A window on language and customs in Italy

Linda Falcone
May 4, 2006

The morning of the election results I purposely avoided turning on the news. There was really no need. The state of Italy’s political future would be written on the barman’s face. I would know the results by the wrinkles on Maurizio’s forehead. In Italy, breakfast always reflects the state of the



 ‘So who won?’ I asked Maurizio as I waited for him to prepare the foam on my cappuccino.


‘Boh. One can’t know.’


‘What do you mean? Didn’t they count the votes?’


‘They counted. It looks fifty-fifty. Boh. There’s a slight lead for the left.’


This affi rmation led the breakfasters to start their debate. Coffee cups were set on saucers and croissants froze in mid-air. Would there be a re-count? Boh. How long would it take before someone found a box of uncounted votes lying under a table somewhere? Boh. How is it that 25,000 more votes gave Prodi the right to forty seats in the Chamber of Deputies? Boh. Would the Senate be at the mercy of the foreign vote? Boh.With such a clean split in parliament, how would the bums ever get legislation passed? Boh.


I stood and watched the bohs bounce back and forth across the bar. Italy is a country of contrasts. Long-winded multi-faceted explanations usually abound. When trying to grapple with an issue, political or otherwise, Italians most often opt for the long version of the story. But when the going gets really rough, they jump directly into the heart of the issue. The truth is, sometimes, things have no immediate explanation. And that’s when boh comes out to play. It takes the place of ‘I don’t know’ and is the comfort food of those who are forced to admit that they can’t understand.


Certainly, boh does not make Italy’s top-ten list of the most elegant expressions. But it does serve its purpose quite effectively. One tiny syllable and you give up all need to know. Besides, what could be better than an unintelligible word to talk about the unintelligible? Fond as we are of onomatopoeia, English speakers should be able to grasp this concept quite easily. We’ve invented slam, bang, gasp and smash. Wasn’t there room for a word like boh in all that ruckus? Why were the Italians the one to patent it?


Simple. To be able to invent a word like boh, you have to love the inexplicable. You’ve got to be willing to loosen your grip on good solid reasoning. And that’s where the Italians win. Either by virtue or by necessity, Italians are much better at abandoning themselves to ‘that which cannot be explained’. They do not resist the unknown and are virtual strangers to the common Anglo belief that behind every event there is a reasonable statistic that will wave all our worries away.


Before setting foot on Italian soil, it’s very possible that most English speakers have never even considered the need for a word like boh. And yes, for three days of whirlwind touring, you can make-do without it. But those who have packed a suitcase with clothes for several seasons soon find that boh is as essential to Italian living as bureaucracy, bus-strikes and boutiques with big prices.


That said, one should avoid the temptation of making boh into a bad habit. It’s smart not to go bohing the innocent by-stander who asks you the fastest way to Santo Spirito. Boh is best saved for the truly inexplicable. It would be wonderful always to have highly articulate responses on the tip of one’s tongue. But sometimes you just  don’t. Sometimes nobody does, and that’s when it’s best to revert to baby talk. Boh. Boh. Boh. It’s a very useful expression. After all, you can’t be held responsible for something you can’t explain. And if you speak like a one year old, maybe someone will eventually take pity on you and throw you a biscuit.


For a nonsense word, boh actually makes a lot of sense. That was my realization as I stood and dipped cookies into my cappuccino - something that one is generally not allowed to do in Italian bars. Today, Maurizio was too worried to scold me for breaking bar etiquette. The regular on my right ordered a spuma bionda and bemoaned the state of the world. Maurizio poured his sadness into a tall fi zzy glass. There was nothing left to do but thoroughly enjoy their misery.


‘Prodi ought to be a village vicar - you think we’ll be able to stand his sermons for five years?’


'‘Boh. Better than voting for someone who should be singing cabaret on cruise ships.’


Personally, I vote for Boh. It’s such a delightfully sudsy word, like a bubble popping in your mouth. You may be hoping for perfectly logical discourse. Alas, all it takes is a slight drop of the jaw and the illusion suddenly pops. The event is meant to remain a mystery.


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