same is true when you know the language but in a different version. As an American, I’ll never catch the overtones in British English. Periodically, I need a friend to translate for me.

  7. nananoyz says:

    You say potāto, I say potahto.

  8. Scott says:


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