Italy celebrates la festa della donna (Woman’s Day) on March 8, when husbands, boyfriends and bosses present the women in their lives with bouquets of yellow mimosa. This international celebration is a relatively recent invention, created in 1911, but la donna has always played a complex, critical role in Italian life -- and language.
No one may have understood this better than Nicolò Tommaseo, a nineteenth-century essayist and iconoclast whose passions included women and words. He demonstrated his devotion to the latter by compiling the Dizionario dei sinonimi, an encyclopedic narrative dictionary of Italian synonyms, published in 1864, and unmatched in any other language and literature. Italian alone, he contended—and in particular the Tuscan dialect that shaped the language—captures sfumature (nuances), the same word Italian uses for the subtle brush strokes of artists like Leonardo da Vinci.
In Italian, for instance, a donna can also be a:
*donna allegra or donna di facili costumi -- a woman of easy virtue
*donna di casa -- housewife (also called a casalinga)
*donna di mondo -- worldly, sophisticated woman
*donna di servizio –-housemaid, domestic help
*prima donna -- leading lady
*donnina -- clever or sensible girl
*donnino -- womanly or mature girl who takes on adult responsibilities despite her young age
*donnetta -- common or ordinary woman, also an old maid or a woman of no value
*donnaccia -- bad-tempered woman, tart, prostitute
*donnone -- tall, imposing or large woman
*donnicciola -- simple or stupid woman. gossip, or if used for a man, sissy or coward
A donnaiolo, however, is no lady, but a ladies’ man or womanizer.
Tommaseo further distinguished between una donna cattiva and una cattiva donna. (English speakers would translate both as a bad woman.) However, the phrases do not have the same meaning in Italian. Una cattiva donna dresses badly and presents herself poorly, while una donna cattiva is spiteful and full of malice. Either could be una cattiva moglie (bad wife), who isn’t good at running a household and caring for a family, or una moglie cattiva, with a mean or wicked spirit.
Words and Expressions:
Fare la primadonna -- to act like a prima donna
Chi dice donna dice danno disse Dante -- Who says woman says damage said Dante (women are synonymous with harm)
Quel che donna vuole Dio lo vuole -- What woman wants, God wants
Né donna, né tela a lume di candela -- Choose neither a woman nor linen by candlelight (to avoid a nasty surprise the next morning)
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Romantic Language.