The Essence of Naples and Neapolitan Slang

Naples port

The port of Naples

I went to Naples three years ago, for three hours, and couldn’t wait to catch the train back to Rome. I returned to Naples this December, for three days this time, and fell deeply in like—dare I say love?—with the city. This tells me that a) You should give all cities more than a 3-hour chance, and b) I’m beginning to like less-than-pristine destinations better than their picture-perfect counterparts. Because let’s call a spade a space here: Naples is no Florence, for the good and the bad.

The hallmark of Naples is pizza, but I didn’t love it for the food alone. Rather, Naples’ character is what won me over. Naples conjures up a certain image of grit and hanging laundry; chaotic traffic and motorcyclists with a death wish. It’s a city suffering enormously from corruption, Mafia influence, and the general economic crisis, yet has a tough school-boy character that’s ready to stand and fight. It’s certainly a gateway city, bridging two continents in a rich mix, and clash, of cultures. Above all, it’s a proud city that demands respect. And it will earn it, if you stay long enough to give it a chance.

When I stayed with my friend Valeria and her family for three days in Naples, they showed me the underfolds of the city and brought me–forced me, really—to love it too. The family seeped pride for a city that so many Italians and travelers alike have scoffed at as a somehow lesser Italy. Valeria’s effusive praise for her home was infectious, and pretty soon I was seeing Naples in a whole different light.

pizza napoli

Pizza at Sorbillo

The family brought me to one of the city’s best pizzerias, Sorbillo, and had the foresight to make reservations in what would otherwise have been a two hour wait. They coaxed me into eating an entire pie to myself, since, being true Neapolitans, they wouldn’t dare split one. They showed me the back alleys, but warned me to lower my voice when even naively joking about the Mafia. They taught me to hand-make gnocchi, introduced me to traditional Neapolitan Christmas carols and nativity scenes, and took me to the liveliest bar streets in Naples.

And I learned that a true Neapolitan has no fear of what the rest of us would call a downright suicide mission—driving in Naples.

They also taught me that part of Naples’ identity lies in the Neapolitan language. If Italian is the essence of Italy, then of course it makes sense that the southern city that beats to its own drum needs its own essence as well. Neapolitan is not merely a dialect or slang of Italian; it is, in fact, a separate language.

making gnocchi

Making gnocchi with the family.

In 2008, the Neapolitan language was recognized by UNESCO as a protected language and heritage. It’s spoken by about 8 million people in Southern Italy, though it enjoys no official status and is not taught in schools. It’s somewhat intelligible with Italian, as most Romance languages are, but the two truly differ to the point where a northern Italian would have no idea what was being said in a bar exchange in Neapolitan.

Neapolitan is as rich and flavorful as its southern cuisine. There are many words that cannot be translated back into Italian; in fact, many Neapolitans may have to switch from speaking Italian to Neapolitan just to get their true point across. The language is also seen as a rather derogatory social marker, a sign of a lower class. Valeria and her brother may sometimes speak Neapolitan with their friends, but their parents would always get angry if they spoke it at home, since it’s stigmatized as showing poor taste.
valeria me naples

Valeria and me at the port of Naples

I spoke with the family around the dinner table one night about Neapolitan, which quickly unravelled into very inappropriate conversation. My unprofessional, scantily trained linguistic opinion is that Neapolitan is simply littered with dirty slang words. Filthy, juicy, dirty slang. And for that, I love it all the more.
It may be hard to fall for Naples the first time. But the second time around, add into the mixture the most warm and welcoming Napolitano family, the best pizza on earth, and the colorful jargon of  Neapolitan, I had the makings for an unforgettable trip.
Naples coastline

Naples coastline

Here I present to you a few Neapolitan terms, both slang and conventional, that came up during dinner that everyone in the family had difficulty translating; first from Neapolitan to Italian, which is a task within itself, but then into English. Below, Valeria has done her best to capture the true essence of Neapolitan, and deciphers these words so the rest of us mere mortals can understand. 
 

The Neapolitan Language: 10 Terms to Impress the Locals on Your Next Trip to Naples

1. CAZZIMMA: When you do or say something just to annoy someone else, or when you’re asked to do something and you won’t do it just for the hell of it.

Ex: Like when you mom comes in with ten bags from the grocery shop and asks you to help her since you like doing nothing on the couch and you DON’T, she can say: YOU’RE FULL OF CAZZIMMA!!
(Well, my mom would just punch me in the face, but that’s the idea.)
2. FREVA: Literally this means FEVER in Neapolitan, but ANDARE IN FREVA (to go into fever, kind of) means to get super annoyed by something, to the point where you feel it in your stomach, you know???
Ex: When you’ve been looking for a parking spot for an hour and you see one and rush to it and a car comes out of nowhere and you just scream: CHE FREVAAAAAAA!!!!
3. SPUZZULIARE: To eat (oftentimes even with your hands) making sure to not leave ANYTHING on your plate.

 

Ex: Such as with chicken, when you eat around the bones with your hands.
4. SFIZIO: Something nice you reeeeally want to do (it may be stupid or useless) even if you’re not supposed to or there’s no need to do that.
Ex: In a sentence it’s TOGLIERSI UNO SFIZIO (get rid of a SFIZIO), like to eat something even if you’re not hungry, or buying an expensive dress even if you know that you’ll wear it maybe once or twice.

5. CIOTTO CIOTTO: Surprisingly this one’s related to food as well! It’s just an expression to say that you ate a lot…. FARSI CIOTTO CIOTTO (to become fat fat, I guess XD )

6. ARRICREARSI: When you enjoyed something SO MUCH that it made your day. It literally means TO RE-CREATE YOURSELF.
Ex: For me, when Naples [soccer team] plays a perfect match and wins 3-0 and you’re watching the game with family and friends and everybody is happy and cheering…. MI SONO ARRICREATA!

7. UALLERA: Well this one is up to you if you want to include it hahahah. . . . It’s TESTICLES, but AVERE LA UALLERA means that you don’t have the strength or the will to do something others want to do and you’re seen as lazy.

Ex: “Come on, let’s go there, it’s just 20 minutes walking,” and you are like “NO WAY, I’VE GOT THE UALLERA.” (It’s suuuuper typical haha :)

8. ARTETECA: This one is especially used for kids, when they can’t stand still for a moment, and your mom goes “WTF, DO YOU HAVE THE ARTETECA???”…. it’s from a latin word for an illness

9. NZALLANUTO: Somebody who has his head in the clouds, like they always forget something. Or even when you’ve had a pretty tough day and in the evening you are so tired and dazed that you become kind of DUMB…. you can say it about yourself, like “I feel so NZALLAUTA now ’cause I’ve been studying all day long.”

10. RASCA: This one’s pretty disgusting. It literally means mucus. But RASCARE means when someone (especially old men in the streets) make that noise from their throats right before they spit, to get the mucus out, you know?? Hahaha it’s terrible, I know, but we have a word for that XD.

Thank you so much, Valeria, both for being an incredible host, and for painting us such a rich image of Neapolitan.

Have you ever been to Naples? Love it, hate it, or somewhere in between? 

  • Mayita Julia Broman

    I love Naples. I can’t explain it in simple terms. It has violence and poverty, but mystery, warmth and drama. And it won’t change for anyone.

  • Cassandra

    I wish I could have had this nifty list when traveling to Naples over Semana Santa! The only Neapolitan words I learned were food-related, which wasn’t all bad ;)

  • Loved reading this insight into the Neapolitan language, Jenny! I think in Spain we are so very aware of the linguistic situation as the minority languages have so much protection in Galicia, the Basque Country, and Catalunya, but nobody ever says boo about the minority Romance languages in France and Italy, so it’s nice to know folks still speak something other than the official national language even today.